The Justin Roiland Scandal Implicates Everyone Involved

The powers-that-be have a lot of skin invested in the ‘Rick and Morty’ game. They’d rather its creator just go away quietly.

This week the Hollywood Reporter put out a lengthy piece on the rise and fall of Justin Roiland. It’s taken a surprisingly long time for any major publication to write something substantatial on the topic. Justin Roiland, the main voice actor of Rick and Morty and its showrunner alongside Dan Harmon, had been charged on January 12 with domestic assault in relation to a 2020 incident. Two weeks ago, on January 25, Hulu and HBO Max officially canned Roiland  from his shows. But there’s been little discussion of what’s been going on the interim. Given the outsized importance Rick and Morty has on the pop culture discourse (the clickbait articles always make it obvious when a new season has started, even if you’re not a fan), that’s rather surprising.

To get into the how, what, and why of all this, first we need to get into the core of what Rick and Morty is. And I don’t mean, like, the basic premise of wacky adult sci-fi sitcom adventures between a bitter broken scientist and his often panicked grandson. I mean the very earliest version of the project: Doc and Mharti, which Justin Roilland made as a Channel 101 pilot in 2006, where Doc Brown from Back to the Future is trying to get Marty McFly to suck his balls. The previous sentence was not a joke. That’s what actually happens in the video, and if you don’t want to see it, you shouldn’t watch it.

You might have heard that Rick and Morty is a riff on Back to the Future. Adult Swim itself riffed on it by casting Christopher Lloyd in some Rick and Morty spots. But you probably haven’t seen the original pilot version because, well, there really just isn’t any way to monetize licking hairy old man testicles. Goodness knows they’ve monetized Rick and Morty in just about every other way anyone’s been able to think of.

The core concept of Rick and Morty is and always has been making a kid do things he doesn’t want to do. The relevance of this is that a few days after news broke about Justin Roiland’s domestic assault charge, new allegations broke claiming that in person, Roiland acts…well, pretty much the exact same way this whole conceit implies he would act with actual teenagers. And that’s he’s been doing it pretty much the whole time Rick and Morty has been popular, with actual teenagers, to an extent that beggars disbelief that none of his employers noticed before.

These are all incredibly bad, and Roiland even managed to act this way with adult-aged professional collaborators.

This is a pretty textbook example of #MeToo. What makes the Roiland case unnerving, though, is that hardly anyone in a major publication so much as mentioned the teen sexting allegations over the last month. Even the Hollywood Reporter just acknowledged they happened before implying, for the bulk of the piece, that Roiland had been bad news for a long time coming for more behind-the-scenes reasons.

It all sets up a disquieting subtext that I suspect will become the ultimate final word on Justin Roiland. To treat #MeToo allegations as irrelevant is nothing new, but it’s unprecedented to treat them as irrelevant in the context of a guy who lost his gig because of a literal #MeToo. The reasons for this are almost certainly because HBO Max and Hulu are trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to getting rid of a popular media personality without having the blowblack scandal destroy Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites along with it. Rick and Morty in particular is a brand HBO Max can’t afford to lose- it’s one of the few that Discovery Warner Brothers has been trying to expand rather than axe.

The financial considerations are that much more obvious when you realize that Roiland’s gaming company, Squanch Games, recently released High On Life. The short explanation of High On Life is that it’s a first-person-shooter with talking guns, and Roiland voices the guns. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Squanch Games has also cut ties with Roiland. But Squanch Games, being a smaller company compared to the others he’s dealt with over the years, has a relatively recent sexual harassment case on the books that, while not involving Roiland, hints at the kind of misogynistic environment we’re always hearing is common at video game companies.

Or just, maybe, everywhere. It feels increasingly quaint to remember how #MeToo intended to force institutional change. But here we are with people treating Justin Roiland, the Louis CK of 2023, not as a symbol of a toxic culture, but just an irrelevant one-off incident not really worth further reflection. It’s hard to avoid the irony that for the past 10 years we always presumed Dan Harmon to be the drama king putting Rick and Morty at social credit risk, when nothing anyone has ever accused him of even comes close to this. Well, there was the shell corporation that he intended to preempt a labor union for his  animators, but we all know that doesn’t really count as a scandal even though it should.

Passively assuming Justin Roiland to be the “good” half of the team is more of what makes the situation so awkward. Because Roiland had allies, not just with executives, but with independent animators. The Paloni Show Halloween Special on Hulu was big exposure for a whole lot of them, and Koala Man also owes a lot to him. Roiland can’t be the failure of a system, or even an individual. It’s simply the quietest scandal of the year.

This dreadful story reflects badly on people who aren’t Roiland, and who don’t even have anything to do with Rick and Morty. If Roiland’s gone because of one domestic violence charge, that’s on him. You can easily replace his voices because, well, let’s face it, they’re not very difficult voices. And the Hollywood Reporter is already setting the groundwork for arguing that Roiland hasn’t been that creatively significant at Rick and Morty or anywhere else in quite some time, which is a fairly reasonable argument to make given his lack of writing credits after the early seasons.

But is Justin Roiland really gone? Honestly, I doubt it. If Roiland’s been fighting for his career, he certainly hasn’t been acting like it. Despite the circumstances, Roiland appears to be making a graceful exit. Given how little anyone’s acknowledged the more serious allegations against him, in a few years he’ll probably be in an even better position than Louis CK. At worst he’s Chris Brown, at best a lousy co-worker. Whatever the real reasons behind his firing, the vaguer they are, the easier they’ll be for everyone to forget.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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