If you’re feeling equally intrigued and bewildered by Rick and Morty, I don’t blame you. Perhaps you’re curious about why Rick and Morty is the No. 1 show among Millennials, or perhaps you’re wondering how a cartoon could inspire such rabid devotion that its fans would wind up in an extended spat with McDonald’s about a dipping sauce for chicken nuggets. Or perhaps you’re just tired of being the last kid on the block to know what wubba lubba dub dub means and why it’s funny. At the same time, the show’s semiserialized plot, dense use of running gags and catchphrases, aggressive animation style, and even more aggressive fans might’ve left you wondering if this is the show for you.
Never fear! Here at Slate, we’ve got you covered. You don’t have to watch all of Rick and Morty to form an opinion about it. You only have to watch “Anatomy Park,” the deliriously absurd third episode of Season 1. If “Anatomy Park” doesn’t grab you, then this is definitely not the show for you.
“Anatomy Park” has all the ingredients that Rick and Morty will mix in different proportions throughout the show’s three seasons. First, there’s a wacky—and gross—sci-fi adventure that works as both parody and thrilling genre entertainment. In this case, mad scientist Rick Sanchez (voiced by Justin Roiland) has set up a miniaturized theme park inside the body of an alcoholic homeless man named Ruben, and something is going wrong. He shrinks his sidekick/grandson Morty (Roiland again) down and injects him into Ruben to investigate. What follows is a mashup of Fantastic Voyage and Jurassic Park featuring renegade deadly diseases instead of dinosaurs.
This biological misadventure gets Rick and Morty out of awkward holiday family bonding time when Morty’s father Jerry (Chris Parnell) invites his parents over for Christmas dinner. Both stories are, in their own hilarious way, about how close we actually want to be to another person, whether it’s learning about their sexual peccadillos or actually wandering their innards accompanied by a talking microbe voiced by John Oliver. And when the two plotlines come together in the episode’s final minutes, it’s as surprising, inventive, and hilarious a knotting as Seinfeld accomplished at its best, except with way, way, more viscera.
Part of the thrill of watching “Anatomy Park”—and Rick and Morty in general—is the sense that its characters have entered a world so fully formed it could have its own spinoff. “Anatomy Park” introduces a half-dozen people we never see again, and they each have their own desires, insecurities, and lightly deployed backstories. The sense of visual specificity and detail is equally well-developed. Even at their most absurd, the jokes and storylines feel deeply rooted in world and character, allowing “Anatomy Park” to explore complicated themes of the limits of tolerance, creative ambition vs. corporate power, intimacy, and family.
All of Rick and Morty’s hallmarks are present in this episode: Weird sex stuff, dysfunctional family dramedy, genre deconstruction, layered jokes, ultraviolence, and animation that’s as imaginative as it is gross. Thanks to blink-and-you-miss-them visual gags and rapid-fire dialogue, it also rewards repeated viewings. I’ve seen the episode a dozen times, and it has yet to wear out its welcome. I giggle just thinking about Rick’s insistence that a theme park ride called “Pirates of the Pancreas” is a good idea, or his flying into a rage when told by a corporate executive (voiced by Dan Harmon) that it isn’t because “Does [the pancreas] make pirates? No. It makes insulin.”
Endlessly rewatchable shows chockablock with trivia and references are, of course, catnip for pop culture obsessives, so it’s not hard to see why Rick and Morty has attracted such an enthusiastic audience. By the show’s second season, episodes come embroidered with inside metajokes for fans and the occasional line delivered directly to the camera by resident mad genius Rick. At its best, Rick and Morty makes you feel part of a club that is simultaneously select and open to all. All you have to do is watch closely and laugh.
That said, there’s a darker side to the show, and to its audience. Dumb fights with McDonald’s over—I cannot believe I am typing these words—Mulan-themed Szechuan dipping sauce weren’t the only way Rick and Morty’s fan base made the news this year. Recently, Dan Harmon had to publicly tell fans to leave the show’s female writers alone after a group of viewers started doxxing and harassing them. As with Team Walt, the odious fans of Breaking Bad who over-identified with that show’s resident sociopathic supergenius, Rick and Morty’s worst fans find Rick heroic and aspirational, even as he’s increasingly portrayed as a highly manipulative mass murderer fueled by equal parts nihilism and narcissism.
By the end of Season 3, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Team Rick isn’t entirely wrong in their reading of the show. For a series so consistently crude, there’s a delicacy to the way Rick and Morty balances cruelty and warmth, just as there’s a sophistication to its mix of dick jokes and ideas. Season 3 purposefully upsets this balance, leading to an at-times thrilling, at-times exhausting exploration of the depths of Rick’s depravity and the ways in which his radioactive personality poisons everyone around him. Season 3’s Rick is an unstoppable God, shorn of vulnerability and inadequacy. He turns himself into a pickle to avoid family therapy, yet somehow manages to build an exoskeleton out of dead cockroaches and go on a rampage. He gets drunk and kills an off-brand version of the Avengers one by one simply because they’re Morty’s heroes. He bests the United States’ black president, voiced by Keith David, in a contest of stubborn egotism. And, in the season’s penultimate episode, Rick delivers a speech whose mix of self-justification and self-pity wouldn’t be out of place in Reddit’s sludgiest backwaters. “When you know nothing matters, the universe is yours,” he tells his daughter. “And I’ve never met a universe that was into it. The universe is basically an animal, it grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots, just to eat them. … You know smart people get a chance to climb on top and take reality for a ride but it’ll never stop trying to throw you. And eventually it will. There’s no other way off.”
As Zack Handlen argued at the A.V. Club, however, the season finale tries to walk this back, making it clear that the writers know that the latest season was a cul-de-sac. It even ends with the explicit promise of a rebooted Sanchez/Smith clan in Season 4 and a restoration of the delicate balance that makes the show so rewarding and unlike anything else on TV. It’s that balance that’s so brilliantly on display in “Anatomy Park,” an episode that can, in a brisk 23 minutes, tell you both what the true meaning of Christmas is and who would win in a fight, Hepatitis A or C.