It’s been over a year since we last saw Rick and Morty and it’s finally back… with a somewhat tedious premiere episode.
Look, I don’t feel that bad about not loving this one. The creators themselves have already said they think it may very well be the worst episode of the season. Dan Harmon has acknowledged it’s “over-complicated” and admitted, “I don’t think the difficulty in writing and producing it translated into customer satisfaction.”
I agree entirely with this, but please understand that I don’t think it’s a bad episode. In fact, I quite admire it, but more in concept than execution.
The idea that “A Rickle in Time” picks up right where season one left off with time still frozen is a charming and clever one. Also clever is the core concept that evolves from this: Rick, Morty, and Summer are still not in step with the rest of the universe’s time flow and any uncertain decisions they make result in the creation of multiple timelines on the brink of collapse.
It makes for some weird audiovisual stuff, too. A significant portion of this episode is told with the screen split in half, showing us two timelines at once, with minor differences in the characters’ actions in each. This also means you hear each character in each timeline talking at the same time, creating a reverb effect. Sometimes, the characters in the various timelines don’t say the same things—one Morty says something sheepish while the other makes a confrontational remark—which means (deliberately) you just hear a jumble of incoherent dialogue. All this is amplified when the screen splits again later, into fours, then splits again, and again, and again.
And again, I admire it all. This is a bizarre, ballsy thing to put on television, especially for a season premiere. It speaks to Rick and Morty’s always confident, ambitious tone that it starts a season off with a premise that seems designed to overwhelm auditorily and visually (in terms of plot, I don’t think it’s too hard to follow).
The problem with “A Rickle in Time” is it’s so concept-heavy it doesn’t have much room for comedy. I mean, as I said, there are parts, unless you really focus, where you can’t even make out what characters are saying, which means the only joke you really get is “you can’t make out what the characters are saying” (and this joke gets repeated several times). Also, the already-complicated visual of the splitscreen gimmick means there aren’t many cuts. Probably the divvied-up image was already disorienting enough, so the angle rarely changes so you’re able to follow the action. This might not seem like a big deal, but a lot of television comedy, especially animated comedy, only lands because of how, well, animated it is. When you’re stuck on a static image of people talking for an extended period, it’s noticeable and a little boring.
In terms of writing and concept, there are echoes of the multiple-timelines Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” widely regarded as one of the best Harmon’s other sitcom ever produced. But in execution, “A Rickle in Time” is actually more like Community’s “Digital Estate Planning.” That episode took on the look of a 16-bit video game, which, there too, meant a lot of flat, static shots at the expense of the comedy. And it’s another episode of television where Harmon admits the concept got away from him and didn’t, in the end, make for a cohesive, funny half-hour.
Still, the uncertain timelines A-plot in “Rickle” is at least novel. The B-plot is some nonsense about Jerry and Beth trying to save a dying deer after Jerry accidentally hits it while driving. It truly feels like filler, like the multiple timelines plot took so much out of the writers that they just dropped in Jerry and Beth doing any old thing. The only really good jokes come at the end with the absurd Cold Stone Creamery jokes (“these lights are designed for basic ice cream work”).
Really, all the best stuff shows up at the end. I can tell the immortal testicle time lord is supposed to shake things up and reinject the funny back into the episode but his strings of profanity (“yo dumbass assin’ ass asses”) are pretty limp and never reach the levels of silliness of something like Scary Terry’s repeated uses of “bitch.” But the way he’s defeated is a good payoff for the timeline stuff and afterwards there’s the impressively poignant moment Rick (almost) sacrifices himself for Morty. Then he curses out God a lot, which is one of the best comedic moments in the whole episode. Further, it goes out on a high note with its funniest joke, the tag about Albert Einstein resolving, “I vill mess with time!”
“A Rickle in Time” is admirable on a conceptual level but gets mired down in its own high-conceptness (unfortunate parallels to Rick’s opinion of Inception constantly loom over it). I can appreciate the ambition and the odd assault on the senses the multiple timeline concept achieves, but it kind of forgets to be funny. Jerry and Beth’s deer surgery plot is dead on arrival, too. But things get a lot more fun after this episode and Jerry and Beth are meant to get more involved in the sci-fi, so I’m not too worried. And it is still nice, after such a long hiatus, to see Rick and Morty back and deliberately overextending itself right out of the gate.