‘Rick and Morty’ Season 7 Proves the Show Works Just Fine Without Justin Roiland

Rick and Morty season 7
Courtesy of Adult Swim

Season 7 of “Rick and Morty” is the first volume of the Adult Swim animated sitcom, a “Back to the Future” riff tracking the adventures of a mad scientist and his bumbling grandson, not to star co-creator Justin Roiland as the voice of both title characters. The network fired Roiland in January after the actor was charged with domestic violence; though the charges have since been dropped, an NBC News report last month alleged a pattern of inappropriate sexual conduct. In between, the roles of Rick and Morty were recast with soundalikes Ian Cardoni and Harry Belden, a monthslong saga that culminated with the debut of a Roiland-free show on Sunday.

All this behind-the-scenes upheaval might suggest “Rick and Morty” would return a markedly different show. But “How Poopy Got His Poop Back” is almost pointedly normal, collecting various fixtures of the “Rick and Morty” universe — not just Rick and Morty themselves, but also Birdperson (co-creator Dan Harmon), Squanchy (Tom Kenny) and Gearhead (Scott Chernoff) — in order to show how much remains unchanged, from the larger ensemble to the juvenile potty humor. The episode even centers Mr. Poopybutthole, Roiland’s biggest former voice part aside from the series’ core duo, who descends into a post-divorce bender until his friends begrudgingly stage an intervention with the help of Hugh Jackman. Voice actor John Allen now delivers the character’s telltale “Ooh wee!”

Next week’s episode, which critics also received in advance, continues the trend; it’s a body-swapping farce heavy on sight gags and light on any sense of outsize importance. For a show that’s still relentlessly meta and self-referential (“Guess you didn’t watch Season 4, Episode 3,” Mr. Poopybutthole trills in one season premiere callback), there’s at least one panel in the fourth wall that stays firmly unbroken. Belden and Cardoni truly are soundalikes; there are subtle differences in the vocal performances if you perform the aural version of a squint, but you have to listen actively for them. There’s no equivalent of how “Big Mouth” handled the switch from Jenny Slate to Ayo Edebiri as the voice of biracial tween Missy Foreman-Greenwald, with an in-story explanation that called attention to both the shift and the reasons behind it.

It’s possible, even likely, that many fans will tune into Season 7 without even knowing Roiland left the show. In fact, that’s the point of the soundalike approach; at a San Diego Comic Con panel this summer, executive producer Steven Levy expressed hope that his colleagues’ hard work wouldn’t be “overshadowed” by the Roiland controversy, a sentiment echoed by Harmon showrunner Scott Marder in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. Ironically, the new episodes accomplish the opposite. Instead of showing Roiland’s impact on his creation via his absence, Season 7 shows how “Rick and Morty” has matured into a machine built to outlast any individual contributor.

With hindsight, the biggest inflection point in the near-decade “Rick and Morty” has been on the air wasn’t Roiland’s exit. It may have been Harmon and Roiland relinquishing showrunner duties to producer Mike McMahan ahead of Season 3; it may have been the mega-renewal for a staggering 80 episodes Adult Swim announced in 2018, ensuring the show’s duration through Season 10. (Marder took over as showrunner in Season 4 and has remained in the role ever since; the writers are currently in the process of drafting Season 9.) The latter development had an immediate, tangible effect on “Rick and Morty,” which backed away from its long-term, serialized story about Rick reconciling with his estranged relatives and toward standalone adventures. Seasons that used to drip out every other year became more frequent, with a consistent annual schedule; more openly emotional scenes, like Susan Sarandon’s first appearance as the therapist Dr. Wong, receded into the background. “Rick and Morty” became less like “BoJack Horseman,” to which it earned frequent comparisons for a shared sense of cerebral melancholy, and more like “Archer” or “The Simpsons.” Not coincidentally, the former style is more closely associated with auteur figures who shape a show to fit their larger vision. The less “Rick and Morty” adhered to the auteur model, the less reliant it became on its perceived auteurs.

Meanwhile, the “Rick and Morty” creators took on other projects — Roiland “Solar Opposites” and “Koala Man,” Harmon “Strange Planet” and “Krapopolis.” Additional reports after Roiland’s firing indicated his creative contributions to “Rick and Morty” were minimal beyond his voice acting. Long before Roiland’s official exit, the show had adjusted to function without him. (“When he left, he only really left by name,” Marder told THR.) It’s even adjusted to work with much less day-to-day involvement by Harmon, who weighed in only on the recasting process toward its very end. Sunday’s premiere even omitted a “created by” credit from its opening sequence. The move may have been intended to avoid name-checking Roiland, but it also underscored what was apparent even before his exit: “Rick and Morty” is no longer defined by its creators, regardless of their actions outside the show.

From Variety US