I’ve been annoyed by the smugness and B-Movie gore of ‘Rick and Morty’ every time I’ve tried to watch it, even though I can see why many people enjoy its anarchic charms. That said, one of the few episodes that clicked with me was ‘Never Ricking Morty’ in Season 4, where jaded scientific genius Rick and his grandson Morty end up trapped on a train that embodies the literal and figurative story arc of the episode.
To make the story progress, the duo leave the train at various intervals and loudly and deliberately announce the plot points to evade the tyrannical grip of Story Lord, a villain who wants the characters to behave in ways consistent with their development in the series so far. Rick gleefully gives a middle finger to this by defying almost every expectation anyone, including the viewer, might have. Ironically, by doing so he adheres strictly what we’ve come to expect - that he is unpredictable and nihilistic, and Morty is timid and spineless.
Although it still feels supercilious, there are some enjoyable jokes about the crass methods writers employ when trying to make sure they adhere to the Bechdel Test, where to pass, two named female characters need to have a conversation that’s not about men - considered the minimum standard for how to write credibly about women. The moment where Rick falls to his knees and seemingly finds God is hilarious (not least for briefly introducing Biblesaurus and Mr Celery to cheer him along) and makes fun of how often writers cynically use religion to make cheap points.
Yet going ‘meta’ like this is a risky strategy. The subtext (or lack of it) in ‘Never Ricking Morty’ is obvious: writing is a nonsensical and cliched process, people are stupid for being so invested in an imaginary world, and writers are boring and self-absorbed for either making their characters conform to their own egotistical wishes, or on the flip side, to self-indulgently try to be experimental, as with this episode. The writers seem to be trying to comment on the sheer absurdity of the world they inhabit by poking fun at their own attempts to undermine it - which somehow rings hollow given that the writers of ‘Rick and Morty’ almost certainly take their craft extremely seriously.
It’s also not unreasonable for audiences to want coherence and structure in their stories, even if at their worst, those conventions can descend into cliches and tropes. It can feel alienating, and does the very thing I’ve often found tedious about ‘Rick and ‘Morty,’ that it sneers at the audience. Although it’s important that writers break free of such restrictions when it serves the story (and those restrictions can include the demands of their fans), it’s disingenuous to pretend that any kind of creative writing doesn’t flourish from reaching a wider audience.
In short, telling people that they’re idiots is not likely to win you more fans (admittedly, not something the creators of ‘Rick and Morty’ have to worry about much, given how immense and devoted their audience is).
The Marvel series ‘Wandavision’ does something similar, in a less pugnacious way. As a way of coping with the trauma of losing her lover, Vision, during the antics of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Wanda (otherwise known in the Marvel Universe as Scarlet Witch) forces people around her to act in parodies of the TV shows from her childhood that her father would smuggle from America through the Iron Curtain - to the point where she effectively brings Vision back from the dead and imagines an alternate life where they live happily with their two young sons.
As well as highlighting the coping mechanisms people use to endure grief, the series reminds us of what the act of watching people on screen amounts to - forcing people into roles that control and limit them for our own gratification.
One of the stumbling blocks with this approach is that firstly, the American TV shows ‘Wandavision’ imitated were often lost on non-American viewers. Although I could spot the ‘Modern Family’ parody in the later episodes, I had never seen ‘The Dick van Dyke Show’ or ‘Full House.’ Much of the early episodes of ‘Wandavision’ left those outside the USA scratching their heads - which is a bit of an oversight given how huge and global Marvel’s audience is. This only served to undermine the show-within-a-show trope that was a central plank of the series.
With these ‘meta’ elements, there’s also a slight degree of ‘so what?’ After all, if the show is supposed to be making some wider point about how we all manipulate and control those around us, then the scenario is too fantastical to make that point convincingly. It’s perhaps rather telling that the recent ‘Loki’ series has had the highest viewing figures of all the Marvel TV series so far, including ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,’ despite the God of Mischief being lumbered with a mid-week slot rather than a coveted Friday one.
If you go ‘meta,’ do it with care, or else steer clear.