As Matt Groening’s shows have aged, they’ve relied more and more frequently on parody. Not that this wasn’t always in Futurama’s DNA, but it’s undeniably not the best sign when an episode can be described as just “Futurama does E.T..” There’s more than that to “T.: The Terrestrial,” but there are much more fertile starting places for the show to grow from.
Still, its parodies vary wildly in quality, largely dependent upon how much of the source material Futurama feels the need to replicate and how wildly the episode is willing to spin things out. Fortunately, “The Terrestrial” has a pretty nifty twist on Spielberg’s concept. As the name implies, it’s the human this time who’s the alien bringing love into a young boy’s heart, as Fry is accidentally deserted on Omicron Persei 8 only to be discovered by Lrrr’s son, Jrrr. Having been neglected by his dad, he immediately bonds with Fry, and they go through the basic arc of E.T. together in a frequently funny, slightly moving fashion.
The joy of “The Terrestrial” is both how far Futurama is willing to go with this material and also how much of the episode isn’t completely subsumed by this parody. Instead of Reese’s Pieces, Fry eats Jrr’s feces. It’s a pretty awful joke, yet because the show doesn’t just use it as a disgusting, throwaway gag, it becomes something more. It turns into an important plot point, and what was once dumb by the end seemed inspired. The Omicronians are also just such wonderfully violent people that it’s enjoyable to watch their society, with its multitude of skulls and de-skinnings. They’re my favorite supporting cast members, and it’s because of moments like when a vet’s arm is cut off by Lrrr and then stabbed in the head by Jrrr. All the vet can do is sigh because that’s how much value the Omicronians place on life. Their comical super violence rarely gets old because of their nonchalance and even boredom with these facts of their lives.
“The Terrestrial” is also just as much about Bender’s relationship with Fry as it is anything else. There’s a large sense in which Bender is the same as Jrrr, needing Fry as a pet and loving him in his own special, horrible way. The parallel between the two is made explicit with the skinning device Bender grabs out of the vet’s head. Bender spent the entire episode covering up for abandoning Fry (yes, hijinks ensue), but eventually even he gets guilty enough to return for his old friend. This also means that while Fry’s off on Omicron Persei 8, the rest of the Planet Express crew doesn’t go forgotten. The Professor’s pot storyline is a bit clunky at times, but the show even manages to make this into something interesting when it lights up the asses at the end of the episode.
While “The Terrestrial” wasn’t a truly inspired parody, it did feel new, even with jokes on a movie 30 years old. Unlike Futurama’s attempts at commenting on events just after they happened (and invariably feeling terribly dated when the episode comes out six months after a trend), here it felt like a considered, clever take on a strange premise. I don’t know if this was an episode everyone was hoping for, as many of the show’s fans, myself included, prefer when Futurama does its own thing entirely. But it felt solid nonetheless, and its jokes weren’t forced except for the first minute or so of the episode. It’s nice to see that so long as Futurama stays obsessed with pop culture commentary, at least the show can still do it well.