Futurama has been canceled. Again. The question that this leaves for everyone is whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Let’s be honest here, Futurama’s revivals, both of them, have been a mixed blessing. While there have certainly been a few inspired episodes, the show’s original run on Fox was much stronger than any of its post-cancellation incarnations. Its big sibling, The Simpsons, overstayed its welcome so long ago that it has had more disappointing seasons than great ones, and the fear for Futurama has been that this would happen to this show as well. If the show’s declining, then maybe it’s time to put it out of its misery.
In answer to this fear, though, Futurama’s seventh season (if you want to think of it that way) returned with two strong episodes that give excellent reasons for the show’s continuation. What’s more, their strengths were entirely different, as if the show’s writers knew that the two would be paired together and wanted to veer as far from repetition as possible.
The first of these was “2-D Blacktop,” which began somewhat middling before becoming something more extraordinary midway through. Much of the episode focused on a somewhat stupid, somewhat inspired storyline in which Professor Farnsworth becomes a drag racer a la The Fast and The Furious, not to mention every other race movie ever made. Many of Futurama’s weakest episodes have resulted from this sort of vaguely sci-fi parody, but luckily this was just a means to the episode’s end. After a crash on a mobius racetrack, much of the cast is caught in a two-dimensional world, allowing the show to do the sort of strange, semi-philosophical conceptual humor that it excels at. This is the type of thing that Futurama fans love, and “2-D Blacktop” even made the link between this and the rest of the episode relevant. What I also appreciated was that the show’s creators understood that a two-dimensional episode is only funny for so long, much like the racing parody, so it only occupied a few minutes of time. Jamming all of this material together meant none of it dragged while we still got the strangeness of a well-imagined 2-D universe.
That sort of oddball science-fiction humor is one of the reasons Futurama is so beloved, the other being the psychological realism of its cast’s relationships. Because the show doesn’t reset at the end of every episode, these relationships have been powerful, but Fry and Leela’s romance has frequently been a sore point of the show’s continuity. It’s the one space that Futurama has seemed unwilling to explore, for fear of upsetting the status quo.
“Fry and Leela’s Big Fling,” though, finally shows them together as a couple, and what’s more, a couple dealing with their past. The two of them go on a week-long vacation together, only to find that Leela’s old boyfriend, the hippie musician Shawn, is there, too. No, the episode doesn’t go particularly deeply into things here, nor should it, really (that’s just not Futurama), but the acknowledgement that there is a past for her and that this can cause issues for their relationship is an important step. It made their fling matter, and it looks like the show is finally ready to let the couple be, well, a couple.
The other half of the episode is also concerned with Futurama’s past, with Bender, Zoidberg and Amy visiting a planet of the apes (or, to be more accurate, a planet of the simians) only to be greeted by Gunther and, later, Dr. Banjo. It’s an episode heavy on Futurama’s backstory but not reliant on it, as the real gag is that Fry and Leela are having their vacation inside the apes’ zoo. I’m always a fan of the show going to new planets that aren’t just pop culture references, and this one took its premise in an intelligent direction. The careful plotting of both these episodes is also something that’s been frequently missing in Futurama’s latter years.
Both of these episodes were good, the latter in fact excellent. But what’s more important is that neither had the problems endemic of the show’s last few seasons. They’re not filled with pop culture references, they don’t re-hash previous plotlines, nor do they contradict important character relationships. These episodes don’t feel tired, and though far from perfect, they make a strong case that Futurama is as good as it’s been since 2003. At this point in the show’s life, I’m not optimistic that it can keep up this pace, but it’s nice to think that the show may be able to go out on a high note.