Do you crave a story that will alter your view of reality? Perhaps you have the urge to curl up in a dark room while questioning your existence. Or maybe instead, you’d like to gently contemplate infinite timelines. Luckily, such stories can be found. Let’s look at five series that deal with existentialism in different ways: horror, drama, comedy, and more.
1. Rick and Morty (TV Series)
Rick and Morty is a cartoon created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland that follows the genius scientist Rick Sanchez and his adventures with his mind-shielding grandson Morty Smith. Each episode is its own contained story, which allows for sporadic, casual watching, though there are occasionally longer arcs. While a good deal of episodes occur off-Earth, there are interactions with the rest of the family: Beth (Rick’s horse-surgeon daughter), Jerry (Beth’s useless husband), and Summer (Morty’s older sister).
Even more noticeable than Rick’s alcoholism and burping is the existential horror of the series. The horror ranges from Morty killing robot versions of his family to an episode where the existence of every character is called into question. The show has brash rude humor, but mixed with the abrupt comedy are insightful views and complex relationships. Rick and Morty also comments on current social and political issues, a wide range of horrifying paradoxes, and character growth that will leave you awestruck by the end of the second season.
The downsides to Rick and Morty are that it deals with potentially triggering material, has humor that can be unforgiving, and contains crudeness that can be off-putting. Don’t worry, if the existentialism isn’t enough to offset those factors for you, we have four more potential candidates. Next on our list is a show that will not only fill that hole in your heart but also give your heart a kiss on the forehead and tuck it into bed.
2. Steven Universe (TV Series)
If you’ve been hearing chatter about rocks from space empowering a little boy and in turn being empowered, you’ve probably experienced some form of contact with this heartwarming show. Steven Universe is a little boy who lives in Beach City with his three alien caregivers, the Crystal Gems. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl do their best raising Steven while helping him figure out what it means to be part gem. Steven isn’t the only one learning. Throughout the series, Steven teaches his community, moms included, acceptance and love.
Steven Universe does an excellent job of combining whimsical expository episodes with a solid overarching plot. During both, we get doses of what it’s like for the gems on Earth, why they’ve stayed, and how Steven fits. Aside from the inherent existentialism of discovering what it means to be half-human and half-gem, there are moments of surreal horror that are surprising for such an upbeat, sugary show.
A little boy teaming up with awesome alien moms may not be enough to satisfy your heart, and that’s just fine. So how about we add two little boys teaming up with a bird and a frog to fight Satan?
3. Over the Garden Wall (TV Mini Series)
A few shades darker than Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall is a series that ran around Halloween on Cartoon Network back in 2014. It follows two brothers, Wirt and Greg, as they journey home. Regency hair styles, talking animals, Southern idioms and colloquialisms, and a dark fairy-tale forest make up the vivid Unknown, where the main plot of Over the Garden Wall is set. It’s hard to pin exactly when the story occurs, which adds to its mystery and charm.
As Greg and Wirt journey through the Unknown, they meet the Woodsman, Beatrice the cursed bluebird, and a host of other colorful characters. The winding tales spin slowly, drawing you into the Unknown and slowly shedding light on mystery after mystery. The show starts with a few laughs and creeped-out shudders and ends with staring into the blankness of what was and what will be, wondering if you have been sold the most wonderful lie of all.
Over the Garden Wall is ten, 11-minute episodes, and once you’ve finished ruminating on the lessons and stories, you may wish to continue picking apart your own existence or other fictional ones. And just in case you need more super-siblings, I’ve got another show that will meet your existential needs with help from a dynamic duo.
4. Gravity Falls (TV Series)
Dipper and Mabel are twins spending their summer in Gravity Falls, Oregon, with their Great Uncle Stan. As the twins explore the mysterious woods and town around Stan’s tourist-trap cabin, the stories that unfold range from delightfully silly to mildly creepy. Setting the tone for the rest of the series, episode one is packed with great animation, bright characters, and an excellent subversion of grimdark fantasy.
The Gravity Falls universe is ripe with existential horror and balanced with light-hearted humor. Some arcs simply can’t mask the gravitas of the situation, however, and they hit hard. One such instance occurs when a recurring character is discovered to have brainwashed themselves multiple times in order to escape knowledge they’d obtained. Dark, underlying themes float throughout the series upon a second watch-through, but the humor and charm keeps Gravity Falls light without stepping into twee territory.
The series is drawing to a close, so if you’re a completionist and can’t stand to start something that isn’t already finished, you’re safe to dig into two seasons of adventure and delight. If you’re not afraid of an ongoing story, however, venture onward to our last series. Venture boldly, venture quietly, venture as if you’re going to cause the collapse of the known universe.
5. Welcome to Night Vale (Podcast)
Who doesn’t love having surreal, haunting stories told to them in a melodic voice that sounds like honey? Probably a lot of people but not the ones reading this far down in an article dealing with existentialism. Welcome to Night Vale gained traction in 2014 and is the radio broadcast of a little desert town under totalitarian rule where weird is the norm. Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor, the voice talent, musical artists, and fellow guest writers work together to weave a town that is both unbelievable and unnervingly real.
Within the tales are a variety of themes ranging from positive, social commentary to finding truth amidst tangled webs of lies. Though stories contained within Night Vale can be genuinely creepy, the show often riffs on cosmic horrors and the triteness of the weird.
Cecil is the voice of Night Vale and tells the stories as any radio broadcaster would. He delivers announcements from City Council, reports on local events, and has special sections like Science Fun Corner. Some of the folks we hear about are old woman Josie and her non-City Council approved angels, Khoshekh the cat floating in the bathroom, and a literal five-headed dragon; we definitely do not hear about the hooded figures in the dog park. Night Vale also deals with the extremes of government and corporate control, the nature of our fickle and frightening existence, and the value of community.
If you’re suffering from a case of the existential blues, I hope these series have given you something to look into or revisit. While all of the series represent a slightly different genre, each has its own merit in the realm of existentialism. Try stepping outside your media comfort zone. After all, each show is only a small blip in your life and an infinitesimally smaller moment in the grand scheme of the universe.
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