Typically, when it comes to choosing a “Rick and Morty” episode to submit for Emmys consideration, it’s a struggle to find a non-canon-heavy show that can “really blow an Emmy voter’s mind but still be palatable to anybody,” executive producer Steve Levy told TheWrap.
“That’s the hope at least,” he said.
Season 6’s “Night Family” met those parameters, an installment that simultaneously manages to hone on this family’s complex dynamics, serve as a pitch-perfect horror homage and push the animation “to a whole new level” without requiring hours of backstory to understand. But there’s another reason why this episode stands as an especially smart selection for the sci-fi-series. On nearly every creative level, “Night Family” showcases how Dan Harmon’s Adult Swim can adapt and has evolved.
Written by Rob Schrab and directed by Jacob Hair, “Night Family” is something the series could have never pulled off in its earlier years from both a writing and technical level. In the past, “Rick and Morty” has nodded to horror thanks to episodes like “Look Who’s Purging Now” and “Amortycan Grickfitti.” As opposed to those tongue-in-cheek riffs, “Night Family” is an installment of horror, complete with uncomfortable and show-breaking close-ups and a full redesign of the Smith household to highlight its shadows.
The episode starts with Beth (Sarah Chalke) learning that Rick (voiced by Justin Roiland, who has since been cut from the series) has been using his “night person” to work out. Basically, while day Rick sleeps, his barely conscious night self works on his abs. It isn’t long before the whole family is in on the adventure. But when day Rick ignores night Summer’s (Spencer Grammer) request to rinse the dishes, the Smith family home becomes a prison. The catch? Their captors are their unconscious selves.
It’s an episode that could only come from Rob Schrab, a man who loves the genre so much he makes VHS covers for fake B-horror movies in his free time. That in and of itself is a notable change for a perfectionistic showrunner who once had a reputation for being controlling about his creations.
“I think that the cohesion of the writers room from Season 5 on has led Dan [Harmon] to really trust the writers to imbue their own passion and past experiences into the work,” Levy said. “It’s a Rob Schrab love letter to that genre, but using our show as a vehicle.”
In fact, when Schrab pitched his episode he did so with a lookbook at the ready, complete with drawings. It was an addition that greatly assisted Hair.
“On a lot of cartoons, you can wait until storyboard launch day to start asking questions because you’re going to reuse so many typical assets,” Hair, who directed the Emmy-winning “The Vat of Acid Episode” and the Emmy-nominated “Mort Dinner Rick Andre,” explained. “But on a ‘Rick and Morty’ episode, you’re always diving into the deep end of some insane, huge, high-concept, heavy-design episode. A lot of times you’ve got to get way out ahead of that and start figuring out what the references are. So to have them handed to me in this nice lookbook that Rob prepared actually made this an easier episode for me to work on.”
Compared to other “Rick and Morty” episodes, “Night Family” “didn’t go through a lot of heavy rewrites,” Hair noted. The episode’s final car chase scene required some honing. Similarly, the episode’s principal arc between Rick and Summer had to go through some adjustments to highlight the “built-up angst and anger and frustration” Summer felt toward her grandfather, Levy explained. Though Rick clearly trusts Summer and has given her access to many of his passwords and secret procedures, she has spent most of the series playing second fiddle to her younger brother.
“This episode proves that Summer might be that intelligent where she might be able to actually best Rick,” Levy said.
Because of its relatively untouched script and Schrab’s lookbook, the bulk of heavy lifting came from the animation and design departments. According to Hair, the horror motifs of the episode impacted everything from the amount of shadows in the Smith household to an “inked style that we’ve never done.” There was even a major discussion among departments about how “zombified” the night version of the family should be.
“We changed the look of the show for this episode specifically,” Hair said. “We might as well have been designing an alien world because it did push the entire Smith house into a whole new place that’s never really been seen or done before.”
Animation actually contributed to one of “Night Family’s” biggest changes. During the most unsettling moment of the episode, Rick is held down as Beth, Jerry (Chris Parnell) and Morty (Roiland) scrape dried gunk from a dirty plate into his open mouth on night Summer’s orders.
That scene was inspired by one of Schrab’s sketches that featured the family with spotted shadows on them. Hair storyboarded it fairly early to demonstrate how “horrific” the episode could become. An earlier version featured an “additional extreme close up or two” of the gunk that was cut either due to standards and practices or the realization that people weren’t going to keep watching if things became too gross. Instead, the scene that made it to air cuts to Jerry cringing in disgust.
That relatively minor change is nothing compared to how disturbing the first version of the scene was.
“In the initial draft of the script, to taunt the night family, Rick had actually defecated on those plates. There was an insinuation that they were scraping his own feces into his mouth,” Hair said. “I think that the design of the plates originally looked too much like feces and had to be pulled back to look like food.”
Because of its genre-breaking format, Hair challenged himself to be more cinematic in his work. Though Hair only started directing for the series in Season 4, he is now behind three of “Rick and Morty’s” Emmy-nominated episodes, including the winning “The Vat of Acid Episode.”
Hair was initially surprised by the nomination because he didn’t know “Night Family” was going to be submitted. For a time, “Analyze Piss” was an Emmys contender but ultimately wasn’t chosen because the family dynamics took a step back from the darker and sillier elements in the episode. But the director was “very delighted” when he learned of his episode’s nomination, partially due to his personal connection to its themes.
“I have a huge personal struggle — I know we all do — with balancing nighttime and daytime routines,” Hair said. “This is an internal struggle that everyone’s going through. The way that this one takes a sci-fi concept and just so simply and eloquently demonstrates that, along with the fact that I am a huge horror fan, I was thrilled.”
Thanks to this distinct script and art style, “Night Family” stands as an episode that feels unlike previous installments of the series. It’s a trend that very well may continue as Harmon continues to hand the reigns over to more and more writers on his series.
“The episodes get stronger, the writing is stronger, and Dan, rather than having his hand in every single word that’s written on the page, is now like really uplifting the writers and their vision within the vehicle that is ‘Rick and Morty,’” Levy said. “That’s going to come across immensely, especially in the future seasons, but I think you could really start to tell that in Season 6.”
This cohesion has allowed the arduous process of creating a new episode of “Rick and Morty” to become “so much easier.”
“The team has been so cohesive not just on the writing side, but also on the art side. We’ve been able to create stuff that we never really thought was possible in the early seasons,” Levy said.