Twenty years ago, fast food chain McDonald’s released a Szechuan-flavored dipping sauce as a tie-in promotion for the Disney movie Mulan. Now, it’s the subject of a three-part retrospective podcast, The Sauce, which explores the controversies of its brief 2017 resurrection fueled by the cartoon Rick and Morty. But like an exotic flavor filtered through mass production, The Sauce is either a shallow replica or a farce of the fulfilling documentary podcast genre. Even worse, it’s hard to tell if it’s a joke.
Released online Thursday, The Sauce, hosted by Catherine LeClaire, is a sponsored production that looks back at the botched re-release of the McDonald’s Szechuan sauce. On its face, S-Town or 99% Invisible listeners will be familiar with how The Sauce aesthetic: there’s the familiar first-person commentary informed by research, interviews, and ambient music evoking a bigger picture.
As if that’s not enough, the podcast blatantly announces the nationwide return of Szechuan, which is set for Monday, February 26.
The Sauce has key members of McDonald’s’ PR teams, speaking honestly (or so we’re led to believe) about what transpired leading up to and on October 7, 2017, when McDonald’s temporarily re-released the sauce and underdelivered. There are also interviews from those who ventured for sauce; in one case, a couple testing their new relationship as they drove four hours at midnight, crossing the Canadian/U.S. border, for nugget sauce. Play The Sauce in the background and you’ll think McDonald’s, helped by Gizmodo and Onion Labs, has successfully entered prestige podcasting.
But all too often, it is painfully obvious The Sauce will not be a raw or incisive look at pop culture fandom that the true story of the 2017 “Szechuan Riots” demand. It is without a doubt promotion for McDonald’s, and it’s clear even without LeClaire saying so late in the first episode.
The problem with The Sauce is that it whitewashes what actually fueled the fever for Szechuan: The bafflingly childish behavior of the adult fans of the Adult Swim series Rick and Morty. Exhibiting the worst of modern fandom, folks who packed McDonald’s on October 7 demanding Szechuan sauce didn’t want it because Szechuan is a good flavor for nuggets. It’s because it was a fully-cooked punchline to the surprise Season 3 premiere, which looped online and on cable TV throughout April Fool’s Day 2017.
Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty is, in fact, as good as its fans say. Every 22-minute episode is a wallop of pop culture and science-fiction satire, with cosmic nihilism that exposes raw human emotions. In the episode, the anti-heroic Rick, a mad scientist, towers over his grandson Morty, prone on the ground. Rick tells Morty that his sole motivation to upset the multiverse is so McDonald’s can bring back Szechuan sauce. “I want that Mulan McNugget sauce, Morty!” Rick yells, saliva dripping from his lips. “That’s my series arc, Morty. Even if it takes nine seasons!”
Morty pleads, “What are you talking about, Rick?” As the credits rolled, craving for Szechuan spiked on the internet.
The problem with Rick and Morty isn’t the show, it’s the fans. Though not all, too many Rick and Morty fans exhibit ill behavior. Falsely, fans believe they can grasp the nuances of human behavior through hoarding pop culture knowledge, instead of honestly exposing themselves to others. After fans flipped out in public over the lack of Szechuan at their Mcdonald’s, “toxic” popped up in headlines describing the fandom in places like Polygon, The AV Club, Junkee, and Syfy.
It doesn’t help that Rick, the show’s central character and audience vehicle, can bend the world to his will when he’s sober enough. In exploring the fandom, Katie Fustich wrote for Medium: “To the general public, there is no evident rationale — but within the fandom, a pervasive entitlement inspires Rick-like thinking and behavior.”
This is fertile ground for a podcast to explore, poke, and prod at. Unfortunately, The Sauce does not. With the undercurrent of Rick and Morty, The Sauce comes off as a spoof and not a real look at a mistake made by a major corporation. Even if the proprietors of Big Macs and Happy Meals is trying to be real for a second, The Sauce is like American Vandal for podcasting, with less depth.
The Sauce doesn’t reference Rick and Morty, or Mulan, the pop culture hallmarks that created the sauce and its fever. These things are spoken in the abstract, and without identifying the fandom, The Sauce sidesteps history, making it seem as if the hunger for Szechuan spiked overnight because of a cartoon. It did, but there’s so much more to it than that.
The Sauce is airing now on all major podcasting platforms.