Replacing an actor is never easy. Even when it’s done well, people are going to notice. Michael Gambon slipped seamlessly into Richard Harris’s Dumbledore role (all that face-obscuring hair must have helped).Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections put a fascinating spin on an old character. But more often, the change is jarring. The Witcher viewers aren’t exactly bating their breath for the recently announced protagonist switcheroo. So when it was confirmed yesterday that Justin Roiland would be replaced on Rick and Morty, it’s easy to understand why some of the show’s fans got twitchy.
Roiland’s departure is a significant one. As you might infer from the title, the hit Adult Swim sci-fi cartoon focuses primarily on two characters: genius scientist Rick and his nebbishy grandson Morty. Roiland voices both of them. He also served as co-creater on the series alongside Community’s Dan Harmon. Still, Roiland’s exit didn’t come as a surprise to many: earlier this month, he was charged with domestic battery and false imprisonment relating to an alleged incident in 2020. (According to court records, he pleaded not guilty to both charges in October of that year.) It never looked likely that Adult Swim would continue working with Roiland. We’ve seen similar before. When it comes to actors such as Johnny Depp (in Fantastic Beasts), or Kevin Spacey (All the Money in the World), studios and brands have proved increasingly willing to sever ties with alleged abusers – for their own PR’s sake, as much as any moral stand. The surprise, for many, is that Rick and Morty is determined to go on without him.
While the circumstances of Roiland’s departure shouldn’t be lightly cast aside, it’s now up to the courts to decide what becomes of him. What becomes of Rick and Morty, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. Predictably, news of Roiland’s recasting has provoked discord among the fanbase on social media. People vowing never to watch the series again. People saying Roiland shouldn’t have gone. People saying the series should have been cancelled. This last proposal was certainly an option – the only other tenable option really. But what would cancellation solve? It would put dozens of blameless crew members out of a job, and consign Rick and Morty to the dustbin of problematic TV washouts.
Unlike live-action, animation has the advantage of complete visual continuity where recastings are involved. In recent years, prominent Black characters in shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy have been recast with Black actors. Can fans tell the difference? Obviously. But the characters look the same, and the transition could hardly be described as jarring. (Most of the backlash to these recastings can likely be chalked up to racism; the fact that multiple actors have voiced Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny strangely failed to provoke such puffs of outrage.)
I suspect that the best course of action for Rick and Morty – the one the series will likely take – is to hire a vocal soundalike to imitate Roiland’s characters as closely as possible. As a voice actor, he always painted with fairly broad strokes: Rick delivers most of his lines in a growly near-monotone, Morty in a kind of pubescent whine. Compared to, say, the rubbery vocal balletics of The Simpsons’ Dan Castellaneta, Rick and Morty feel like child’s play. Even a cursory scan of the internet unearths plenty of amateur impressionists whose Ricks and Mortys you’d struggle to distinguish from the real thing blindfolded. But then, of course, there are other ways to go. Rick and Morty could steer clear of imitation entirely, and cast someone radically different in the roles – two people, perhaps. It could be a huge opportunity for a talented voice actor.
Rick and Morty’s biggest strength is ultimately its writing: both the high-concept sci-fi storylines, and the acid wit in its best jokes. None of this is tied to Roiland. It stays when he leaves. If fans aren’t willing to give the next season the benefit of the doubt, then what exactly were they fans of in the first place?