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Rick and Morty season 5 has rediscovered the show’s sense of one-off fun

Rick, Morty and Summer flying in Rick's spaceship in Rick and Morty.
(Image credit: Adult Swim)

Mild spoilers for season 5 of Rick and Morty follow. 

Successful science fiction comedies aren’t quite as rare as some would have you believe. One thing pretty much all the good ones have in common, however, is plenty of brains to match the laughs – aim too low and you could find yourself taking a dip in a Hot Tub Time Machine.

Like Red Dwarf and Futurama before it, Rick and Morty would still function as solid sci-fi if every one of the gags was surgically removed. Sure, at times the Adult Swim show wheels out some of the crudest, stupidest jokes on TV, but they’re underpinned by at least as many grade-A, big ideas as you’d encounter in Star Trek – even in the glory days of The Next Generation, when Jean-Luc Picard and his crew threw around high-concept technobabble as if the fate of the universe depended on it.

Where many sci-fi series will base an entire episode around a single premise, many of Rick and Morty’s half-hours feature A-, B- and even C-plots of awe-inspiring ingenuity. Indeed, it’s so ideas intensive that it’s easy to see why only 49 episodes have aired since the show’s 2013 debut – an average of just seven stories a year.

While the glacial release schedule is great for quality control, it makes it somewhat harder for a viewer to keep track of the show’s continuity. From the beginning, Rick and Morty has followed an ‘adventure-of-the-week’ format, but as it’s evolved, its backstory has become more and more complex, with supporting characters recurring, old plotlines revisited, and in-jokes more integral to the show’s DNA. 

That’s great when you’re following the continuous narrative of a Game of Thrones or a Breaking Bad, but more challenging when every episode throws up a different story – like Doctor Who and The X-Files, Rick and Morty is a show caught in the crossfire between its continuity and self-contained stories.

Rick and Morty: Season 5 Episode 3

Morty meets the Captain Planet-inspired Planetina – one of season 5's ingeniously twisted spoofs. (Image credit: Adult Swim)

Rick and more-fun

Rick and Morty brings an extra (albeit adventurous) complication into the mix by embracing multiverses, populated by numerous versions of all the lead characters. When told across a single episode, Rick and Morty’s adventures through multiple timelines are ingenious and exhilarating, but when the plotlines stretch out across years, you start to need a crib sheet to keep up. (This could be a cautionary tale for Marvel, now that Loki has brought the multiverse into play.)

Rick and Morty season 5, however, feels like a breath of fresh air because it’s re-emphasized what the show does best – brilliant standalone adventures, and some of the best comedy writing on TV.

Maybe that’s because, nearly eight years into its run, the show is no longer the anarchic new kid on the block, meaning the creative team aren’t feeling quite so much pressure to ride the wave of the zeitgeist. Or maybe the writers have simply been given a directive to have more fun.

If it’s the latter, it’s one of the smartest moves the show has ever made. After all, classic season 3 episode ‘Pickle Rick’ isn’t a fan favorite because it enhances the show’s canon – it’s loved because it’s a weird, ingenious, hilarious piece of storytelling. It’s an ethos that’s been a guiding force in season 5, where Rick and Morty has captured the beats of a perfectly calibrated sci-fi sitcom in which everyone – yes, even Jerry – plays their part to perfection.

Rick and Bird Person in Rick and Morty season 5, episode 8.

It's always good to see more Birdperson – but Rick and Morty thrives on new characters and plotlines. (Image credit: Adult Swim)

Greatest hits

The latest season has felt like a showreel of everything that makes Rick and Morty tick when it's firing on all cylinders. As well as introducing Mr Nimbus – a wonderfully bizarre, Aquaman-inspired ruler of the oceans – season opener ‘Mort Dinner Rick Andre’ treated us to a glorious subplot where a dimension-hopping journey to mature some wine turns Morty into the nemesis of an entire civilization – and sentences Jessica, the object of his affections, to eons as a prisoner on an alien world.

Then, ‘Mortiplicity’ echoed season 2 classic ‘Total Rickall’ with its perfect execution of an ingenious premise, as Rick, Morty and the Smith family negotiate legions of increasingly weird decoy Sanchez/Smith families.

We’ve also been given spot-on-but-twisted spoofs of Captain Planet, Transformers, Voltron and Hellraiser along the way, with only the giant sperm plot of the icky ‘Rickdependence Spray’ feeling like a significant misstep. What a shame that the episode’s giant incest baby – one of the show’s crudest plotlines – should be the main recurring gag of the season.

While it’s been fun to catch up with the likes of Birdperson and Space Beth – and laugh at a casual reference to Pickle Rick – Rick and Morty season 5 has soared because because you haven’t needed to be a superfan to enjoy it. Aside from rare exceptions like Arrested Development, TV comedy tends to work best when standalone plots take precedence over arc stories. 

If creating all-new characters and plotlines takes more time, then so be it. Rick and Morty has never been prolific, and there’s no reason to break the habit of its lifetime – even if it means we have to wait a decade for all of the 70 episodes Adult Swim commissioned back in 2018 to make it to the screen.

Rick and Morty airs on Adult Swim in the US, and on E4/All 4 in the UK. The two-part season 5 finale airs on September 5.