Lost in the Sauce: “Rick & Morty” and the dangers of obsessive fandoms

Sunday, October 22, 2017 - 5:40pm

Since its premiere in Dec. 2013, Adult Swim’s “Rick & Morty” has transformed into a monumental phenomenon through its wacky sci-fi, improvisational writing and surprisingly nuanced character arcs. In addition to drawing critical acclaim, the late-night cartoon, created by Justin Roiland (“Adventure Time”) and Dan Harmon (“Community”), has built a rather intensely devoted fanbase. Cult followings are nothing new in pop culture, but recent news regarding “Rick & Morty”’s group of admirers suggests that there are much deeper, more menacing implications behind the psychology of obsessed fandoms.

Last week, several McDonald’s restaurants across the country revived their Szechuan Sauce, a discontinued promotional product referenced in “Rick & Morty”’s third season premiere. When throngs of passionate “Rick & Morty” fans showed up at McDonald’s, hoping to get some of that sweet McNugget sauce, all hell broke loose when there was a shortage of the coveted Szechuan Sauce.

Fans chanted “Give us sauce!” in angry unison. One particular fan had the gall to jump up and down on a McDonald’s counter, demanding, “Where’s my Szechuan Sauce?!” and then throwing a tantrum before heading out the door with his shirt over his head. Another guy smashed a Szechuan Sauce packet on asphalt, but that didn’t stop crazed fans from taking their McNuggets and dipping them into the sauce remains on the ground. Employees were harassed. Food was stolen. Cops showed up. Fans were up in arms.

Since that debacle, McDonald’s has issued an apology for the lack of Szechuan Sauce. Roiland and Harmon, on the other hand, have distanced themselves from the whole mess, though Roiland tweeted to his fans to, “Please be cool to the employees.” The insanity that took place at McDonald’s, however, isn’t the first time “Rick and Morty” fans have stirred up controversy, and it certainly won’t be the last.

In the months before season three, some fans criticized the writing team for hiring “female SJW writers,” spreading rumors that they replaced other male writers due to political correctness. What this claim fails to recognize is just how necessary it was to add female voices into the show’s and the network’s predominantly male-led writing staff. Harmon voiced his own disgruntled reaction with this group of fans in an Entertainment Weekly article, in which he called them a “testosterone-based subculture patting themselves on the back for trolling these women.”

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that much of “Rick & Morty”’s fanbase — predominantly young men — live in toxic, insular communities like Reddit, where they can voice their opinions and complaints about why they aren’t getting what they want. They identify so vehemently with the show’s destructive, hyper-intelligent protagonist Rick that they subsequently mistake themselves for being smarter than the average TV viewer. This notion of having a “higher IQ” is something inherent in the insecure ideology of heinous, misogynistic and utterly childish Internet trolls that make up much of the “Rick & Morty” fanbase.

Despite the absolute ridiculousness of “Rick & Morty”’s regressive fanbase, their relentless quest to get their Szechuan Sauce shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an isolated incident. Other obsessed fanbases have also been guilty of doing insane stunts for the sake of showing their undying support for the art and artists they worship. Pop stars like the members of One Direction, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé often fall victim to the relentless, sometimes harmful devotion of their fans. The annual Comic-Con conventions act as a free-for-all for obsessed fans to dress up, or “cosplay,” as their favorite character from their favorite TV show, comic or film. Then again, most other fanbases don’t engage in the same kind of mean-spirited, vicious, pretentious and self-centered entitlement that much of “Rick & Morty”’s worst fans do.

Obviously, not every fan perceives a certain pop culture phenomenon in the same way. I’m a big fan of “Rick & Morty,” but I don’t spend every waking moment trying to diminish another’s opinion of the show. There are other people I know who also enjoy “Rick & Morty” and don’t attempt to make themselves seem smarter or better than others for watching it.

But it’s amazing to see how far people will go to show their support for something and lose part of their humanity in the process. We see this trend all throughout pop culture, of fans taking an artist’s message or style way too seriously and suffering from the repercussions — just look at Eminem’s “Stan” video as an example.

In a way, we all crave the Szechuan Sauce, that feel-good sensation that comes with relinquishing our own reality for a slightly funnier, more colorful and more glamorous one. We yearn to inhabit the personalities and worlds of our favorite characters, yet we we lose parts of ourselves and our own identities when our obsessions dictate our very existence.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with being obsessed with something that makes us feel whole and validated. Subcultures help us make everyday life a little more bearable by giving us a platform to express our unfulfilled desires. And perhaps when we sense a new element threatening to change the model of our subscribed subcultures, we act as if a precious part of our identity is stolen from us. Whether or not we accept that change or reject it through demeaning acts of chauvinism will determine the real fans over the ones who just want the Szechuan Sauce.