On one level, Rick and Morty is a madcap, anarchic animated Back to the Future parody, only with a substance-abusing, amoral Doc (Rick) and a considerably dumber Marty McFly (Morty, Rick's grandson). That'd be enough: It's a ridiculously funny premise that creators Justin Roiland (who voices both of the title characters) and Dan Harmon (who also created Community) mine for all it's worth.
But what takes the show — which returns to Adult Swim for its second season Sunday night — above and beyond the rest of Adult Swim's stoner-surrealist fare is that it's a rare TV exploration of morality that manages to avoid simplistic fables with pat lessons. It's strongly of the view that being competent matters more than having good intentions, and suggests that sometimes the worst-intentioned person in a situation can be the one doing the most good.
Most TV — most fiction, period — has an unfortunate tendency to equate benevolence and intelligence. Rick and Morty explicitly cleaves them from each other. Rick — the Christopher Lloyd–aping mad scientist grandfather — casually hops between solar systems, invents antimatter weapons, freezes time, and shrinks himself and Morty to the size of a blood vessel, among other tricks. He is, as he insists loudly and often, the smartest person in the show's universe.
He is also gleefully indifferent to even the most basic ethical norms. In an early season one episode, a group of human-scale insects are chasing him and Morty, and he orders Morty to fire at them: "They're just robots, Morty. It's okay to shoot them, they're robots!" So Morty shoots them, and watches as they bleed and cry out in agony. "They're not robots, Rick!" he protests. "It's a figure of speech, Morty," Rick replies. "They're bureaucrats, I don't respect them."
Morty, by contrast, has a conscience but not much in the way of brains. He is often vocally disgusted with his grandfather's disregard for life, both human and nonhuman. He frequently finds himself storming off in anger midway through one of his and Rick's missions. It's easy enough to understand why he goes along in the first place — he's an angsty, hormonal teenage boy, and gallivanting across time and space and interacting with various alien races is more interesting than staying home and pining after his crush, Jessica. But he rarely comes back from an adventure feeling positive about what he and Rick accomplished.
A lesser show would present Morty as a moral paragon from whom Rick gradually, if reluctantly, learns how to be good: the jaded, cynical old-timer being won over by a good-natured youngster. Think About a Boy or Finding Forrester or the Willem Dafoe arc in The Fault in Our Stars. But what makes Rick and Morty compelling is that it seems to think Rick's cynicism is well-founded — and that following Morty's well-intentioned instincts can lead to calamity.
The second episode of the second season begins with Rick selling an antimatter pistol to the world's bubbliest space assassin (who delivers lines like "I just love killing!" as though he's describing a passion for needlepoint). Morty, true to form, is horrified. He steals the weapon and kills the hitman, only to learn that the would-be victim he saved (an amorphous cloud played by Flight of the Conchords' Jermaine Clement that Rick repeatedly refers to as "that fart") is capable of rearranging atoms at will, of turning oxygen into gold. So naturally, just about everyone in the galaxy is trying to kidnap the fart to use for their own purposes.
Later, as Rick, Morty, and the fart are escaping a race of aliens with metal gears for faces, killing many in the process, Rick asks, "Hey Morty, remember when you said selling a gun was as bad as pulling the trigger? How do you feel about all these people who are getting killed today because of your choices?"
Rick is right — but more importantly, he doesn't care that he's right, at least not morally right anyway. He just likes making Morty feel bad, and getting back at him for disrupting Rick's plans for a day of fun at Blips & Chitz (think Dave & Busters, but in space). That's what makes the scenario so compelling: The character who wants to do the right thing only winds up causing more carnage and destruction, whereas the character who would've avoided that genuinely does not care about saving lives, and only arrived at the right answer because it was convenient for him. There's a total disconnect between their motives and their ability to understand and anticipate the consequences of their actions.
If this seems like overthinking it, don't worry — Rick and Morty is also totally enjoyable as a wacky space comedy, and it's hysterically funny. Just listen to "Goodbye Moonmen," the fart's David Bowie–esque ode to a "cosmos without hatred":
The show's quietly radical moral philosophy is just a bonus.
Rick and Morty's second season premieres on Adult Swim at 11:30 pm Sunday. The first season is available for streaming on Hulu Plus and (with the exception of episode six) on Adult Swim's website; the first five episodes require a cable or satellite subscription if you're viewing at Adult Swim.