Last season, I divided between the Worst, the Skippable, and the Masterpieces, which I think was a mistake, grouping together the fun-but-slight with the flawed. This time, I’m going to divide between Worst, Flawed, Fun, and Masterpiece. There’s not much to say that I didn’t cover in Season Six’s intro, so let’s just jump right into it.
“So far I have learned nothing, but that may be my fault as much as yours.”
“Goodbye, cruel me!”
It was hard coming back to review this season, because it opens with the single worst episode of Futurama I’ve ever had to endure. Look, I’m not someone who gets quote-unquote offended by things much, even things that actually directly affect my personal feelings. Most of the time, my noting of problematic aspects of media is more academic than anything – ‘this joke runs under the assumption that all gay men are camp’, that sort of thing. When Futurama has delved into problematic material, it’s usually something I can just roll my eyes at and move on from, and sometimes it crosses into hilarious absurdity (“She’s become a slave to her emotions! Just like all women. Especially you, Leela.”). But when it’s made the centre of the plot, it makes for aggravating viewing.
It begins with battle-of-the-sexes crap that I got sick of long before I ever heard of the word ‘problematic’, and like most of Futurama‘s jokes in that vein it has to bend the characters slightly to do it; when the Always Sunny Gang start shitting on Dee, it makes sense because they’re always shitting on Dee, and the sexism in Mad Men is always tied into the character delivering it; Don and Roger are both pretty terrible to their partners, but Don wouldn’t say “I’m so glad I got to roam those hillsides”. Futurama leans so hard on “the men are openly and crudely sexist, the women roll their eyes and/or punch them” across every character that I eventually have to ask if the men working on this show genuinely hate women.
It uses that as the foundation for something even worse, when the crew (plus a bunch of background characters filling out what’s a pretty dude-heavy main cast) crash on a planet with a rock alien, who first removes their genitals, then accidentally gives them the wrong ones back. Futurama at its best either amplifies an ordinary feeling by injecting a scifi concept, or dragging a scifi concept down into the mud with the rest of us, and the rock alien is a pretty fantastic example of the latter, having all the gravitas of the all-powerful alien teaching simple humans a lesson and a typically Futurama half-assed attitude towards the whole thing.
The gender shit is an attempt at the former, and it puts into perspective what’s needed for it to work. I can believe in despair, so I can believe in chronitons destablising time; I can believe in guilt, so I can believe in space honey; I don’t believe my penis dictates my attitude towards women, and so all conflict ending when genitals are removed isn’t so much absurd as it is just brainless. Like some far smarter and funnier show said, it just raises further questions – do you think transgender people who undergo surgery end up changing personalities? Do you think same-sex relationships are completely conflict-free? What about intersex people, how do they figure into this? Half-assing scifi tropes is hilarious – that’s the very basis of “Roswell That Ends Well”, one of the greatest Futurama episodes – but halfassing this shit is just boring and unpleasant.
“You can’t even keep up with me, and I’m some kind of Stone Age throwback.”
“Maybe I’m having some kind of… Early-life crisis, but don’t you ever wonder about the future?”
“Sure, but you’re always in it. Also, sometimes Terminators.”
This has a great scifi premise and a great emotional one, as Leela decides to confront the differing ambitions of herself and Fry while Bender discovers the concept of overclocking. Since the show came back, the duo’s relationship has been on-again, off-again, and this episode functions pretty well as a definitive ‘yeah, they’re together’ closer to that, and Bender’s increased brilliance gives way to some awesome Rube Goldberg scheming. It’s let down by the weak ending, in which Bender’s godlike powers let him, um, make up a bullshit court case to save Farnsworth and Cubert.
“Ghost In The Machines”
“Everyone, put on your taking-off caps!”
“That’s the closest thing to ‘Bender is great’ that anyone besides me has ever said!”
A fairly straightforward Futurama spin on the classic Poltergeist-style plot, as Bender becomes a ghost through some convoluted technobabble. The main non-comic appeal is that it makes Bender and Fry’s friendship into, if not NOT an idiot enabling a sociopath, at least a really good, heartwarming spin on it.
“Law And Oracle”
“And even then, only if we can’t bring them back as a zombie, like Scruffy.”
“Life and death are a seamless continuum. Mmm-hmm.”
“And Smitty was just a few days from retirement.”
“He took an early retirement. Damn.”
Again, pretty straightforward, this time as a spin on the ‘character gets a job’ sitcom staple; it’s an effective spin, making sure to reach wide with the parodies, from Police Academy to Minority Report. It also has a great B-story riffing on Fry’s role in the story.
“The Silence Of The Clamps”
“Donbot, please! I’ll pay you back as soon as you lend me more money!”
“I’m scared and great at sex!”
In reverse to “Overclockwise”, this is a fun-but-nothing special opening two acts with a great finisher. Bender witnesses a mob hit and has to go into witness protection, with us watching Clamps from the Robot Mafia infiltrate the Planet Express crew – Clamps is always good for a cheap laugh (“No, Clamps. No clamps.”), but it’s only when Zoidberg has a completely ridiculous reason to step up that we get something truly nuts.
“All The President’s Heads”
“The yeas have it. Our nation’s official joke state shall be New Jersey.”
“Has anyone seen Ulysses Grant? He owes me a couple of beers.”
“He’s over there, puking in the Bushes.”
This is a fun little time travel adventure story with many great “hey, it’s 1776!” jokes and the strangest method of time travel that could only exist in Futurama‘s world. Other than that, there’s not much to it.
“Zoidberg was popular?”
“Zoidberg had hair?!”
“I never said he had hair! If you chose to imagine him that way, that’s your business.”
“Relax, friends. PANIC, JERKS!”
The spectacular visuals and imagination of this Moby Dick parody don’t quite overcome that the emotions involve giving Leela a random personality flaw to overcome. The absurdist running gag of Zoidberg’s hair is one of the funniest Futurama jokes ever written, though.
“Fry Am The Egg Man”
“You’re not my breakfast friends! What are you doing here?”
“Mr Peppy attacked me. Quick, count my bones! There should be 206 of them!”
Fry ends up adopting a weird alien monster, which takes us into a straightfaced Scooby Doo mystery. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, it just doesn’t stick in the mind much.
“The search for knowledge is hopeless and eternal. Hooray!”
“You and I are enemies now.”
Last season I complained that the three-concept episode was severely undercooked; this season’s take is much better, parodying three styles of animation – Steamboat Willie-era Disney (expanding a short joke from one of the movies, and presumably inspiring the whole concept), video games, and anime. I include this here because while it’s always funny, the anime section parodies the 80s era of anime, which is a) just done to death and b) frustrating when you came into anime in the 00’s and know there’s a whole new bunch of stuff ripe to parody. What’s interesting, though, is how all three are tied together by a Diamondillium comet, almost but not quite putting them in the same continuity.
“Razza frazza, two things. Ooh, razza frazza duplicator.”
“Robot, experience this tragic irony for me!”
Where the other plots riffing on a standard scifi concept never rise above rote, no matter how funny they get, this one is actually genuinely fun on its own, and it achieves that by giving said concept – the grey goo scenario – the personality of its own drunken robot, Bender, so we get situations like the Bender units converting all the water in the world to alcohol; this episode is on the level of classic run episodes like “A Big Piece Of Garbage”. Having Patton Oswalt guest star as a self-aware giant ugly nerd with a temper problem means the whole thing can climax in a frigging kaiju fight, too.
“Yo Leela Leela”
“I feel so lucky to be nominated next to so many inferior shows.”
“And poo-poo and pee-pee and penis and gay, those are the ninety-eight words we don’t say!”
To me, Leela is never funnier than when her moral authority is being subverted – one of my all-time favourite lines by her is “You’re vegetarians, who cares what you do?” – and it’s always great when an episode makes a genuine plot out of her being caught between lazy crassness and her sense of morality; the climax of this, where to her great distress she’s celebrated for her own moral failure, really puts the ‘pathetic’ in ‘sympathetic’. It’s also got a fantastic moment of creativity, where the alien creatures she steals her kids show from genuinely look and sound like they came from some show for toddlers without explicitly referencing any particular work.
“The Tip Of The Zoidberg”
“Oh, Zoidberg, we’ve known each other so long, we don’t even need words to understand each other.”
“Zoidberg doesn’t abandon a friend, apparently!”
Much like last season, this is another attempt to pair up two random characters, and it even repeats the attempt to give two characters a history like “Lethal Inspection”, but this is much more effective, focusing on Zoidberg and Farnsworth and explaining exactly why the incompetent doctor has been working for him so long. Even if the sight of Zoidberg being on a first-name basis with Mom wasn’t hilarious (“Beautiful kids, you must be very proud.”), this works because it actually makes sense with everything we know about all the characters involved. It also has the absurd image of Zoidberg somehow making Bender incontinent.
“To this day, I can’t stand the taste of early hominid.”
“He consented! You all heard it!”
Apparently there was something in the water, because the writers were preoccupied with an alternating flashback structure; this alternates between Fry unleashing a plague with the common cold and Fry’s relationship with his dad as a child. I always love when the show jumps back to the present-ish, because while they never stop with the gags, there’s a genuine effort to tone down the wackiness, creating a grim grittiness beyond even what The Simpsons normally goes for. The episode even ends with a sincere emotional expression between Fry and his father.