Justin Roiland is at the center of some pretty nasty allegations, and his career appears to be crashing down. The Rick and Morty co-creator and prolific voice actor has been accused of sexual misconduct and has been charged with domestic violence and false imprisonment stemming from an incident in 2020. When this news went public, it stunned fans of the voice actor’s work, which includes animated shows like Solar Opposites and Adventure Time, and even the recent video game release High on Life.
But the most well-known of Roiland’s roles was as the voice of both title characters in the sci-fi animated series Rick and Morty. The franchise has been widely popular since its first season aired in 2014, and animation network Adult Swim has ordered new episodes through a tenth season of the show. What’s more, Rick and Morty is big business–merchandise sales linked to the brand are a huge part of Adult Swim’s revenue these days.
So, when the news broke that Roiland was facing criminal charges and credibly accused of messaging underage girls on the internet, many fans of the long-running series suddenly felt a wave of unease about the franchise. After a nail-biting month of indecision, Adult Swim announced in January that it planned to cut ties with Roiland and simultaneously move forward with Rick and Morty without him.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the supposed “cancel culture” that swoops in and makes famous people vanish when they step out of line. In recent years, more level-headed thinkers have pushed back on the idea that people getting “canceled” is a bad thing or even a thing that really happens. Instead, what reactionary outrage peddlers online call “cancel culture” could be more accurately described as “people facing consequences for their actions.”
Still, there is no definitive answer to the question of what a major media franchise should reasonably do when its star gets canceled. Roiland’s case is, frustratingly, not unique. Louis CK was outed as a serial abuser in 2017, and his numerous comedy project mostly withered and died as production companies decided they wanted nothing to do with his now-toxic image. Other, similar stories played out across the entertainment industry amidst a wave of sexual violence survivors speaking out against their abusers in what became known as the #MeToo movement.
Roiland has been credibly accused of some pretty heinous stuff, and his alleged victims deserve dignity and justice if he’s guilty of the crimes he’s accused of. And this leaves Rick and Morty, and Roiland’s numerous other projects, in an odd spot. Certainly, these shows and games can move forward without him–but is it worth it?
When an actor’s misdeed’s become public or they are found guilty of a crime after creating a beloved piece of media, it can leave fans of that media in a tough spot. When you watch the earlier seasons of Rick and Morty now, the chances are high that you’ll think about heavy topics like crimes against women and the pervasive culture that shelters abusers in the United States. That doesn’t lead to a relaxing TV-watching experience.
Adult Swim isn’t going to have any trouble replacing Roiland’s voice on the show. And, while he’s given a writing credit, there are plenty of other talented writers working on Rick and Morty who will be more than capable of creating funny, thought-provoking sci-fi stories for the series. But at a certain point, we need to ask ourselves if it’s worth it to push ahead with a series when one of the people involved in its creation is suddenly embroiled in controversies that make their reputation poisonous.
It’s not up to anyone to decide for someone else how they should feel about art. Questions like how much you can separate the art from the artist are deeply personal. Some people see no issue in consuming art of any kind and will draw a hard line between the media they consume and the people who make it. Others will refuse to engage with any art created by people they find objectionable, no matter how much that art might have meant to them before the person’s misdeeds were made public.
In Adult Swim’s case, the network decided that the show was too valuable to let one person’s conduct sink it. After all, the series is made by a large group of talented artists, animators, voice actors, and writers. They shouldn’t lose their jobs and livelihoods just because one person apparently made a series of extremely bad choices.
Several other organizations that were once connected to Roiland have also decided to part ways with him. Squanch Games, a game studio that Roiland co-founded, is moving forward without him in his original role as CEO. Roiland reportedly stepped down from the role in mid-January, weeks after the criminal charges against him were made public. Squanch’s most recent game, High on Life, topped the Xbox Game Pass gameplay charts in December at almost the same time that the accusations against Roiland became public. Most recently, Hulu has decided to scrub Roiland from the animated series Solar Opposites and the upcoming Koala Man.
As organizations decide to go forward with their projects without Roiland’s input, it’s tricky to imagine how they’ll fare without his distinctive, improvisational voiceovers. In both Rick and Morty and High on Life, Roiland employs a rambling, free-association approach to his characters that gives them a chaotic and anarchistic energy.
To move forward, the first thing Adult Swim will need to do is recast the title characters in Rick and Morty, as well as a few recurring characters like Mr. Meeseeks. If the network is interested in finding an exact match, there are numerous celebrity impersonators out there who would be eager to lend their talents to the show.
Strangely enough, this also wouldn’t be the first time Adult Swim has had to replace a controversial voice actor. In 2020, Adult Swim parted ways with Stuart Daniel Baker, AKA Unknown Hinson, the voice actor behind the Squidbillies character Early Cuyler. Hinson was let go after he posted a tirade against Dolly Parton after the famous musician expressed her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Adult Swim elected to not hire a similar-sounding voice actor to voice Early for the final season of the series, instead tapping former 30 Rock actor Tracy Morgan for the role.
Morgan’s voice is noticeably different from Hinson’s, resulting in a bit of discontinuity–though the show is already chaotic enough that a recast voice isn’t likely to faze most viewers. Given Rick and Morty’s own multiverse-hopping narrative and unhinged energy, it would be easy for the show’s writers to handwave any recasting decisions. For my money, I’d love to see Adult Swim reach out to Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox to take over the roles, as the characters of Rick and Morty are based on Doc Brown and Marty McFly, respectively.
It will certainly be strange to hear a version of Rick and Morty without Roiland’s iconic rambling style. However, many fans have noted that the number of writers for the show has grown each season, and the kind of unhinged, free-flowing, and improvisational style that Roiland brought to the earlier seasons of the show has diminished in recent years. With the right recasting and a strong enough script, Rick and Morty could seamlessly transition into a post-Roiland rhythm without fans even noticing a change.
The show’s style is already so meta and self-referential, though, that it might be hard for the writers to completely avoid addressing the change. Perhaps the show will once again use a multiverse plot to explain why our protagonists now sound different. They could even make a tongue-in-cheek joke about how one of Rick’s inventions has slightly altered their vocal cords, explaining away the sudden shift in voice actors.
What’s most likely to happen, though, is that the show will just make no mention of it. Given the sensitive nature of the network’s decision to let go of Roiland, it might be a bit crass to crack jokes at the expense of the people who were allegedly hurt by Roiland’s decisions.
The bottom line is that huge media franchises like Rick and Morty and studios like Sqaunch Games are bigger than one person. Just because that person is no longer involved in their productions doesn’t mean these organizations need to close up shop and pretend Roiland was the only thing that made them successful.
And, on a somewhat more cynical note, multi-million dollar franchises just aren’t allowed to collapse because of the actions of one member of the creative team. Sure, Roiland was a very public-facing member of the team, but he’s still only one part of the larger collective that was responsible for creating the series.
So, can Adult Swim save Rick and Morty from itself? The show must go on, and, if there’s still an audience for the wacky sci-fi series, the network is certainly going to try to make things work.