I didn’t watch a lot of television this year. Oh, I logged plenty of screen time, but I was mostly watching movies rather than TV series. Other than Community’s fifth season (which I wrote about last spring), most of what I did watch was animated, since I watch with my kids, and since I’m not exactly allergic to cartoons myself.
The new series I found most exhilarating this year was Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, the animated brainchild of Justin Roiland and Community creator Dan Harmon. (It technically began in December of 2013, but the majority of it came out this year.) Rick and Morty starts with a hoary premise—mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his fourteen-year-old grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland) on a series of wild adventures, getting them both into and out of jams with his inventions—and then turns it inside out. Rick isn’t just eccentric, he’s seriously damaged, and the show, while comedic, doesn’t shy away from the dangers he exposes Morty and his family to, and doesn’t simply set the reset button at the end of each episode. In just its first short season (eleven episodes), one of Rick’s schemes permanently transforms the world into a monster-filled wasteland, and the only solution is for Rick and Morty to relocate to a parallel universe in which their counterparts have conveniently died, taking their places. (No, this isn’t one I watch with my kids.)
That points to another of the show’s strengths: like Futurama before it, Rick and Morty assumes that viewers have seen Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Zardoz, The Fly, and the many other shows that are winkingly alluded to, and there’s a minimum of hand-holding. It’s the twenty-first century, and the audience doesn’t need to have genetic modification, virtual reality, or (for that matter) the dangers of unintended consequences explained in long-winded detail. That leaves more time to develop characters (mainly the rest of Morty’s family: sad-sack dad Jerry and frustrated mom Beth, and overlooked big sister Summer) and fill the run-time with off-the-wall humor.
I can’t think of anything I laughed at harder this year than the episode “Rixty Minutes,” in which Rick’s modification of the TV cable box allows the family to view programming from infinite parallel universes (including glimpses of the lives Jerry and Beth could have had if they hadn’t stayed together). The combination of rapid-fire absurdity and referential gags most closely resembles Community’s Season Two episode “Paradigms of Human Memory,” and like that episode, “Rixty Minutes” puts the insanity of its plot in the service of its characters, up to a surprisingly poignant climax.
On the non-series front, 2014 was a year in which special events, already making a comeback in recent years, continued to gain ground as networks look for (non-sports-related) ways to keep viewers tuned in at the time of broadcast instead of time-shifting. Even the mini-series, that prestige format of the 1980s, is coming back into vogue (ABC’s upcoming Galavant is definitely on my radar for 2015). I’ve already written at length about Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network’s five-night mini-series that aired in November; suffice it to say that upon rewatching it, I still found it greatly enjoyable, and were I to rank it with my favorite films of the year, it would at least be in the top five.
There were some other specials that grabbed my attention this year, as well: I’d like to highlight Lil Bub’s Special Special, which aired on Animal Planet way back in February. At a slight half hour, this celebration of the eponymous cat was as instantly disposable as the cute animal videos and memes of which the special is an extension, but the whole thing (held together by human costars Amy Sedaris and Andrew W. K.) had such a light touch (and just enough self-awareness) that I was charmed by it. It hasn’t been rerun to my knowledge, but it has a permanent home on my DVR (and you can watch it here).
Finally, there were the usual crop of Christmas specials. I could quibble with Doctor Who’s “Last Christmas,” leaning as it does on the revived Who staple of monsters that you can’t look away from, or that you can’t remember, or that (in this case) you can’t even think about without them coming for you. And I’m not as taken by the chemistry of leads Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as some are. However, my personal bar for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special is set pretty low, and as long as it doesn’t involve David Tennant being carried aloft by robotic angels, I’m willing to cut it some slack.
To be fair, “Last Christmas” was actually pretty good, in both spinning out an intriguing menace and lampshading its similarities to both Alien and The Thing, as well as casting Nick Frost as a snarky but ultimately benevolent Santa Claus and making it work. The special is part of a long tradition of Christmas films and stories examining the nature of faith and belief, with Santa as a safely secular football. If Santa Claus weren’t so widely regarded as a fiction for children, would Christmas stories still demand that we believe in him unconditionally? Entertainment that aspires to mainstream appeal can no longer preach with such certainty about Jesus or any other religious figure, but such arguments can be broached in the language of fantasy. Like most such stories, “Last Christmas” ends ambiguously (in more ways than one: a comment I read online accurately described it as “Doctor Who does Inception”), but it is clear on the power of faith, with Santa described as a “dream sent to save us,” a nice summary of the value of both fiction and religious parable.
2003’s Elf is similarly engaged with convincing the unbelieving, with Santa (Ed Asner) stating explicitly that belief, not confirmation, is the source of his power: “If I were seen, all would be lost!” As Jesus told his apostle “Doubting” Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, based on the film and the Broadway musical that sprang from it, isn’t quite so explicit, but finds a middle ground between the movie and the Rankin/Bass productions that inspired its story of a human orphan raised by elves at the North Pole. I mentioned this special on Christmas Eve, pointing out that it wasn’t as good as the original movie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the stylish, handmade production—the stop-motion figures resemble Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s characters brought to 3-D life—and charming score (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin). Mostly, I enjoyed it when it wasn’t directly imitating the movie, as the comparison is unflattering to the special; like many shows with familiar subject matter, it was more approachable when doing its own thing.
Tomorrow, look for my thoughts on the books I read in 2014.