One of the original promises of Futurama was that it would be like a version of The Simpsons that could literally go anywhere and do anything. It wasn’t set on a canvas as small as simply space; the entirety of science fiction, from alternate dimensions to time travel, was fair game for its stories. The show’s best episodes tend to take its cast into these various new realms and ideas. It was only in Futurama’s second revival that the show started feeling somewhat limited, and although it’s never quit featuring the occasional mind-blowing concept, they’ve been fewer and farther between more standard pop culture parodies set in space.
The thing is, we don’t even need to see a crazy concept every week to keep Futurama interesting. Like any other sitcom, the main thing it needs to avoid is repetition; it’s simply that its options should make this an easier feat to accomplish. An expedition to the center of the sun isn’t particularly stunning, but it’s enough to start an odd adventure in “The Inhuman Torch,” which focuses around the Planet Express crew becoming a firefighting team following early success saving helium miners from the sun. It’s not far removed from a “Homer starts a new profession” story, but the real surprise, as ever, is that Bender is good at something that actually helps other people. Not only that, while he certainly appreciates the rewards his new talent gives him, he also genuinely enjoys saving the lives. It’s as much a surprise to Bender as it is to anyone else.
That’s why the episode’s twist, that he may be the one setting the fires he helps to put out, is enjoyable, despite its somewhat predictable nature. By now Futurama can assume that everyone who watches the show knows its characters, and Bender setting those fires is, as noted by the cast, only to be expected. But the far more enjoyable answer is that an alien space being with an insane yet hilarious motivation is the real culprit, and as ridiculous as that idea is, Futurama completely runs with it. This is truly the realm of the unexpected, and with this the show heads off in a wonderful direction all the way until the end.
Best of all, novelty of “The Inhuman Torch” comes from within the characters as much as it does the world. I do really love when Futurama pushes its own boundaries, but realistically even a great writing staff can only do that a few times a season and for the most part they need to stick with a normal format, if for no other reason than the show’s budget. But Bender’s always at his best when he’s not just a walking punchline, when he’s behaving like a three-dimensional person, and this was no different. Bender didn’t tell the same joke we’ve heard a thousand times before, or at least when he did, it was done in a new way. Sadly, that hasn’t always been the case.
The seemingly sudden discovery in this last half-season of Futurama has been that the show needs to surprise its audience again. This has taken it out of a pretty deep rut, and as a result every episode has been funnier than most of what we’ve seen in almost a decade. It’s not that the show has necessarily changed, either, but rather that its writers seem to have realized that ideally the show doesn’t have a set format week to week, that every episode should be strange and unlike what we’ve seen before. “The Inhuman Torch” isn’t mind-blowing, and it isn’t deep emotionally, but it’s strong all the same for taking the show and its characters on a completely new adventure. In this, it’s like an episode from those first seasons, and I couldn’t be happier that I have no idea what to expect at the same time-slot next week.