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Futurama Review: "The Prisoner of Benda" (6.10)

August 20, 2010  |  11:25am
<em>Futurama</em> Review: "The Prisoner of Benda" (6.10)

Many of Futurama’s best episodes are a result of good old fashioned science-fiction thinking, plus a slight satirical twist. Switching minds isn’t really a tough concept to grasp, nor was the time travel from a few episodes back. It just so happens that, for whatever reason, the Professor’s inventions seem to only work in one direction these days. So while before we could only move forward in time, in “The Prisoner of Benda” what we have is mind-swapping that can only happen in one direction. Simple enough, eh? It’s a credit to the show that this isn’t at all the case.

Single-directional body swapping means that two other parties must be involved for things to return to how they were—the switchers don’t immediately realize it, and more and more parties are gradually required for us to end up back where we started. So the entire Planet Express Crew, (err… the whole crew minus Scruffy) gets switched at least once, including several outside parties get introduced. Not only do we see how everyone reacts to using one or more foreign bodies throughout the episode, minds are also swapped with a Hungarian monarch and a wash bucket (and momentarily with those mathematical Globetrotters). There’s also a series of other new characters we’re introduced to from both a travelling circus and the monarch’s treacherous entourage.

Bringing in these new characters is a good thing, not just because it took this particular episode in some fun directions (with particular points going to the wash bucket’s unrequited love for Scruffy), but also because it’s a twist on one of animated television’s perennial scourges: character reuse. That might not sound so bad, but hear me out: The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Venture Brothers, etc. etc. etc. are all at their best when characters are only brought out when they’re actually necessitated by the plot. Unfortunately, despite the theoretically limitless nature of animation, real-life production budgets require characters to turn up again, which gives us the same jokes as before, or forces plots to go in dumb new directions. Krusty the Klown is an interesting character so long as he’s being a clown on TV—when he’s showing up for no real reason in, say, a driver’s education course for one weak gag, then you have a problem.

When a show’s cast stops growing, the show itself tends to lose its ambitions as well, While this isn’t always set-in-stone, unnecessary character recycling can be indicative of deeper storytelling issues. All of the new characters we saw in “The Prisoner of Benda” actually made sense within the story and played roles that would’ve failed if thrown to Futuramas current main cast.

This was also an episode that couldn’t have happened if the show’s main characters weren’t as well-developed as they are. The entire plotline here is dependent upon riffing on characters reacting to one another’s bodies, and the problems this causes. While this didn’t lead anywhere particularly revelatory, the jokes centered around things we already knew about the cast. One of the major plots of the show revolves around Amy’s weight issues, which we’ve seen since the first season but have never really been addressed. It’s not difficult to quickly grasp, but for those of us who’re longtime fans it’s a particularly nice piece of the episode’s puzzle. We’ve seen similar episodes to this before with “The Farnsworth Paradox” and “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” and it’s been a success every time.

An episode this fractured makes it difficult to go into any real recap, but this sort of intertwined, Altman-esque plot offers up a level of complexity rarely offered by sitcoms, or any episodic television. “The Prisoner of Benda” was a perfect example of how Futurama takes an extremely simple concept and executes it in a daring and unique way. It’s not as showy as “A Clockwork Origin” or “The Late Philip J. Fry” from an animation standpoint, but with writing this tight we could be watching stick figures at 8 frames a second and it would still be worth seeing.

Stray Observations:
“I am just a humble emperor with a big, big crown.”
“Science cannot move forward without heaps.”
“I’m afraid we need to use… math!”
“I hate paying 14 dollars to see Nicholas Cage solve things.” – As usual, the future as shown in Futuram is just like the present.
“Friends, friends, I have barnacles on my tuckus.” – what I love about this line is how apropos of nothing it is. Zoidberg just goes around to people saying that.
” I don’t know what to do. Do you think I should eat more butter?”
“Our nation’s chief export is carnies.”
- It’s not immediately apparent to me what this episode’s name is referencing, though I feel like it should be. Anyone got an answer?

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