For any television fan, 2013 has been both a blessing and a curse.
Indeed, for all the excitement surrounding this year’s crop of televisions shows, whether it be fantastic new programs like Hannibal, Orphan Black and The Americans or returning favorites such as Game of Thrones, Parks and Recreation and The Walking Dead, one cannot deny that 2013 has also been a year of emotional goodbyes.
January alone brought the conclusion of the cult, sci-fi program Fringe as well as the curtain call for NBC’s award-winning comedy 30 Rock. The Office, Happy Endings, Southland and Gossip Girl (if you’re into that) followed suit. Furthermore, after September, we’ll be living in a TV world devoid of Dexter and Breaking Bad.
This week, TV fans will bid adieu to a show that has endured its fair share of road bumps: Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s sci-fi/comedy extravaganza, Futurama. Having originally aired for four seasons on Fox, Futurama was taken off the schedule in the wake of its low ratings. Years later, booming DVD sales and a syndication on Adult Swim convinced the network to order four films as an official fifth season. Soon, the show was picked up by Comedy Central in 2010 and new episodes were ordered. Earlier this year, however, Comedy Central announced that it would not be renewing the series.
While the show has survived cancellation before and may do so again, head writer David X. Cohen claims the staff has written Wednesday’s episode to serve as an official series finale. Thus ends a show that, while only a moderate success ratings-wise, boasted a legion of devoted fans as well as some of the smartest, most creative comedy writers in the business.
Today, we say goodbye to the crew of Planet Express by cataloguing some of their greatest adventures.
Why It’s Great: Being that the Futurama writers are all massive sci-fi fans, it was only a matter of time before they built up to an extended 2001: A Space Odyssey homage. That the HAL figure would turn out to be a heart-broken Planet Express ship scorned by Bender’s rejection—well, that’s the kind of inventiveness we’ve learned to expect from Futurama. That the ship in question is voiced by Sigourney Weaver? Icing on the friggin’ cake.
Lrrr: [watching Friends] “This is ancient Earth’s most foolish program. Why does Ross, the largest friend, not simply eat the other five?”
Nd-Nd: “Perhaps they are saving that for sweeps.”
Why It’s Great: Much like The Simpsons’ annual “Treehouse of Horror” specials, Futurama developed its own anthology series—albeit without the restrictive Halloween theme. One of the shining beacons of this experiment—especially for animation fans—was this season finale. The episode envisions the show as three different animation styles—a 1930s Fleischer-influenced cartoon, an 8-bit video game, and an action-packed anime adventure. The episode is made all the funnier by how perfectly each segment appropriates the three aesthetics. It’s an episode made with one eye on hilarious satire and one eye on loving homage.
Professor Farnsworth: “How do you people do it? How do you go on knowing there’s nothing more to know?”
Fry: “I watch TV. It’s the next best thing to being alive.”
Why It’s Great:Fry’s unfortunate choice of a gas station snack turns out to be quite the fortunate selection when a group of space worms invade his body and begin changing him. Suddenly, Fry becomes stronger, smarter and infinitely more appealing to Leela. Naturally, as the Professor and the rest of Planet Express infiltrate his body to destroy the worms, Fry wonders if Leela loves him as a person or only what the worms have done to him. A ridiculously absurd episode with a surprisingly touching conclusion, “Parasites Lost” set up Fry’s determination to learn the Holophonor, an ambition that would come into play later in the season.
Professor Farnsworth: “Your suits will let you experience Fry’s worm-infested bowels as if you were actually wriggling through them.”
Dr. Zoidberg: “There’s no part of that sentence I didn’t like.”
Why It’s Great: Watching Futurama parody a popular property is always a joy to behold. As indicated by its name, “Fry and the Slurm Factory” takes on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” only instead of “chocolate” we have a disgusting, yet highly addictive soda. The first part of the episode hits all the familiar beats from the Gene Wilder film (including a highly amusing Umpa Lumpa spoof), while the latter half has the Planet Express gang discovering the nefarious operations concerning the Slurm manufacturing as well as the top secret ingredient that makes the drink so delicious. And, yeah, it ain’t pretty.
Leela: “I’ve never seen anyone so addicted to Slurm…”
Fry: “This is nothing. Back in high school, I use to drink 100 cans of cola a week. Right up until my third heart attack.”
Why It’s Great: Brain-swap episodes are a cornerstone of any sci-fi program. It’s a chance to shake things up and have established characters cut loose from their traditional characterizations. “The Prisoner of Benda” takes this notion and, in the words of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, cranks it to 11. The situation starts when Professor Farnsworth and Amy decide to switch bodies as part of a mutually beneficial agreement. Farnsworth will get to relive his youth and Amy will get to pig out on food to her heart’s content. This one swap starts a chain reaction that results in the entire Planet Express crew—even Scruffy’s talking wash bucket—exchanging minds. Needless to say, it makes for some awkward pairings. What’s perhaps more impressive than the ensuing plot mechanics is how the episode’s writer Ken Keeler, who holds a PhD in mathematics, actually created a mathematical theorem to explain the episode’s resolution. For those curious math nerds, you can find information about said theorem here.
Hermes: [as he watches Amy eat in Leela’s body] “Sweet orca of Majorca! You make Fat Albert look like Regular Albert!”
Why It’s Great: Talk about working the long con. It took almost three years into the series run before Leela finally discovered her true origins. Based on a mysterious note left with her as a baby, Leela had always assumed she was from a different world. Finally, due to an industrial accident caused by Bender, Leela travels down to the New New York City’s sewers where she discovers someone has been watching her grow up. Determined to unearth the mystery, Leela ends up locating her long-lost parents. In a Futurama grand tradition of adding a heart-wrenching, emotional codas to the end of special episodes, we see in a montage how Leela’s parents have actually been there for her over the years, watching her grow up from a distance.
Leela: “I’m sorry you had to see that, Fry. Usually I keep my sadness pent up inside where it can fester quietly as a mental illness.”
Fry: “Yeah. That’s what I do with my stupidness.”
Why It’s Great: Starting from the very beginning, the Futurama writers loved to skewer the tenants of corporate greed and Big Business. One of their most hilarious contributions was this episode, which has the Planet Express gang stumbling upon a planet ripe with delicious and seemingly inert animal-life. Bringing a batch back home, the company sells the items (which they dub “Popplers”) to a fast-food chain and Popplers become a hit. When Leela discovers that the Popplers are, in fact, the larvae of the Omicronian race, she quckly attempts to dismantle the food empire she helped create. Featuring one of the most memorable appearances from the alien warlord Lrrr (of the planet Omicron Persei 8), “The Problem with Popplers” remains perhaps one of the most flat-out hilarious episodes that the series has produced thus far.
Professor Farnsworth: [to protesters] “Hey! Unless this is a nude love-in, get the hell off my property!”
Why It’s Great: Due to an ill-conceived mission concocted by Professor Farnsworth, Earth begins sporadically skipping forward in time. The comedic possibilities for such a set-up are endless and the show exploits as many of them as possible to great avail, including a two-minute period that sees Fry and Leela getting married and promptly divorcing. This event leads a despondent Fry on a mission to figure out how he won Leela’s heart in the first place. If that weren’t enough, the show introduces some of its greatest supporting players—a version of the Harlem Globetrotters who are as adept in physics as they are in humiliating rival basketball players.
Leela: “Fry, please try to understand: you’re a man, I’m a woman. We’re just too different.”
Why It’s Great: For the most part, Futurama works as a fairly episodic program. With only a few exceptions, one could watch any episode and get the general gist of the events occurring. Of course, every now and then, the writers will throw in a reference or situation that plays out over the course of several seasons. This proved to be the case for Leela’s adorable (if very hungry) pet, Nibbler. As this episode reveals, the primitive Nibbler is actually a highly advanced, ancient being who works as part of a secret organization to protect the universe. “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” finds Nibbler recruiting both Leela and an oblivious Fry to help fight against an invading species brains (called The Brainspawns) that suck the intelligence out of everyone they come into proximity with them. For reasons the show would explore in later seasons, only Fry is immune to their attacks. This all leads to one of the show’s best set pieces—Fry’s mental duel with the The Brainspawns’ leader across a number of great literary works. Besides being a generally hilarious half-hour, this episode seeded Nibbler as a powerful character whose influence would stretch far and wide across the show’s mythology.
“All glory to the Hypnotoad;
Why It’s Great: Choosing between the two “Anthology of Interest” episodes is next to impossible. Yet, if forced to choose purely on a ratio of laughs to chuckles, “Anthology of Interest II” is the clear winner. “I, Meatbag” envisions what would happen if Bender were to become human. Needless to say, his compulsive behavior and inability to take anything in moderation leads to some of the show’s biggest belly laughs. Similarly, for the fans of old-fashioned video games, “Raiders of the Lost Arcade” is a dream sketch come true, if only for the image of General Colin Pac-Man. “Wizzin’” is perhaps the weakest of the three installments but still manages to get some great laughs for how it subverts the traditional Wizard of Oz tale.
Dr. Zoidberg: [examining an obese Bender] “Pulse: 300. Liver: failing. Cholesterol: 40?”
Leela: “Well, that isn’t too bad.”
Dr. Zoidberg: “No, I mean 40 pounds!”
This week, we say goodbye to the crew of Planet Express by cataloguing some of their greatest adventures.
Why It’s Great: The Futurama crew go to war. Right there is a pitch already ripe for a great episode. To the writers’ credit, the resulting product meets every expectation and then some. With references ranging from Patton to M*A*S*H to Starship Troopers to Stripes to Mulan, this season highlight finds the Futurama creative team firing on all cylinders.
Professor Farnsworth: “Now be careful, Fry. And if you kill anyone, make sure to eat their heart to gain their courage. Their rich, tasty courage…”
Why It’s Great: It’s strange to watch the first few episodes of Futurama. It’s obvious the show has not yet settled on its snappy pacing and some of the voices (most notably Phil LaMarr’s Hermes and Billy West’s Professor Farnsworth) are not quite solidified. Though it’s arguable as to when the series’ first truly great episode was, I always point to “Hell is Other Robots” as the quintessential example of the show’s ambition. Following an after-concert experimentation with electricity, Bender becomes a full-fledged junkie. Though he tries to turn his life around with religion, he eventually succumbs to his old ways and ends up in the clutches of the Robot Devil (Dan Castellaneta, in fine form). Throw in a musical number, the first appearance of Phil LaMarr as Reverend Preacherbot and a fantastic guest spot from The Beastie Boys and you have all the makings of a fan classic. Plus, let’s not forget the a capella version of “Sabotage.” Rest in peace, Adam Yauch.
Leela: “Who would’ve thought that Hell would exist – and that it would be in New Jersey?”
Fry: “Well, actually…”
Why It’s Great: Probably the darkest episode that Futurama ever made, the sheer surreal visual stylings of “The Sting” have made it a somewhat polarizing entry for certain fans. Yet, even the episode’s dissenters would be hard-pressed to criticize the skill and risk-taking that went into this particular story. On a predictably dangerous mission to a bee colony, Fry is impaled by a bee’s stinger and dies. Racked with guilt over how she handled the mission, Leela begins experiencing frightening hallucinations during the day, only to be comforted by visions of Fry in her sleep. Using a jar of potent bee honey as a seditative, Leela must eventually decide if she wants to keep living her miserable life or overdose on the honey and fall asleep forever. Discerning viewers will no doubt predict the twist long before it happens, yet the team behind this episode certainly deserves praise for daring to sacrifice comedy for the sake of telling a compelling story.
Bender: “You’re screwier than my Aunt Rita, and she’s a screw.”
Why It’s Great: A follow-up to the fantastic “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid,” “The Why of Fry” proved to be a game-changer in the Futurama-verse, revealing a previously unforeseen element in Fry’s “accidental” freezing. Indeed, it’s truly incredible how much mythology and story the show’s writers and directors were able to cram into a sparse 21-minute episode. On a date with a hopelessly pompous Mayor’s aide, Leela tasks Fry with walking Nibbler. Dismayed over Leela’s continual rejection of him, Fry is nevertheless blown away when Nibbler reveals his true identity and brings him to the Nibblonian planet. Here, Fry is debriefed on the new activities of the Brains from “Day the Earth Stood Stupid” and how it is now up to him and him alone to stop their reign forever. Such a summary is but the tip of the iceberg. Yet, as with the best Futurama episodes, all the insanity and world-building is anchored by Fry’s emotionally fraught feelings for Leela.
Ken: You are the last hope of the universe.
Fry: So I really am important? How I feel when I’m drunk is correct?
Ken: Yes—except the Dave Matthews Band doesn’t rock.
Why It’s Great:
Futurma marked its return with four made-for-DVD movies released from late 2007 to early 2009. Each film was later re-broadcast as four episode arcs on Comedy Central. The results were a mixed bag, with the majority of the films feeling like little more than a few random episodes with the thinnest of premises connecting them. Bender’s Big Score was the major exception. In a plotline too intricate to properly summarize, Planet Express ends up being taken over by a trio of sleazeball, nudist aliens. Using a sequence of numbers inexplicably welded on Fry’s behind, the aliens order a corrupted Bender to travel back in time and steal valuable items from history. The plot goes in many different directions from here; however, just as you think something is becoming a random tangent, its place in the larger picture soon becomes clear. Indeed, despite all the complications, the episode wraps up beautifully with a highly emotional story that deepens the relationship between Fry and Leela.
Leela: “What’s the secret of time travel doing on Fry’s ass?”
Fry: “It was bound to be somewhere!”
Why It’s Great: Upon its revival in 2010, many feared that Futurama would undergo the same lapse in quality that afflicted a similarly resurrected program like Family Guy. And while the first few episodes proved to be a tad shaky, the series soon justified its return with a string of fantastic episodes. Perhaps the capstone of the season was “The Late Philip J. Fry,” another time-travel story with an emotional bent (you can probably see a pattern here). The episode begins with Fry promising to join Leela for a birthday dinner date—an attempt to make up for his multiple instances of tardiness. In typical Futurama fashion, Fry’s determination to make the dinner on-time goes astronomically wrong when he is forced by Professor Farnsworth and Bender to test out their new time machine. After a predictable mishap, the three end up traveling to the year 10,000 AD. With no way of traveling backwards in time, the trio’s only option is to keep traveling forward in time until they reach a point in history where a backwards time machine has been invented. The episode’s brilliance concerns not only how each time period is creatively conceived and designed but how the writers depict the power and strength of Fry and Leela’s bond. The two’s relationship provides the show with its heart and, in the whole of the series, few stories tested that bond quite like this standout episode.
Professor Farnsworth: “Just slow it down. I’ll just shoot Hitler out the window.
[shoots] Darn! I hit Eleanor Roosevelt by mistake.”
Why It’s Great: As previously mentioned, Futurama is renowned (some might say notorious) for tapping an otherwise hilarious episode with a stinger that is emotionally charged enough to bring a grown man to tears. “The Luck of the Fryrish” stands as one of the prime examples of this tendency. Alternating between various moments of Fry’s childhood as well as his time in the present (i.e. the future), the episode paints a poignant picture of Fry’s complex relationship with his brother Yancy. Perturbed by his recent string of bad luck, Fry decides to seek out the seven-leaf clover that gave him an abundance of good luck in his past life. Finding the clover missing from his hiding spot, Fry becomes convinced that not only did Yancy steal the clover (flashbacks confirm that Yancy was envious of Fry’s luck) but that he used the clover’s powers to achieve great feats in his life (including winning a billion dollars, becoming the first man on Mars and fronting a successful rock band). Only when Fry seeks out Yancy’s grave does he realize the truth is not necessarily what he envisioned. More than any episode that came before it, “Luck of the Fryrish” showed that—beneath the show’s sharp satire and occasional callous humor—it was a program with a huge heart.
Fry: “That clover helped my rat-faced brother steal my dream of going into space. Now I’ll never get there.”
Leela: “You went there this morning for doughnuts.”
Why It’s Great: Oh man, this episode. Hands-down the most infamous in Futurama’s history, the mere mention of the episode’s title is enough to send any fan barreling into a corner to collect themselves. The impetus of the episode concerns Fry finding the remains of his old dog Seymour. When Professor Farnsworth brings up the concept of resurrecting the dog, Fry is on cloud nine. This, naturally, drives Bender into a fit of jealousy and the robot begins hatching plans to sabatoge Fry’s reunion. Simultaneously, we are shown flashbacks to Fry’s life in the late ’90s and how he formed a bond with the dog. According to head writer David X. Cohen, the episode’s devastating ending was polarizing even among the staff, citing that his assistant was “literally mad at me for about a month.” Love it or hate it, one cannot deny that it’s one of the most powerful endings to an TV episode you’re likely to ever see.
Fry: “Wow. They discovered an intact 20th century pizzeria. Just like the one I used to work at.”
Bender: “Interesting. No, wait—the other thing…Tedious.”
Why It’s Great: The fourth season of Futurama would prove to be the show’s last before its cancellation in 2003. Of course, the show would eventually return four years later, but—in the years prior—“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” would serve as the series’ de facto series finale. And what a finale it was. Hoping to capture Leela’s affections through music, Fry has taken to teaching himself the Holophonor, a instrument whose music produces visual projections. Fry being Fry, he’s failing miserably. And so, Fry travels to Robot Hell where he strikes an agreement with the Robot Devil. Shockingly, Fry gets off with a great deal, securing the Robot Devil’s dexterous hands. Not one to be short-changed, the Robot Devil plots to sabtagoce Fry’s happiness as the whole episode culminates in a extravagant, hilariously realized opera parody. Had this truly been the last viewers ever saw of the Planet Express crew, the episode would have been a more-than-fitting conclusion. To this day, the final image of a crudely drawn Fry and Leela walking hand-in-hand into the sunset remains perhaps one of the most heartwarming images in television history.
Professor Farnsworth: [singing] “I can’t believe the devil is so unforgiving.”
Dr. Zoidberg: [singing] “I can’t believe everybody’s just ad-libbing!”
Why It’s Great: A lot gets written (including in this list) about how Futurama manages to balance humor with heart-breaking dramatic situations. Yet, perhaps none of the show’s more emotional content would hit quite as hard if there weren’t hilarious episodes like “Roswell That Ends Well” to work from. The episode is not likely to instigate any tears (unless you count tears of laughter), but what it does do is offer a jam-packed 21-minute summary on everything the show excels at. Hilarious, inventive, boundary-pushing, hilarious, intelligent and geek-friendly (did I mention gut-busting hilarious?) Upon observing an exploding supernova, the Planet Express crew becomes caught up in a time loop that transports them back to 1947 Roswell, New Mexico—the year and location of a long-rumored alien sighting. This being Futurama, it’s not long before everyone finds themselves in hot water. Bender’s body is shattered into pieces, Zoidberg is captured and experimented on by the military and Fry interacts with his future grandparents and subsequently endangers his existence. Many of the show’s writers and creative personnel mark this as one of their favorite episodes of all time. Given the standard by which the Futurama team holds themselves to, that definitely says something about this episode’s merits.
Leela: “Well, settle in. Without a microwave, we’re trapped in this time period.”
Professor Farnsworth: “Oh Lord! We’ll have to endure the horrible music of the Big Bopper and then the terrible tragedy of his death!”