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Nihilism or Dark Humor? A Justin Roiland Retrospective

Many credit the rousing success of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon‘s show Rick and Morty to its rather liberal use of dark humor, often in the form of graphic violence or strong language. Roiland recently brought this same touch to his new show Solar Opposites for the streaming platform Hulu. Beneath the profanity, though, exists a much darker and more demanding narrative thread: nihilism. For the unfamiliar, nihilism (derived from nihil, the latin word for nothing), is a school of philosophy that rejects any semblance of meaning in the universe. Nihilists don’t believe in a higher purpose, power, or direction. Sound familiar?

Roiland skillfully deploys nihilism in his comedies, particularly when he plays against the unconscious beliefs of the audience. Roiland litters his shows with familiar tropes, only to riff off their inconsistencies. The writing team on his shows set up our expectations with the familiar because it allows them to systematically dismantle those same clichés. For instance, the characters Rick and Morty are based off Doc and Marty from back to the future. Instead of behaving like the amiable oddballs they’re based on, our heroes are a darker breed. Rick is a crude, alcoholic genius and Morty is an insecure, lustful idiot. The characters are well-written and compelling without their counterparts, but the comparison adds a layer of discord between our expectations and the darker reality presented. It’s in this destruction of common knowledge that the humor of Rick and Morty thrives.

The destruction of a narrative trope doesn’t make a show nihilist, though. It’s more important how Rick and Morty dismantles its tropes, and what tropes it chooses to dismantle. So what concepts do Rick and Morty dismantle? There’s a slew of television norms, like buddy-cop adventures, marriage and parenting, love, friendship, even the idea of narratives themselves in season four, episode six “Never Ricking Morty.” So how does it work?

In season four, episode three, entitled “One Crew Over the Crewcoo’s Morty,” Rick and Morty encounter the calling card of a professional thief. The episode quickly devolves into a mockery of the heist movie genre. “One Crew Over the Crewcoo’s Morty” attacks every heist movie concept, but in particular it dismantles the ‘righteous thief’ concept that many heist movies play into, in which the audience roots for the protagonist and company to steal something because it’s the right thing to do, or for simply the sport of it. Directors tonally represent crews as the good guys. The audience wants the law to lose. Yet in reality, theft isn’t some victimless crime. Security companies, insurance companies, employees, and a host of property and personal damage occurs.

Rick and Morty‘s handling of victimless theft? The heisting robot Heistotron that Rick loses control over heists the cores from planets, killing billions of sentient lifeforms each time. Only one is shown, but it’s enough. Everything that could be wrong with a heist is wrong here. Rick created a robot that can commit cheap and destructive knock offs of heist-movie-esque heists dismantles the repetitive clichés of the genre. Still, that just makes the episode funny, not nihilistic.

At the core of the episode lies a dark truth – that nothing in the episode mattered in the slightest. Rick made a planet annihilating robot that murdered billions, if not trillions, of beings solely to dissuade his grandson from pursuing a career in writing for Netflix.  That Earth could be destroyed at any moment by a Rick-created heisting robot (or think about any of the Earths that Rick actually destroyed) is a difficult belief to come to terms with. The universe becomes a cold and random place—a solar system hurtling towards inevitable annihilation—and probably a cosmic accident rather than a meaningful creation.

The senseless violence and its subsequent lack of responsibility in Rick and Morty paints a hilarious, nihilistic picture. The same dark humor can be done without the nihilism, though. Take Deadpool for example. Consistent crudity and jokes about difficult emotional issues (such as when Deadpool and Vanessa argue about whose life is more messed up) actually build to a very heartwarming climactic scene. Despite mocking anything he can get his hands on, Deadpool is a sucker for romance. It’s cute, and it works.

The Roiland touch, it seems, mocks and dismantles to leave a void, rather than build positive emotional attachments. His writing works well when targeted at harmful societal constructs, though, like when Rick brutally ridicules a snake planet for waging war based on race.

Roiland brought his signature touch to a new show, Solar Opposites, which he co-created with Mike McMahan for Hulu. Solar Opposites builds on the tonal success of Rick and Morty, but travels in its own direction. Replacing the nuclear family of humans is a family of aliens. Replacing jaded genius Rick is immature tech wizard Korvo. Scifi shenanigans ensue. Where Rick and Morty occasionally showed glimpses of emotion, through Morty’s growing disillusionment, Beth’s relationship to Rick, and Rick’s crippling alcohol-mediated depression, Solar Opposites instead has no moral lessons, consequences, or responsibility. It’s pure scifi experimentation for Roiland and McMahan. Solar Opposites is worth a look if you like adult animation and don’t want to think too hard about moral lessons. The only lesson you’ll find is that morality is meaningless. Classic Roiland.

Are you a fan of Rick and Morty or Solar Opposites? Let us know why in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!

About the author

Dylan Villeneuve