Good news, everyone! Futurama is back on the, well, not the air exactly, but back to televising new episodes. Not that this should surprise anyone at this point, since the return offered more publicity than the show has ever received in the past, but it’s still a blessing and—if you haven’t figured it out by now—I’ll be covering it weekly.
So first let’s catch up with where the show’s been before and get that housekeeping out of the way. First off, I’ve been an unabashed lover of Futurama ever since it first broadcast in 1999. I was immediately hooked, and with the concurrent (and sadly related) decline of the Simpsons it quickly became my favorite TV show pretty much ever. Due to its sci-fi trappings Futurama is able to keep from hitting the doldrums of other comedy shows because it truly has no limits. The show’s gone back in time, visited other universes, dealt with clones, hostile robot and alien takeovers, etc. etc. etc. Through its first four (or, if you’re a Fox executive, five) seasons there wasn’t a single episode I wasn’t fond of, and its last two seasons hit some particularly high points with “Jurassic Bark,” “Amazon Women in the Mood,” “Roswell That Ends Well,” “Time Keeps on Slipping,” “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” and the sublime “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings.” All of these I count among the best TV ever made, frequently for very different reasons.
When the show returned for the first time, though, like most fans my feelings were mixed. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have Futurama back at all. Sure, the comics have always been out there, but not only do they lack the show’s gorgeous animation and one of the best voice-acting casts ever assembled, they’re also usually just not that good. The odd thing about the DVD movies was that while they had by far the best animation the show ever saw (and the later two were released in HD), their writing staff was cut in half and even that was only composed of people who happened to be available. Many of the show’s most talented writers, including Ron Weiner (Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Newsradio), Bill Odenkirk (The Simpsons, Tenacious D, and yes the brother of Bob Odenkirk), J. Stewart Burns (The Simpsons), and Bill Oakley/Josh Weinstein (Simpsons showrunners seasons 7-8 and Mission Hill creators), were gone. Not only that, but the remaining skeleton crew was given the insanely difficult task of making four 90 minute movies that could also be chopped up into four 22-minute TV episodes.
I hesitate to say that they weren’t up to the task because clearly the DVD movies are out there and they’re not terrible. In fact, much of the latest “season” was a success. “Bender’s Big Score” was pretty good and recaptured the spirit of the series while also giving off an ample amount of fan service. Its follow-up “The Beast With a Billion Backs” was truly astounding, going places I’ve never seen any TV show explore. Both of these had some odd plotting due to the constraints of their unique form, but were still a welcome addition to the show. It’s only with the third movie, “Bender’s Game”, that things began to really fall flat, the entire second half of which being a rather limp Lord of the Rings parody with phoned in jokes and no real reason for existing. Those two episodes are the only ones that I would truly call bad, and while the show ended on a higher note with the fourth movie, it couldn’t quite wash that disappointment out. The movies were especially successful when you consider their high sales and the second rebirth of the series, but this came at the expense of consistency. One bad, two pretty good and one very good episode is normally not that bad a batting average for a show, but Futurama in its heyday was hitting episodes out of the park every week.
So finally we come to the current show and are left with the question of where things will pick up from. On the plus side, Futurama is back to the 22-minute bursts it comes best in, and the writer’s room has been shored up a bit (even outsourced episodes were commissioned from the show’s ex-writers). But it’s also been a long time since the last real episode aired in 2003 (which itself was delayed nearly a year). The show’s return is a blessing, but I bet there are few Simpsons fans who don’t wish the show had ended on a high note a decade ago—if Futurama’s quality drops it’ll be a case of adding insult to injury for the fans who have been passionately following it for the past decade.
The last moments of the final DVD movie had our intrepid Planet Express Crew heading into a wormhole of obviously metaphorical proportions. The episode doesn’t begin with that exactly, instead kicking off with fan-favorite Hypnotoad; soon enough we’re told what happened to the crew that resulted in their near-deaths, an image of which was teased several months ago to drum up support for the show. The crew made it through the wormhole just fine, but unfortunately crash landed moments later, and then their already-destroyed remains get crushed by Zap’s cruiser. The only survivor was Farnsworth, who protected himself with a forcefield and then took it upon himself to regrow everyone else from their skeletons with a vat of stem cells.
The cells work for the most part, but two problems occur: Leela is left in a coma for some sort of unexplained reason and Bender needs energy. He’s supplied with this courtesy of the Professor’s old standby, a sphere-o-boom doomsday device, but he’s so overloaded with power that if he stops dancing he’ll destroy not only himself but everyone around him. Leela seems unlikely to make it out of the coma, but Fry’s still in distress so he makes a robot Leela, who falls in love with him.
All seems fine and dandy, with the robot an extremely good approximation of Leela, but when the crew goes off to dispose of Leela’s body the way she wished, being fed to a cyclops-eating monster, she wakes up. While at first not too irritated by the robot, she wants to be with Fry herself, which causes a fight with her robot self that’s only solved when Fry accidentally shoots himself (after all, “perfectly symmetrical fighting never solved anything”). At this point we learn that Fry’s also a robot and Leela had actually done exactly what Fry did and made a duplicate due to her loneliness. The robots pair off and then moments before something potentially romantic happens between Fry and Leela, Bender decides he’s sick of dancing, at which point the cyclops-eating alien monster returns and gets exploded by Bender, making everything return to normal.
The main issue with “Rebirth” is one of repetition. Bender’s need to continue partying, i.e. dancing, was seen previously with Slurms MacKenzie, and while it’s certainly funny it’s pretty much the same gag. Leela’s inability to stop screaming was also something we saw from Groening before, with a similar gag appearing in the Simpsons. Even the robot duplicates were reminiscent of the Lucy Liu episode and the Parabox. It’s not the biggest deal but shows a bit more laziness than the show used to have.
Those complaints aside, it was a damn funny episode that certainly fit in with the usual spirit of the series. Everyone was acting the way they should and the pieces fit together like clockwork. Not only that, but as usual with the best of Futurama the science fiction wasn’t superfluous, it was mostly there to explore the characters’ takes on their insane situations. The show’s return wasn’t a resounding success, but its pacing was as perfect as ever. If it wasn’t the most original 22-minutes the show’s ever done, it was definitely up there with the tightest as far as sheer joke-telling goes.
Still, the first episode was bound to be rough, having to tie up loose ends from the movies, and it may take a little time for the show to kick all of its rust off. It’s a start that bodes well for the series despite what’s offered by the second episode—not so coincidentally also aired last night—which was a bit more of a letdown.
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” returns to the normal set-up for Futurama episodes, and if that doesn’t show any particular growth for the series then oh well, that’s just how Groening likes to do things. There’s evidence that Fry and Leela are closer to each other than before, shown by the little peck before Leela heads off on her semi-suicidal mission with Brannigan, but that’s about it.
But while we’re still not jumping into those waters quite yet, what we do have is a largely by-the-numbers episode of Futurama, where there’s a huge menacing threat headed towards earth and only the cast can save us; this time in the form of a censorship death star. Leela and Brannigan head off in an invisible fighter plane to blow it up, but they soon fail and find themselves on a Garden of Eden-esque planet where Brannigan concocts an elaborate scheme to get her to have sex with him. Meanwhile, everyone else realizes they’re doomed and decides to warn the world that if they don’t get more acceptable to the censorship death star they’ll be destroyed. They eventually wander into the Biblical pair right before they’re forced to consummate their facade for the death star’s pleasure.
It’s an odd episode that once again felt less than noteworthy, because this certainly isn’t the first time the gang’s been thrown up against an evil force coming to threaten the world (it’s an event that occurs once or twice a season) and the whole censorship thing was less exciting than pollution or malevolent aliens or whatever else. While that was clearly a maguffin used to get Brannigan and Leela back together, which was quite entertaining to watch, it was still pretty weak and the entire episode suffered for it.
Of the two episodes we’ve been shown so far, the primary flaw from each is that they seem to be simply repackaging some old Futurama tropes and putting some new jokes around them. The jokes themselves are excellent, and their variety is laudable, but it’s still nothing we haven’t seen before. And that’s a pity because Futurama is a show that never needs to rest on repetition—unlike pretty much anything else it really has no limits. I enjoyed both episodes, especially “Rebirth,” but it hasn’t yet returned to its previous level of excellence.
- Fry’s hair callback is pretty amusing.
“Fire all weapons and open a hailing frequency for my victory yodel.”
- Kiff’s sigh-yodel is a wonderful little detail
“Yes, it’s sort of a … comedy central channel.” Pause. “I get it!”
“Right here behind this horror cloth.”
“Besides, these are adult stem cells, harvested from perfectly healthy adults whom I killed for their stem cells.”
“Come on stem cells, work you astounding scientific nonsense.”
“I need mouth-to-ass resuscitation … I die happy knowing you fell for that.”
“Hey speaking of splattered bowels, can I cook you a romantic dinner tonight, Leela?”
“Something’s wrong, she’s not responding to my poking stick.”
“Coma coma coma coma coma chameleon”
- Rather love Leela’s sleeping beauty coffin.
- The un-coma-ing machine, or whatever you want to call it, is a triumph of modern science.
“Why does everything I date always run away?”
“My love is stronger than the vast majority of explosions.”
“Why did their voices change?” “That’s the one thing we’ll never truly understand.”
- As good as the Hypnotoad’s return was, old timey Futurama is always a welcome presence. I honestly would’ve preferred an entire episode of Zap’s dream-show than the show they were embedded in.
“The long dramatic corridor—that’s never a good sign.”
“What a thoughtful and considerate thing for you to say! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
- The two prongs of hedonism: orgies and Parcheesi tournaments.
“Guess who just killed a woodchuck with his bare feet?”
“We’ll write our own bible, with less Sodom and more Gomorrah.”