If Netflix has taught us anything, and it’s really only taught us one thing, it’s that TV writers absolutely require the restrictions forced by the medium; Netflix’s original serial content is always, always flabby and ill-disciplined. The move to Comedy Central meant that Futurama still had some kind of discipline enforced on it in the form of a time limit, but I get the sense that they were given little-to-no editorial oversight – that the CC executives were fans of the show who basically let them do what they wanted. I believe this because the CC years of Futurama were horribly inconsistent, producing deliriously high highs with incredibly low lows (as well as a buttload of naked or near-naked women – I’m pretty sure I spotted at least one per episode). With no grownups in the room, sometimes the crew were free to explore deep emotional, intellectual, and sexual positions that the Man at Fox would never have allowed, sometimes they proved themselves able to deliver a solid episode, and sometimes they had a raging kegger that wrecked the place and totally destroyed any chance of getting the deposit back. For those of you that never bothered with the show in the first place after the movies, I aim to lay out which are essential viewing, which are recommended but not required, and which must be thrown in a hole, never to be seen again.
“Attack Of The Killer App”.
Quite aside from the humour that judders between gross-out and meanspirited in ways the show doesn’t normally go for (the Susan Boyle jokes in particular seem like the kind of thing I fucking hate South Park for), it doesn’t have a premise so much as a collection of ideas that were so relevant to 2009, they stopped being relevant by the time the episode aired in 2010. Of course, it’s also the episode with “shut up and take my money!”.
This episode has a premise, but that premise requires throwing out a central relationship of the show for exactly the length of the episode before fixing it in the most halfassed way possible, making the episode as a whole feel throwaway. This is made worse by the fact that the premise parodies marriage equality via robot/human relationships, a taboo that was never brought up before, will never be brought up again. I know “science fiction concept as metaphor for bigotry” is a trope as old as time, but making the metaphor so 1:1 is a personal bugbear of mine. Granted, Futurama avoids the “dangerous superpowered people are equal to oppressed minorities” thing, but the episode doesn’t actually do anything interesting or original with the concept (aside from just jumping to “ghost and horse marriage”).
“Why is – those things?”
“She’s not responding to my poking stick!”
“Poke harder, damn it!”
“I’m poking as hard as I can!”
The first episode back really sets the tone for the whole season – after resolving the massive change in status quo by completely reversing it, we delve into a truly ridiculous scifi story of duplicate robots and stem cell cloning; the nude characters, off-the-wall plot devices, and sleek, detailed animation conveying a manic energy the show never had on Fox. Underneath it is the crackling new set of sparks between Fry and Leela; their kiss in the final minute of “Into The Wild Green Yonder” can’t be walked back, but we’re not ready to dive into a full-on relationship yet. That awkward naturalism in a show that normally goes for posed awkward naturalism is extremely refreshing, and makes their relationship feel more real. That said, the slightly off pacing and not quite landing of the premise are part-and-parcel of the aggressive no-fucks-given weirdness.
“I’ll be in the Chamber of Understanding.”
“I haven’t felt much of anything since my guinea pig died.”
That no-fucks-given weirdness is amplified for this episode, in which Leela and Zapp Brannigan end up pulling a Garden of Eden together while the crew are dealing with an oncoming death star. At the heart of Futurama‘s success is the way it melds typical twenty-something social problems with ridiculous scifi nonsense; this combines Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘s premise with both Zapp’s manipulative playboy routine, and the general censorship issues of mainstream television, and it climaxes (sorry) with Leela cheerfully fucking a terrified Zapp in front of a giant perverted AI telescope. Most of these episodes are filed under Skippable not because they’re bad, but because they hit the basic needs of a Futurama episode without hitting anything profound. This is here because both premise and execution are so weird and to no other purpose than shits and giggles; even if I did grade episodes, I can’t here. You just have to see it for yourself.
“The Duh-Vinci Code”
“I may not be clever, but I have a good heart. That’s what my mom used to say.”
“She was a wise woman.”
“Also, that I’m not much to look at.”
“A wise woman indeed.”
Of all the episodes of this season, this is the one that feels most like classic Futurama with a shiny new coat of HD animation. You aren’t required to have read The Da Vinci Code to understand the episode (though there are a few specific references sprinkled throughout); it’s a jumping off point for jokes about this very specific world and very specific set of characters (my favourite: Bender attaching a string to the big coin he’s given).
“I can’t run anymore! I’ll have to skip!”
“Mom called off the attack, but I don’t see how it’s her – ”
“Someone said Howitzer!”
There’s a tendency this season to pair up random characters who never hang out, and this works as a Bender/Hermes episode (with great one-liners and Bender’s Mexican heritage) and as an exploration of mortality, but the ending makes no god damned sense and relies upon magically making up a connection – at no point has Hermes ever shown any interest in Bender, so the ending completely falls flat. But that line up top is the Futurama line that has made me laugh the hardest.
“That Darn Katz!”
“The horse says DOCTORATE DENIED.”
“My best friend died in that uniform.”
Where “Lethal Inspection” paired Bender and Hermes, this one aims to put Amy and Nibbler at the centre. Having Amy actually care about being a grad student is kind of random, but turning Nibbler into a protagonist ends up working really well. I’m sure the academia parodies are great to people who work in academia, but my college drop-out brain reacted better to the quotes I provided.
“A Clockwork Origin”
“I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
“Objection! In the absence of pants, defense’s suspenders serve no purpose!”
An adequate satire of the evolution debate as a jumping off point for ridiculous scifi nonsense. It also has Professor Farnsworth at his crustiest.
“Woo! I got fruit boobs!”
“I built this castle with my own two slaves!”
Generally, the show’s take on gender roles is never great, but applying stereotypical Man roles to Lrr, Ruler Of Omicron Persei Eight is apparently the exact way to spice them up and make them funny again; his boorish manishness ends up being an unstable element that shakes up both Bender and Leela’s characters a bit. Also, we have Maurice LaMarche playing Orson Welles, which is always enough to send me to fits of giggles.
“The Mutants Are Revolting”
“One does not explode in Mrs Astor’s face.”
“Well, they’re with the C.H.U.D.s now.”
Notable for two reasons: it’s the second time the show has taken on the Titanic, just in case you think it’s still too soon, and it’s a permanent shakeup of the show’s universe. Unlike “Proposition Infinity”, mutant prejudice isn’t a stand-in for any specific prejudice, and it’s a more worn-in part of the show’s mythology, so it means something when it’s taken on and it means something when the mutants win, moreso because it’s the next step in Fry and Leela’s relationship.
“What’s wrong, Fry? Do you regret another wasted year?”
“You know, Santa may have killed Scruffy, but he has a good point.”
The three-story episodes live and die on their premises, and sadly, despite the good jokes, this episode doesn’t really manage to spin premises out of the three holidays.
“The Late Philip J Fry”
“I made it, Leela. Sorry I’m a billion years late.”
“And… here we are! The end of the universe!”
If Futurama gives us both ordinary emotions and scifi weirdness, this episode is a rare case of inspiring awe in both aspects. One of the things that defines both Futurama and The Simpsons is taking a genuine pleasure in knowing things; the more you know and greater variety of topics you know, the more jokes on the shows you’ll get. Futurama‘s viewpoint seemed even more bleak than The Simpsons, though, owing to the fact that the Simpsons have their family to fall back on; whatever happens to Homer, he’ll always end every episode snuggling with Marge. Fry, Leela, and Bender have no such safety net. It’s just them and a big empty universe, and speaking as a burned-out single ex-gifted-child Millenial, it’s a source of comfort to see both that particular anxiety and that awe for knowledge onscreen; both come together as we cheerfully watch the end of the universe with a cold one. And then it’s really funny to have that awe subverted when they botch the landing and have to do it over again.
But it’s also an important step in the Fry/Leela relationship. Speaking of The Simpsons, here it feels like they evolve into a prequel of Homer and Marge’s marriage; what alt-Leela recognises is that underneath Fry’s ditziness is a warm, devoted heart. He might not get the details of every-day life right, but you’ll always go home to someone who cares about you, and we see the pleasures of that, and the loss of not having it, through Leela.
“The Prisoner Of Benda”
“It’s gonna require split-second robotic timing. That’s where I come in. You see, I own a watch.”
“I’m afraid we need to use… math.”
After the emotional depths of “The Late Philip J Fry”, we get gonzo scifi comedy with this. The episode’s closest cousin in the show is “300 Big Boys”, because it’s what I like to call a bonsai plot – a story composed of about a dozen tiny ones, all interconnected; in this case, it’s via the Professor’s body-swapping machine, and this episode amplifies the cliche to the point that the writer had to invent a new equation in order to fix the plot by the end. It’s an absurdist plot that jumps from parodies of emotion that turn strangely real (Scruffy and Washbucket’s forbidden love) and real emotions that turn into parodies (Fry and Leela argue over whether or not they’re superficial, only to have the first fuck happen with Zoidberg and Farnsworth’s bodies). It’s an extraordinary episode and an all-time best.