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Rick and Morty’s toxicity is our unescapable story of 2017

Rick wasn’t an idol; he was our warning

Adult Swim

Polygon is kicking off its best of entertainment series, which will run through the end of December and beginning of January, coming to a close just before the 2017 Golden Globes. These personal essays will examine the best, most important and weirdest moments that occurred in television, film, streaming and YouTube/Twitch in 2017. Each will examine why the author believes that moment to be one of 2017’s most extraordinary. The series will end with Polygon’s Best of TV and Best of Movies pieces.

It’s impossible to talk about entertainment and general pop culture in 2017 without reflecting on the phenomenon — and toxicity — of Rick and Morty.

It was of no fault of co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, who pleaded with fans on Twitter to stop their hostile and immature antics. It wasn’t the fault of critics who applauded Rick and Morty’s third and most acclaimed season. It wasn’t even the fault of the majority of fans, many of whom voiced embarrassment at being associated with the louder, reactionary group causing a toxic ruckus.

The toxicity around Rick and Morty’s third season came from two separate groups that upon first glance seem to have nothing in common. One group targeted the show’s new, female writers on Twitter, blaming them for “ruining” the version of Rick and Morty they’ve come to adore. The second group, driven by an obnoxious compulsion to turn their obsession with a joke in their favorite series into something more, stormed McDonald’s locations across the United States, hounding part-time employees in search of a limited-edition Szechuan sauce.

Rick and Morty’s cultural identity was at a tipping point in 2017. Its long-time fans, who waited (somewhat impatiently) for more than 18 months between the second season and the third, watched as mainstream media outlets labeled the Rick and Morty community as despicable. We also watched as Elon Musk proclaimed his love for the series and other celebrities took notice of the show’s clever storytelling.

Beth and Rick in Rick and Morty season 3 episode 9. Adult Swim

But what we continued coming back to was the harassment occurring within the community and the disappointment of Rick and Morty’s creators. Harmon told Entertainment Weekly that “these knobs, that want to protect the content they think they own — and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender.” It was a sentiment he followed up just weeks later, telling Polygon “I think if you’re talking to someone about whether or not something sucks it’s a good indication that they’re not watching TV right.”

Harmon’s comments about Rick and Morty fans misunderstanding what they’re watching echoed for weeks. We wrote that the way Rick and Morty fans reacted to the Szechuan sauce debacle proved it was something that had to be done “due to their love of a show they think makes them look smart or that they feel justifies their loneliness.”

The parts of Rick and Morty fans identified with were the same characteristics that Harmon and Roiland were trying to riff on — ironically, toxicity in humans. Rick may be the most intelligent human in the galaxy, but he was a neglectful, emotionally abusive prick with abandonment issues and narcissistic tendencies. His actions were driven by an inherent selfishness, an inability to care for anyone other than himself.

Rick wasn’t an idol; he was our warning.

Rick and Morty - Rick at McDonald’s drive-thru Adult Swim

That toxic side of Rick’s character, however, came to define a reactionary, outspoken group of Rick and Morty fans. The same group of people who embodied the “to be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty” meme. The disturbing parallels between Rick and his most devout supporters that lurked beneath the surface during the first two seasons was now prominently on display.

Like Fight Club diehards before it, this group of Rick and Morty fans ruined the series for so many of us. It was embarrassing, but it wasn’t surprising. This was the fanbase who saw Rick’s selfish, aggressive personality as the ideal alpha male; a person to aspire to be. He was, in their eyes, a god because of his intelligence and ability to put his own aspirations before anyone else’s. When two of Rick and Morty’s writers, Jessica Gao and Rachel Becker, were targeted by Rick and Morty stans, the most common complaint spewed was making Rick more vulnerable and exposing him to the pain he causes his family. He was being emasculated, they said.

Rick and Morty’s subreddit nearly imploded as people clashed over these ideals. Moderators did their best to address the growing concern among forum members that rampant toxicity was ruining the overall show experience. One moderator posted a new set of guidelines to try and minimize harassment, noting “while we are allowing discussion of this topic, smear campaigns against any individual will be removed. Repeated offenses will result in a temporary ban.”

Though the biggest external story facing Rick and Morty’s community was the ludicrous reaction to McDonald’s limited-edition Szechuan sauce, the internal story was a fandom divided. Wars raged in subreddit threads, Twitter groups were launching attacks at one another and, naturally, show creators Harmon and Roiland were trying to figure out what happened. Their contribution to television culture suddenly became an obsessive culture itself and, unfortunately, there were a group of people who just didn’t get it.

Rick and Morty was unescapable this year. As a show, the series had its best season ever in 2017. Our fandom poured over into daily life. The Szechuan sauce fiasco represented our most embarrassing moment as fans in the eyes of the general public, but even that wasn’t the lowest point.

Rick and Morty was mostly impossible to ignore this year because of that aforementioned reactionary group who decided it was their mission to belittle, harass and insult a group of writers who were guilty of simply doing their jobs. When harassment happens in our communities, it’s important that we we point it out and talk about it. Whether that’s in games, tech, politics or even Rick and Morty fandom, we owe it to those being attacked and ourselves to start a conversation and try to put a stop to it.

Gao, Becker and the other female writers on Rick and Morty are still going to get unwanted tweets from people who have nothing better to do than support their favorite problematic anti-hero. Now, however, we can point to it and remind those launching verbal attacks that neither we, nor creators like Harmon and Roiland will stand for it.

We don’t know when Rick and Morty will return for a fourth season, but 2017 taught us how to not act when it does air. This year has been a learning lesson for all Rick and Morty fans; let’s leave it in the past as we head into 2018.