Successful musicians can sometimes feel stifled by fan expectations, or by and what their own bandmates want out of the band. So it’s common for members of bands like Blink-182, Nine Inch Nails, and Pearl Jam to take on side projects, so they can take creative risks without threatening their main gig.
Solar Opposites, which launches on Hulu May 8, seems to be serving that same purpose for Rick & Morty co-creator Justin Roiland. And it shares the same problems typically associated with musical side projects. Rick & Morty’s sometimes toxic fandom has been less than enthusiastic about Roiland taking time to do something else, given Rick & Morty’s slow release schedule. That disappointment is understandable, given that Solar Opposites is often so similar to Rick & Morty that it feels more like a cover band than a creatively refreshing side project. But the show is at its best when Roiland and his Solar Opposites co-creator, Rick & Morty writer Mike McMahan, move away from the adult animated science-fiction sitcom genre and actually show off their range as writers.
Blending elements of Rick & Morty, Invader Zim, and 3rd Rock from the Sun, Solar Opposites follows a dysfunctional family of aliens who fled to Earth after their homeworld was destroyed by an asteroid. (The intro explaining the premise feels oddly like the opening of Avatar: The Last Airbender, right down to the music.) The fleeing aliens are custodians of a pupa which will eventually grow into its final form and terraform Earth, but until it does, they’re pretty much stuck passing the time on a planet they have decidedly mixed feelings about.
The titular odd couple are Korvo (Roiland), an uptight scientist who despises Earth and sounds almost exactly like Rick Sanchez, and Terry (Thomas Middleditch), his dumb, laidback partner who’s supposed to be taking care of the pupa, but keeps shirking his duties. They’re also vaguely in charge of two childlike replicants, the compassionate, enthusiastic Jesse (Mary Mack) and her mean-spirited, raygun-loving brother Yumyulack (Sean Giambrone). The pupa acts like a particularly mischievous dog or toddler, going on his own weird adventures that rarely add much to the show.
While Rick & Morty episodes largely follow the title characters as they go on space adventures, Solar Opposites’ largely episodic plot typically has the main characters becoming obsessed with something mundane, then using technology or quirks of their own biology in an attempt to achieve a silly new goal. Some individual plots directly mirror things that were done better on Rick & Morty. Episode four, “The Booster Manifold,” has Jesse and Yumyulack releasing drugs that make all the kids in school love them, which goes almost as badly as it does in the season one Rick & Morty episode “Rick Potion #9,” which Roiland wrote. The conclusion of that episode provided a major plot point for Rick & Morty that allowed for significant character growth and some surprisingly poignant scenes, but the writers of Solar Opposites just handwave away most of the consequences of the aliens’ actions throughout the series.
The writers have the same problems when they try to irreverently tackle the issue of sexism in episode six, “The P.A.T.R.I.C.I.A Device.” There’s some solid meta-humor in Terry and Korvo’s decision to build a man-cave and a robot programmed with sitcom-mom tropes to yell at them for being in the man-cave, but a subplot where Jesse can’t find a glass ceiling to break because they’ve all been broken rings hollow. Even the episode’s best points can’t live up to Rick & Morty’s take on the same issues in season 1’s “Raising Gazorpazorp.”
The animation styles of Solar Opposites and Rick & Morty are almost distractingly similar, right down to the weird droopy mouths characters sometimes get when upset. The animators deliver the same grotesque spectacle, with gouts of blood and gore caused by nanobot swarms, killer robots, and other science-fiction carnage. When the over-the-top visuals combine with the most biting of Solar Opposites’ meta-humor, the show can be just as entertaining as a good episode of Rick & Morty. But the writing for the main plot doesn’t have the sharpness or focus to rise to the level of a great episode of the Adult Swim show.
Solar Opposites does shine in a recurring side plot that only indirectly involves the main characters. In the first episode, Jesse and Yumyulack start shrinking people they don’t like and stashing them in a growing habitrail in their bedroom wall. That becomes the setting for a spoof on post-apocalyptic stories and action movies, including Escape from New York and Cloud Atlas, as the shrunken people establish their own government, economy, and religion while constantly fighting among themselves.
These stories are never disappointing. They show a genre savvy and penchant for melodrama previously demonstrated in the Rick & Morty episode “The Ricklantis Mixup,” where the writers similarly sidelined the main characters. While very little changes in the main plot, the stories from the wall build on each other toward a fantastic conclusion. The animation is particularly strong in this setting, with impressive detail and creativity shown in the residents’ use of mundane objects like thumbtacks and toothpicks.
Solar Opposites has already been renewed for a second season, but Roiland and McMahan’s attention will continue to be divided as Adult Swim inked a long-term deal in 2018 that will see the creation of 70 additional episodes of Rick & Morty. Solar Opposites currently just provides an adequate distraction between releases of new Rick & Morty, but it has the potential to be a standalone success. The writers and creators just need to take more risks to build the show’s identity, rather than playing slight variations on old hits.
All eight episodes of Solar Opposites are now streaming on Hulu.
Correction (May 19): An earlier version of this story stated that Roiland voices both Korvo and Terry. Thomas Middleditch voices Terry. We have edited the article to reflect this.
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