Explore the wild world of Futurama in just 10 episodes

Explore the wild world of Futurama in just 10 episodes

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Futurama is a very good show that had the mixed fortune to be born in the shadow of a great one: The Simpsons. Once Fox executives realized, at some point in the mid-’90s, that The Simpsons wasn’t some passing fad but the network’s flagship program—network executives are often very slow to realize things—they urged Matt Groening to whip them up another cash cow. He was their boy, they assured him, and they were open to anything he wanted to do. Groening, with an endearingly sure instinct for how to cause network executives to immediately lose interest, decided that he’d like to play around with a genre that had traditionally been especially despised by TV programmers: science fiction. Groening sketched out a rough concept and, in 1997, approached David X. Cohen, a Harvard-educated Simpsons writer who had been described to him as a “science geek,” about helping him to flesh out his ideas. 

Groening and Cohen, who would wind up as Futurama’s head writer and executive producer as well as its co-creator, spent a year “researching” the genre, which must have been fun, before pitching the show to the network, which definitely wasn’t. Actually, pitching it was the fun part. In a 1999 interview with Mother Jones, Groening recalled a three-hour meeting he and Cohen had with Fox: 

“…they jumped up and down and ordered 13 episodes on the spot. And then, that’s when the honeymoon was over, after that. The second they ordered it, they completely freaked out and were afraid the show was too dark and mean-spirited, and thought they had made a huge mistake and that the only way they could address their anxieties was to try and make me as crazy as possible with their frustrations.” 

Which translates roughly as, “We love the show you say you want to make, but does it really have to have suicide booths and an alcoholic kleptomaniac robot?”

Groening had assumed that Fox would trust his instincts and give him some creative leeway because trusting him had worked so well for them on The Simpsons. What he failed to take into account was that so much had changed in the 10 years between the debuts of his two shows. Once upon a time, Fox had been a scrappy upstart that had nothing to lose in taking a chance on an alternative cartoonist who’d lucked into a lucrative side gig doing ratty-looking filler animation for The Tracey Ullman Show. Now, thanks to the daring demonstrated by their predecessors, Fox was run by people who had the usual network suit’s reaction to anything that looked a little out of the ordinary: whimpering, knock-kneed terror. It was during this period that buying shows by people who had once created hits for Fox and other new networks—shows such as Chris Carter’s Harsh Realm and The Lone Gunmen and Joss Whedon’s Firefly—and then panicking and hustling those shows toward the egress became something of a cornerstone of Fox’s programming strategy. 

At least the Groening connection kept the show alive in development and made sure it got on the air. In fact, it helped to ensure that its première would be acclaimed as an event. 1999 is now best remembered by TV freaks as the year that Tony Soprano snapped his first neck on HBO, but it was Bender whose shiny metal face adorned the cover of SPIN, in an issue that hit newsstands around the time the series premièred. In the accompanying article, writer Zev Borow speculated that “only this summer’s impending Star Wars supernova”—i.e., The Phantom Menace—“surpasses it as far as eager anticipation and ready-to-be-anointed iconic status are conveyed.” Famous last words, anyone?

On March 28, 1999, viewers were introduced to Philip J. Fry (Billy West), an emblematic twentysomething slacker who, spending millennial New Year’s Eve working as a pizza delivery boy, was accidentally cryogenically frozen. Fry, having slept through a couple of alien attacks and the rebuilding of civilization, wakes up in New New York, at the dawn of the year 3000. Zev Borow wrote, “More than any one character, the biggest star of Futurama is likely to be Groening’s vision of the future itself.” It’s a vision that’s composed, in equal parts, of satirical nostalgia for the old sci-fi books and comics and movies and TV shows that Groening and Cohen gorged themselves on while doing their research and an anarchistic punk’s fantasy of how we live now, only much, much worse. When Fry finds himself in the future, he’s understandably discombobulated but doesn’t waste a second mourning the life he’s lost. That life was pretty shitty, and he felt locked into it. Now that he’s an unfettered resident of a brave new world, he imagines that he’ll be able to take charge of a life with limitless possibilities.

But—and here’s where Futurama reveals that its goofy grin is composed of razor blades, and where some Debbie Downers, looking at it 14 years after the première, might even say that its satire is eerily prescient—it turns out that new breakthroughs in technology, combined with the accumulation of wealth at the top, have only made things tougher for those at the base of the pyramid. Fry meets Leela (Katey Sagel, using her voice to suggest a kitten that wants petting, crossed with an especially competent and reassuring tax attorney), the purple-haired, one-eyed love of his life, when she introduces herself as the counselor whose job is to re-introduce him to society by scientifically determining his ideal career. It turns out that the computer’s determination is that he’s meant to be a delivery boy, and Fry himself doesn’t get a vote. Fry makes a break for it, and by the end of the episode has teamed up with the dissatisfied Leela and his new reprobate robot buddy Bender (prodigiously voiced by John DiMaggio) to form an outlaw interplanetary delivery service with his only surviving relative, the ancient Professor Farnsworth. Fry is still a delivery boy, but he can tell himself that he’s a delivery boy on his own terms. That’s as happy an ending as this show is likely to give.

The series hit the air with a confident swagger and bounce that lingered long past the point that it became clear the network had no faith in it. The first sign of that lack of faith came when Fox moved it to Tuesday nights rather than take Groening’s suggestion that the network go the obvious route of running it after The Simpsons. Midway through the second season, Fox scheduled Futurama at the top of its Sunday evening lineup, meaning it got pushed back or pre-empted whenever the football game ran long, which was usually. Animated shows are famously time-consuming to produce, but by the end of its run on Fox, the series had an entire season ready to go in advance, consisting of episodes that had been made for previous seasons but never made it to air. Fox never even officially canceled the show; it just stopped bothering to order new episodes while burning its way through the vast stockpile it had allowed to build up. 

Fans of the show are probably familiar with the mostly happy story of its post-Fox existence: A partnership with Comedy Central led to four direct-to-DVD movies, which, broken into chunks, were turned into a fifth season, and then two more full seasons. The show has survived, but it’s proved to be a cherished cult item, rather than a cultural juggernaut like The Simpsons. And now, its second series finale—this one with more fanfare—will air September 4.

Leaving aside the element of self-fulfilling prophecy in its failure on Fox, why has Futurama had such a rough time of it? If it’s true that “the real star” of Futurama is its vision of the future, one reason may be that Fry isn’t really up to the task himself. At his most inspiring, he has a childlike excitement over the wonders of the year 3000 that shames the other, jaded characters. And although his bromance with Bender has its touching moments, his mostly one-sided love affair with Leela is a little too delusional for the audience to root for; she really is out of his league. (It’s Leela who’s actually liberated and transformed in the course of the series; whatever the computer thinks, she was clearly meant to be a space-age woman warrior in the Ripley manner, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, kick-boxing her enemies, and showing off her steely resolve while working the controls of a spaceship.) 

Fry’s lonely everyguy quality is a soft spot at the center of the show, making it more of a joke machine and throwing emphasis on the nature of the show’s humor, which, in the words of Frank Lovece, is in the “distinctly rueful” Jewish tradition, compared to the more hopeful “American-Irish vaudeville humor” that he detects in The Simpsons. Lovece also quotes cartoon historian Jerry Beck, who once ranked the show as his favorite animated TV series of all time, right behind Ren And Stimpy and The Simpsons, as saying that “The Simpsons has an identifiable family in an identifiable world with everything regular people go through. Futurama has more of a student, single guy/single gal point of view.” 

The characters might sometimes help each other out, but they’re not a family. Two scenes from each show help sum up the difference between them. When Leela tells Fry that he’s doomed to remain a delivery boy, she points to a workplace sign showing a broken-faced man in a hardhat giving a weak thumbs-up above the words, ‘YOU GOTTA DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO.” There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer, having quit his job, comes crawling back when he learns that Marge is pregnant with their third child. Mr. Burns rehires him but forces him to sit at a cubicle decorated with the soul-deadening reminder, “DON’T FORGET: YOU’RE HERE FOREVER.” At the end, it’s revealed that Homer has decorated his cubicle with pictures of Baby Maggie, placed so that the slogan now reads, “DO IT FOR HER.” The underlying message of Futurama might have come from the title of an old Firesign Theatre album: In The Next World, You’re On Your Own.

“The Series Has Landed” (season one, episode two): Much of what Futurama had to say about the market economy’s ability to vulgarize and beat the wonder out of anything got said with terrific force and venom in the second episode, which depicts Fry’s disappointment in seeing that man’s colonization of the moon has turned John F. Kennedy’s dream of space travel into an excuse for a tacky amusement park. Fry never seems smart, but this is one of those episodes where he does seem wise. If it’s a child’s wisdom, we’re grading on a curve here.

“A Fishful Of Dollars” (season one, episode six): The one where Fry discovers that, because of the interest that the few measly bucks in his bank account has been accruing for the past thousand years, he is a billionaire. Now that he has society’s real passport to freedom—money—Fry elects to blow through his cash the way most of us would, pigging out on relics from his time that make him feel more at home—anchovies (long extinct), VHS tapes of Sanford And Son, and “classical music.” (“I like big butts, and I cannot lie…”) Before Fry spends himself broke again, the episode introduces the Burnsian capitalist supervillain of Futurama’s world, Mom, of Mom’s Old-Fashioned Robot Oil, who would be pressed into service many more times than the show really seemed to know what to do with her.

Xmas Story” (season two, episode eight): John Goodman lends his vocal gifts to the show’s first holiday episode, which features a murderous, rampaging robot Santa Claus who terrorizes the planet every December 25. (He was created as a lark by the Friendly Robot Company, but he was programmed to take his work too seriously and to have a very broad definition of who is naughty.) The episode also reveals that, in the future, “Christmas” has been officially replaced by “Xmas” and that the cure for global warming was nuclear winter. This episode just might be the point at which Futurama was dead to the high command at Fox.

Anthology Of Interest I” (season two, episode 16): Futurama’s increasingly loose, joke-heavy format works great with this kind of informal, multi-part fantasy episode, a series of riffs on the much-loved “What if…?” formula. Shippers will thrill to sight of Leela and Fry in bed together, while hearing guest performances by Stephen Hawking, Al Gore, Gary Gygax, and Nichelle Nichols in the same episode will set off a collective nerdgasm.

“War Is The H-Word” (season three, episode two): One of the best episodes prominently featuring Zapp Brannigan—arguably the greatest Phil Hartman character that was never actually played by Phil Hartman—also proves the impossible: A broad, cartoon parody of Starship Troopers isn’t automatically redundant. There’s something inspiring and beautiful in Matt Groening’s determination to keep kicking Richard Nixon’s corpse until it says uncle.

“The Day The Earth Stood Stupid” (season three, episode seven): An important episode in what passes for the Futurama mythology, in that it reveals the true nature of Leela’s adorable pet, Nibbler, who was introduced back in the fourth episode of the first seasons and finally hints at the special purpose that Fry may serve in this world. And it introduces the Hypnotoad, a one-joke character so funny and so perfectly in keeping with the tone of this show, that it’s astonishing that the series managed to get by for so long without him.

“Roswell That Ends Well” (season four, episode one): One of the ground rules that Groening and Cohen reportedly set up when they were developing the series was that there wouldn’t be any time-traveling, since the implications would just be too messy. Then the writers decided it would be okay to do it just this once—the crew jumps to 1947 when their ship encounters a “space nova,” and those things don’t just happen every other day—which meant that they had license to go nuts, cramming every time-travel joke they could think of into this one jam session of an episode. Also, Fry is his own grandfather.

“The Why Of Fry” (season five, episode eight): This follow-up to the events of “The Day The Earth Stood Stupid” and the return of the Nibblonians pays its respects to the trippy, head-splitting possibilities of sci-fi in a way that’s part parody and part genuine, fannish appreciation. It does as well as the show ever will at making Fry function as a genuine hero. And the final exchange between him and Leela feels like just what their relationship should be.

The Late Philip J. Fry” (season six, episode seven): There are worse excuses for another time-travel episode than having died and been resurrected on a different network. The best episode of the last, two-part season is another chewy take on that most confounding of sci-fi tropes, and surprisingly touching in the way it deals with the possibility that Fry and Leela might have had something after all.

Reincarnation” (season six, episode 26): Another three-part omnibus episode, this triple-layer parody functions as a tribute to the history and possibilities of animation itself. The three different stories are done in styles mimicking black-and-white cartoons of the Fleischer brothers era, a low-resolution video game, and anime at its most steroid-addled. It’s so much fun that it’s hard to tell whether it’s the show’s special gift to its fans, or to itself.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Hell Is Other Robots” (season one, episode nine); “Mars University” (season two, episode two); “Fry And The Slurm Factory” (season two, episode four); “The Problem With Popplers” (season two, episode 18); “Insane In The Mainframe” (season three, episode 12); “Anthology Of Interest II” (season four, episode three); “Godfellas” (season four, episode eight); “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” (season four, episode 12); “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” (season five, episode 16); “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” (season six, episode 13).

Availability: All seasons except for the current one are available on DVD, at iTunes, and can be streamed via Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.

Next time: Good eeeeevening. Welcome to the 10 most representative episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

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