Friday, February 7, 2014

Dan Harmon's Second Act

I wasn't sure what or who to write about for my first blog post, but as necessity is the mother of invention, deadlines are the fun uncles of decision making. With that in mind, I've decided to look at one of my favorite artists and a personal hero: TV writer and producer Dan Harmon.

Dan Harmon
Most people know Harmon as the show-runner for NBC's off the wall sitcom Community, and many are familiar with his name from articles detailing his dramatic removal from the show, or his triumphant return. The show--often praised for its daring, oddball comedy--uses many tropes that Harmon's writing has become famous for; self-aware characters, genre-bending and parody, jokes that continue through multiple seasons before paying off, and some of the most obscure references on television. But despite its ongoing success, I'm not dedicating this blog post to Community; I'm going to focus instead on Harmon's new project, Cartoon Network's Rick and Morty.

Developed with Justin Roiland in 2012, while Harmon was on hiatus from Community, the half-hour cartoon centers around an unlikely duo, insane and alcoholic scientist Rick and Morty, his grandson and usually unwilling companion in his madcap adventures. Although the characters themselves are ripped straight from the classic 1980s sci-fi franchise Back to the Future, the cartoon couldn't be further from that innocent and almost corny film series. Alien con-men, pederast jelly-beans and a microscopic amusement park inside of a homeless man are just a few of the politically incorrect staples that help the show to push the limits of good taste, and to carve out a niche for itself among a cartoon genre already dominated by such animated classics as Futurama, The Venture Bros., and even Archer.

Television is rarely thought of as a particularly creative field (though I would argue that it is the most influential art-form of our time), and you may wonder why I would bother to dedicate a blogpost to a late-night cartoon written by an already successful television producer. It may seem even stranger considering the fact that the show is so heavily influenced by existing works of science fiction. I feel, however, that Rick and Morty is not only an important and hilarious piece of television, but that it says something very important about two regularly ignored aspects of creativity: parody (and to a greater extent, recycling creative material in general), and the challenge of ongoing creativity.

Recognize these trademarked characters?
First, let's take a look at parody and the role it plays in the show. Although the show is nominally a science fiction comedy, it is in many ways about Harmon's relationship to pop culture. Not only are the main characters themselves reinterpretations of Doc Brown and Marty from Back to the Future, but the show makes constant references to other creative works. In the first six episodes alone, Rick and Morty has paid extensive homage to Jurassic Park, Inception, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the films of David Cronenberg, to name a few. Again you may be wondering why this stands out as particularly creative writing instead of simple laziness. Thomas Ward's article "What's Old about New Ideas?" highlights the fact that few ideas are wholly 'novel,' and that it is often through re-imagining existing works that 'new' ideas come into being. This is a hugely important idea to the concept of parody--in which extant creative material must be re-framed for comic effect. Rick and Morty aims to do just this--to present its audience with classic tropes from science fiction (aliens, mutants, entering dreams), but to view them not through the innocent eyes of a child, but through the jaded and cynical eyes of an adult, for whom the world can be a dark and troubling place.

Let's also look at the man himself, Dan Harmon, and the significance of a second success in his career. As we have seen in class, great creatives often contribute only one major paradigm shift to their domain
before slowing creative output to a relative trickle. This can certainly be seen in the case of T.S. Eliot, who virtually stopped writing poetry after the publication of "The Wasteland," and whose works post-Wasteland are often viewed as insignificant and derivative. After his dismissal from Community, many critics thought that Harmon's ensuing career would be marginal at best. His success with Rick and Morty is not only unlikely, it is indicative of a creative mind willing to re-imagine itself, and suggests that Harmon is brave enough to explore new territory rather than look for success where he has found it easily before. Rick and Morty is not successful because it draws from other successful works; it is successful because in doing so it has blazed new trails all its own.

Here: all six episodes are available in full on Adult Swim's website. Enjoy. The next new episode premiers on March 10. Won't you tune in?

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