By most accounts, the McDonald's limited edition Szechuan sauce, a tie-in promotion to the 1999 release of Disney’s Mulan, wasn’t very good. The YouTube cooking show Binging With Babish recreated the sauce and declared it to be ‘okay’, as well as theorising that it was probably made by mixing together some leftover barbeque and sweet & sour sauces to use up stocks. In a show that delights in esoteric pop culture references and screwing with audiences’ genre expectations, it’s curious that the joke from Adult Swim’s comedy Rick and Morty to turn into a viral adventure would be Rick’s penchant for a fast food sauce.
Yet this month, McDonald's decided to give the internet what it seemingly wanted and bring back the sauce for one day only as an unofficial Rick and Morty tie-in. It quickly became clear that either McDonald's had seriously underestimated its popularity or they deliberately kept stocks unattainably low in order to create further buzz. Whatever the case, across the country, hundreds of people queued up for hours to buy this Szechuan sauce only to find it had sold out by the time they reached the register. Things quickly got ugly. Fights broke out, staff were verbally abused, and the police were called to numerous locations as what should have been an innocuous branding exercise turned into the worst excesses of toxic fandom behavior.
This hasn’t been the only instance where the Rick and Morty fandom found themselves on the receiving end of much ire and exhaustion from the rest of the internet. In only 3 short seasons, one of TV’s most acclaimed and daring comedies has seen its popularity grow exponentially, and with it the reputation of the fandom has only sourced, to the point where many people outright refuse to watch the show simply because they find the fans so insufferable. None of this is especially new to fandom – indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any seasoned fan who hadn’t spent at least a little time in a fandom that got very messy and toxic – but there’s something about the way a small but unavoidable subset of the Rick and Morty fans act that has a lot of us on edge. It’s gotten so bad, with so-called fans of the show doxxing two of its female writers, that the creators had to publicly denounce this behavior. How did a show that mixes rectum jokes with existential dread and sadness become that show?
Rick and Morty is a great show that’s only gotten better over the years, with its third season standing proudly as a stellar creative achievement. At its best, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s sci-fi comedy satire is a hilarious examination of pop culture that manages to weave a dense mythology while interrogating the truly bleak depths of depression. It’s true nihilism what shows the devastating cost of living that way, all while having characters with names like Mr. Poopy Butthole.
Rick Sanchez, the smartest man in the universe, may also be its most miserable, as he carries the knowledge of countless galaxies at the tip of his fingers and it brings him not one iota of true joy. In the blink of an eye, he can produce screeds of evidence that proves the existence of life is meaningless, yet he garners so little satisfaction from that knowledge, all while everyone around him must live with the pain he creates. Rick and Morty is a bleak show that knows being bleak is a terrible thing to live with, and yet it's that unrest that so many fans have latched onto with giddiness. They seek to replicate Rick's crushing bitterness and spew his catchphrases with no self-awareness. You can barely visit a comments section these days without seeing paragraphs of "I'm Pickle Riiiiiick!" filling up the page. The nature of fandom can breed difficult attitudes and behavior but combine that with a show that's a homage/subversion of geek culture and chock full of science riffs and it's really no shock that the fandom has turned into something so awful.
Rick and Morty is also a show that plays on ideas of "low" and "high" comedy, which has led many of its ardent fans to insist it's a show that some people are too stupid to get, which causes them to lash out more. It's an old fandom problem - "oh, you just don't get my show, you're not a real fan unless you understand all this" - but Rick and Morty has taken it to a new level because it's a show about a genius who spews that ethos. There seems to be little understanding from that faction that Rick using his genius as an excuse to treat people badly isn't a good thing, nor is it coded as such on the show. That’s the joke – Rick can do, be or say anything he wants and it provides no comfort. He has the capacity to achieve incredible things, but he’s such a lonely narcissist that he prizes a cloying McDonald's dipping sauce more than anything that would make the world a better place. Fandom loves an antihero, and there’s a long history of such characters being deified as super badass heroes to emulate rather than be examined for the monsters they are. It’s no surprise that such practices are wildly sexist. How many times have you encountered a Breaking Bad fan who thinks Walter White is the coolest but can’t help but call his wife Skyler a bitch? In many ways, Beth is an even bigger cynic than Rick on the show, but nobody screams her quotes in public or seeks to copy her.
I could theorize all day as to why the Rick and Morty fandom has sunk so deeply into this toxic pit, but ultimately I think it comes down to some seeing Rick's narcissism as reassuring. Some people seek to justify their own nastiness towards people in any way they can, looking for something that will confirm their belief that others just aren't good enough to be on their superior level. They're the ones who got that quantum physics joke, they're the ones who can remember all of Rick's catchphrases, they're the ones who just know a woman of color couldn't have had the skill to write the Pickle Rick episode, and they're going to prove it in any way they can. However, Rick's attitude isn't intended as something to celebrate or emulate - and if you’re only watching the show for the quips and the meanness, you’ll miss everything else going on that makes Rick and Morty so special.
Arguments over the role of fandom and who gets to control the way pop culture is consumed shall continue long after Rick and Morty has left our screens, but for now it's clear that the show as a problem it needs to deal with. Dan Harmon has already condemned the worst facts of the fandom, calling them "knobs", so hopefully some self-examination will begin. It would be a terrible shame for such a good show to be ruined by such a bad fandom. Besides, there's nothing less Rick-like than screaming in public about being unable to get a sauce. In his world, that would make you a Jerry.