I found “Total Rickall” appealing right off the bat because it starts with the whole family—Rick, Morty, Summer, Uncle Steve, Jerry and Beth—at the dinner table. Though I admire Rick and Morty for always having the balls to ditch its comfort zone and explore its universe, it’s nice for a show to occasionally let you regain your footing in that universe with a touch of familiarity.
I tricked you, biiiitch! Yes! Just like in the episode! We quickly learn from Rick that there’s never been an Uncle Steve and that the house has been invaded by alien parasites who embed themselves in memories, then use the memories to multiply themselves. Ergo, a memory of Uncle Steve is implanted in your memory and then suddenly he’s there with you in the flesh.
The episode is almost completely made up of a series of flashbacks the parasites have manufactured in the family’s brains, allowing the writers and artists to invent all manner of improbable scenario, like the family being rescued from a Nazi submarine by a butler named Mr. Beauregard, Summer going on a magical adventure with a flying ballerina lamb named Tinkles, Rick fighting in ‘Nam alongside Frankenstein, and—oh yeah—Rick doing a shameless plug for the Limited Edition Zelda Nintendo 3DS. (By the way, Tom Kenny voices a Nazi here; this show loves casting him as monsters and it’s brilliant. Don’t forget he was on Mr. Show; he’s up for dark, odd shit.)
Community veterans may have noticed more than a passing similarity to that show’s “Paradigms of Human Memory,” which parodied sitcom clip shows by having the gang flashback to a bunch of stuff we’d never actually seen happen before. It’s often cited as one of the show’s best, but I was never much of a fan. I think it’s because, when you pile inanity upon inanity, it feels like literally anything can happen without it having any real impact on the show’s world. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for the writers to brainstorm all this unhinged silliness, but it bugs me a bit when you can theoretically swap out any of the flashback scenes with literally almost anything else without it changing the core storyline.
It worked a lot better for me in “Total Rickall” for two reasons. First, Rick and Morty is sort of the inverse of Community: where Community took a grounded setting and built insanity around it, Rick and Morty starts from batshit insane and finds relatability within that. I always loved Community’s more grounded moments, but here you just have to embrace the sci-fi. In other words, I’m just willing to go to weirder places with Rick and Morty.
Second and most important is that this isn’t just a remake of “Paradigms of Human Memory.” The twist that the weirdo characters who show up in these flashbacks are then in the present and become part of the main storyline pretty much clears up my core problem with the gimmick. Yes, these are nonsensical flashbacks where anything can happen (and this being a cartoon, they can really go balls to the wall with this in ways Community couldn’t), but now we actually have to develop these new characters and see how they interact with the existing characters (however briefly). Much like with the universe of sentient chairs who sit on people and use pizza as phones, it’s another showing of that incredible strength of Rick and Morty—its willingness to take a gag premise and then explore it and stretch it as far as it can go.
If I have complaints about this episode it’s that it’d probably have truly floored me with its inventiveness if I hadn’t been spoiled by Dan Harmon pulling a semi-similar stunt in his other sitcom (but, again, it’s subverted wonderfully). Also, for an episode all about the whole family trapped in their home, though it’s fun watching Summer be a badass, it’s too bad that Morty feels weirdly uninvolved. The resolution is brought about as a result of an awesome scene between him and Rick which made me feel sad there hadn’t been more of the two of them interacting.
But in the end, I had a smile on my face for all of “Total Rickall” and, on top of everything else, the revelation that the only real people in our lives are the ones we share all kinds of memories—bad and good—with is the sort of perceptive, heartfelt moral you get from a good sitcom, but told in an indirect, dysfunctional, violent, high-concept, sci-fi rigamarole way that makes it go down all the sweeter.
Finally, all in all, I’m just glad—with all those wonderful Rick and Morty characters we’ve grown to love over the years getting killed off in a massacre that makes that “Red Wedding” crap look like a pillow fight—Mr. Poopy Butthole managed to make it through okay. I can’t wait to see what kooky adventures he gets up to next! And I hope, one day, he can forgive Beth.