Futurama’s opera was a poignant final bow—until it wasn’t

Futurama’s opera was a poignant final bow—until it wasn’t

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This final installment focuses on our readers’ choice of a musical episode.

“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” (Futurama, season four, episode 18; originally aired 8/10/2003) 

Phil Dyess-Nugent: If Futurama has ever had an emotional core, it’s in the unlikely, on-again-off-again romance between Fry and Leela. Their relationship exists in some weird, ambiguous zone. When Fry first noticed that he had feelings for Leela, he seemed like a little kid with a crush on a clearly unobtainable grown-up, which was funny and touching and fit in well with the characters as they’d been established. In more recent seasons, Fry has actually been allowed to make some headway in courting her, but then the show will decide it liked them better when his love was hopeless and unrequited, and reset everything to square one. At the time, Fry and Leela didn’t seem like a likely couple, but “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” takes them closer than they’d ever come before. I wonder if the show would have gone in that direction if the producers hadn’t had good reason to assume that this would be the final episode, and they could tiptoe right up to the edge without worrying about dealing with the implications later on. (As it is, the show managed to stay alive, and the creative team decided they didn’t have to really deal with the implications anyway.)

At the start of the episode, Fry is trying to master a futuristic instrument called the holophonor; he could play it like an angel once before, when he was infested with parasitic worms that (temporarily) made him more intelligent, and it’s important to him that he regain his musical talent, because when he had it, it made Leela like him. He digs in on this daydream after he hears Leela recall that she once had a shiftless, physically unimpressive boyfriend she was crazy about—because when he played music, she could convince herself that he had a beautiful soul. But without parasitic, intelligence-enhancing worms, Fry is hopeless, so Bender suggests the next best thing: cutting a deal with the Robot Devil.

The Robot Devil, whose voice suggests Hans Conried taken to the nth degree, agrees to swap Fry’s hands, with their “stupid fingers,” for the hands of any robot in the world. Fry winds up with the hands of the Robot Devil himself, who has placed his own name on the spinning wheel of fortune “as a show of good faith for the other robots.” (There’s a clever nod to The Hands Of Orlac and its umpteen imitations when Fry’s new hands immediately start strangling him, and the Devil assures him that they’ll just do that for the first few minutes.) With his new mechanical digits, Fry is a musical virtuoso, and he sets to work pouring his feelings into the composition of an opera, Leela: Orphan Of The Stars, to première at the Metropolitan House of Opera, or MHOP. As soon as Leela hears the unfinished work, she seems destined to fall, hard: “I’ve been such a fool,” she moans. “A fully justified, prudent fool.”

The Devil, though, wants his hands back, and to get them, he goes all O. Henry with what he proudly describes as a “ridiculously circuitous plan.” First, he assents to Bender’s request that he somehow make it possible for him to be more irritating by installing a horn, which Bender blows in Leela’s face, rendering her deaf. Leela tries to conceal her condition from Fry, so he won’t know that she can’t hear a note of the opera he’s written in tribute to her—but by intermission, she can’t stand it anymore, and makes a deal with the Devil to give him her hand in exchange for a new set of ears. What she doesn’t understand—until he breaks up the opera to announce it to the room—is that he meant her hand in marriage. This, of course, is more than Fry can bear, and to save Leela from becoming Mrs. Hans Conried, he gives up his robot hands, and with them, any chance of keeping Leela’s interest. Or so he believes: Though his attempts to continue playing clear the auditorium faster than a crackhead with a knife, Leela asks him to keep playing, for her.

It’s easy to share her appreciation. The opera itself is pretty great, in a very Futurama way. It reminded me of a line from a Pauline Kael review of an opera scene in a movie, in which the words sung “suggest what opera sounds like to people who can’t stand opera.” And the combination of Fry’s sensibility with prodigious musical gifts results in quite a show, one that includes not just a Dickensian scene of Leela the baby orphan being left on a doorstep, but a special guest appearance by Godzilla. When the Devil interrupts the production—complaining, “Your lyrics lack subtlety! You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!”—Fry and Leela, and the audience members too, get caught up in the spirit and start singing along. It feels oddly appropriate, and it suggests that the secret to understanding Fry and Leela’s relationship is that they’re really a musical-comedy romance, constantly redefining what they are to each other depending on what the next number calls for, even when nobody is singing a note. It’s a relationship that matches a form in which people are constantly on the verge of falling in love, a state that can feel more passionate and rapturous than consummation. Or am I reaching here, just because this stuff makes me a little giddy?

Ryan McGee: Am I allowed to say I haven’t watched much Futurama and still be employed here? I have nothing against the show, and generally like it when I come across an episode. But it’s not something I’ve ever watched regularly, nor have I felt a compelling reason to do so. Here’s the thing: This episode made me want to watch more Futurama, until Phil intimated above that it’s less about emotional carry-through and more of a weekly joke-distribution device. Does that make the show any less of a successful endeavor? Of course not. But it’s not something that would compel me to marathon through the show now that I have found a successful entry point, either.

One of the things we’ve discussed in this phase of the Roundtable is the way that music helps a show achieve its goals. Occasionally, that “help” can seem like the television equivalent of the Konami Code: Is the opera in this episode akin to 30 extra lives? Certainly not, especially since the real emotional stuff in it happens after Fry regains his human hands. But the conceit of the holophonor also beautifully illustrates something I’ve been unable to truly articulate in this round of musical episode analyses: Sometimes, the imperfect, honest attempt is better than anything that is technically perfect. This applies not only to musical examples in the episodes we’ve just discussed over the past few months, but also to what I love about TV in general. I’d rather take Zach Braff butchering his high note in “Guy Love” over a structurally perfect musical moment that leaves me cold.

It gets back to something I remember Roger Daltrey discussing in a documentary about The Who’s Tommy. When talking about the big difference between the way he sang it and how it was performed by the original Broadway Tommy (future Fringe Observer Michael Cerveris), Daltrey said, “To me, it was never about hitting the right note. Give me a bum note and a bead of sweat every time.” The episodes I’ve loved the most over this part of the Roundtable haven’t always been the “best.” They have been the ones that moved me the most. Seeing the crudely drawn figures that emerged from Fry’s own hands moved me, and thus this episode as a whole moved me.

Genevieve Koski: Even though Futurama sits comfortably on my list of top 10 favorite shows ever, I have to admit a part of me wishes “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” was the true series finale. There have been a lot of good moments since the show’s strange rebirth, but this episode feels like the clear dividing line between “classic” and “new” Futurama, and not just because it’s the last episode to be produced in standard definition. As Phil says, the writers clearly had an endgame in mind with this episode, which puts a semi-ambiguous but emotionally satisfying cap on the Fry-Leela relationship. The drawn-out nature that relationship’s taken on in post-renewal seasons is one of my least favorite parts of the re-animated Futurama, and I like how “Devil’s Hands” gets at the emotional core of that relationship—Fry being in awe of Leela and wanting her to appreciate him for… something, anything—without going so far as to actually send them riding off happily into the sunset. (Granted, their crudely drawn holophoner selves essentially do that very thing, but the childlike, hopeful nature in which it’s presented leaves it mostly in the realm of fantasy.) 

But really, the Fry-Leela thing is only a small part of what makes “Devil’s Hands” feel like a proper send-off. (Let’s be honest: The real emotional core of Futurama isn’t the Leela-Fry pairing, it’s the Fry-Seymour relationship from “Jurassic Bark.” You may all begin crying now.) As Ryan noticed, the episode has an air of continuity, which goes a long way to making it feel like an important part of the whole, rather than just another joke-laden installment. There’s the continuation of the holophoner element from “Parasites Lost,” and the Leela-Fry storyline picks up after the events of “The Sting,” which aired a few weeks prior to this one. There’s the reappearance of the singing-and-dancing Robot Devil, whose showman bona fides were established back in the season-one episode “Hell Is Other Robots.” (I prefer “Robot Hell” over any of the songs in “Devil’s Hands,” incidentally.) And Fry’s opera references Leela’s previously established backstory as an abandoned orphan. Plus, the opera scenes allow for the inclusion of not only the full cast—who all get a line or two in the climactic musical number—but also a bunch of fan-favorite characters like Zapp Brannigan, Calculon, Nixon’s Head, and, my particular favorite, Hedonismbot.

All of this is by way of saying that the musical element is a big factor in making this episode feel very significant, which a series finale should ideally be. Futurama has established many times over its fondness for musical numbers, any of which could have been used for this Roundtable: The aforementioned “Robot Hell,” The New Justice Team theme song, Hermes’ “Bureaucrat Song,” Bender’s duet with Beck, and so on. But “Devil’s Hands” tops them all in terms of sheer scale, and the way it turns from a musical-within-a-show to an actual musical, with all the characters “singing what they feel,” contributes to the emotionally heightened atmosphere. Musically speaking, none of the song elements of “Devil’s Hands” stick out that much to me, though there are some funny lines—I especially like the Robot Devil’s casual addendum of “print” after his dramatic “FIIIINNNNNE,” and Zoidberg’s sung “I can’t believe everybody’s just ad-libbing!” It’s more in the way the musical concept is deployed, with a big, climactic finale number, that makes this an impressive musical episode. And as far as codas go, it doesn’t get much better than Fry’s squeaky, beginner-level holophoner sendoff, which I’ll always at least partly consider Futurama’s final bow.

Noel Murray: I’m glad you guys are talking about the Futurama continuity, because that was one of the aspects of “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” that stood out to me the most this time through it. Like The Simpsons (and like a lot of other cartoons and comics), Futurama has tried to maintain a rough status quo for its characters throughout its entire run, while also acknowledging and drawing on its own past. That’s a tricky thing to do well, but again like The Simpsons, Futurama has succeeded by expanding outward, rather than forward. The writers keep adding characters and backstory, rather than fretting over any kind of “arc.” It’s more like they’re working variations on a theme.

Which is a lot like—hey-hey!—music. I’m in agreement with you all about how poignant this episode seemed at the time, as a marker for how good the show was getting before its first cancellation; and I’m with you all too on the surprising emotional resonance of the Leela-Fry romance. (Which is still pretty sweet, even in the oft-shaggier recent seasons.) But as someone who used to read obsessively about Pete Townshend’s never-quite-refined-enough experiments with linking music to his audience’s biorhythms—the results of which were meant to be another Tommy-esque rock opera called Lifehouse, but instead became the still-excellent album Who’s Next—I was enchanted anew upon revisiting Futurama’s holophonor, an instrument that converts sound into images. Throughout this round of the Roundtable, we’ve talked about how music in a movie, TV show, or stage production allows characters to express ideas and feelings that would sound corny if they were just spoken aloud. Here, that idea is wedded to the inherent power of animation to illustrate what live-action cannot, such that we get Fry’s vision of Leela’s awesomeness expressed as an exaggerated tall tale, rendered by cartoons wearing costumes. The loveliness of that is something that can’t even be properly described. It just is.

Donna Bowman: As we come to the end of this Roundtable, the readers’ choice selection might just suggest—gasp!—a common theme beyond characters singing instead of talking. The musical episode has the unintended but awesome side effect of piecing together character and plot fragments into a recognizable unity. Sometimes that can be used for fairly lazy effect; witness, for what I sincerely hope is the last time, the “Eh, why not?” vibe of the 7th Heaven musical. But in most of the episodes we’ve examined, the music seems to help both writers and viewers feel an organic connection between elements of a show that tend, over the seasons and years, to become more and more like interchangeable widgets.

So it’s fitting that “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” takes a hoary cultural trope (deal with the devil), and rather than just assigning all its characters equivalent parts (Fry as Faust, Leela as Gretchen), spreads a musical canopy over the whole affair and elevates it beyond its riffing-on-something-you’re-already-familiar-with origins. And the musical framework gives the creative team a new perspective that can spark imagination. When the opera began, I was both puzzled and utterly charmed by the giant masks covering its characters’ heads—why would that be the convention for “singers” being generated by a holographic device, I wondered?  Then when the music stops and an actual actor is left mostly naked on the stage by the disappearance of his illusory costume, I both understood and got another big laugh from the gag idea. It’s the kind of extra detail, piled on top of what often in these cases is a by-the-numbers retelling, that I attribute to the unifying—and enlarging—effect of the musical concept. 

Plus, when the dialogue vanishes and the opera performance turns into an opera itself? Just pure delight. Detractors of the musical genre like to describe the moment their eyes start to roll as folks break into song. That’s the exact moment that I clasp my hands to my chest as my eyes turn into little hearts. Enjoy your muggle existence, haters. I’ll take the magic.

Todd VanDerWerff: Though I will ultimately always prefer The Simpsons out of Matt Groening’s TV oeuvre, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Futurama, which at its best makes me feel a kind of giddiness that few shows do. And what I appreciate most about it is the way that Groening chose to do almost exactly the opposite of everything he’d done on The Simpsons when he was dreaming up this show with David X. Cohen. Where the earlier show started small and gradually got bigger and bigger, Futurama started huge and gradually got smaller and more intimate. Where The Simpsons was a family comedy built around a sturdy, requited love, Futurama was a workplace comedy built around a deliberately unlikely, unrequited love. The Simpsons makes me laugh more, but Futurama has a wider range of emotions at its best, and that’s what keeps it one of my favorite shows.

When Futurama is good, it’s really, really good, and “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is one of those “really good” episodes. The story is grounded in genuine emotion, but there are also plenty of great laughs, stemming from both the absurdity of the situations (I love how the Robot Devil calls attention to everything he does as he puts his plan into motion) and from some really solid gags (like the Robot Devil’s name being on the Robot Wheel, because of course it is). While I’ve enjoyed Futurama since its return enough to keep watching it, that’s mostly because it’s on in the summer. I’m glad to have it around, because I like spending a little time with these characters every week, but dipping back into the episodes from the end of the series’ original run posits one of the great what-ifs in TV history. If only the creative crew that ran this last bushel of episodes had been allowed to keep at it for a few more years, I think this would be one of the all-time classics, instead of a cult favorite that a handful of people passionately love. I’m happy to be in that handful, and always a little sad we didn’t get more.

Erik Adams: Noel, you mention the loveliness of the holophonor—but it’s an ingenious invention on the part of the Futurama writers as well. What strikes me about this alternately silly and sweet episode is how it revolves around a metaphor that a lesser show might play for sheer cleverness. It makes sense that the technological minds of the 31st century would finally nail down a way to definitively wed sound to vision, but what comes out of the holophonor is ultimately dependent on the skill level of the musician. The Beethoven-by-way-of-Astaire-and-Rogers fantasia that Fry’s fellow student spins at the recital is charming (and the nod to Donkey Kong is good for a laugh)—but it’s exactly the kind of on-the-nose visualization you’d expect from some over-rehearsed prodigy. We’ve hit on this again and again in our reactions to “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” but the crudeness of Fry’s final performance for Leela exhibits true feeling. It calls to mind an observation I just read about U.K. garage-rock primitivist Billy Childish: Like the hundreds of recordings credited to Childish and the various bands he’s fronted, the kind of music Fry plays in the episode’s coda is the music he’s capable of playing, an emotionally honest moment elegantly illustrated by the holophonor.

That’s a perfect thought to end this Roundtable on, just as “The Devil’s Hands” was a perfect episode with which to (initially) end Futurama’s reverent/irreverent homage to speculative fiction in all its fantastical permutations. The series has established its own recurring spoof of The Twilight Zone in The Scary Door, but Fry’s deal with Robot Devil and its “be careful what you wish for” themes march to a rhythm seemingly played by Rod Serling himself. That’s a suitable bookend for a show that began like an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits—man who’s letting life pass him by lets 1,000 years zoom past in the blink of an eye—or a story in their pulp-magazine predecessors. By the end of “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” Fry appreciates what he has (and Leela comes to terms with her on-again/off-again beau’s shortcomings), an epiphany that arrives after Futurama indulges in the not-so-modest wealth of character and setting it laid out in its first four seasons. This is a musical episode that doesn’t just allow characters to sing what can’t be said—it temporarily expands the scope of the show to let us take in the full splendor of a universe steeped in history and expertly crafted across 72 episodes.

Stray observations:

This episode reveals that Bender is one of those guys who’s constantly arguing with people over the correct use of the term “ironic.” This is about the most annoying thing anyone can do, so it’s pretty ironic that the plot turns on Bender’s desire to become more annoying. [PDN]

Who’s the hooker with Zapp Branigan? [PDN]

Most Matt Groening-esque moment, whether he had anything to do with it or not: “It’s back to Hell for me. C’mon, Nixon!” [PDN]

After Fry continues to grind out notes even though his talent has been extinguished, a robot paperboy wanders through, hawking a newspaper by calling out, “Extra! Extra! Greatest opera of all time sucks!” Change “opera” to “movie,” and that could be the headline on most reviews of just about any Terrence Malick film. [PDN]

It’s really strange hearing Katey Sagal’s voice in this, after watching five seasons of Sons Of Anarchy. I kept waiting for her to convince Bender to kill Fry. [RM]

It’s a toss-up for me for favorite quote between “My ridiculously circuitous plan is one-quarter complete!” and “Your music’s bad and you should feel bad.” [NM]

I was getting a really familiar vibe from the scene where Bender takes on the role of Fry’s parent, angrily berating the music teacher for not taking him on as a student. I feel like it’s a movie reference, but I can’t quite place it. Anybody able to help? [DB]

Something about the Matt Groening cartoon happy face (big round eyes, slight curve of quarter-profile protruding upper lip) makes me feel utter joy right along with Fry at the end. [DB]

My favorite line, from Robot Devil: “You know, I only put my name on there as a show of faith for the other robots.” No, wait! It’s “A fully justified, prudent fool.” No, wait, it’s what Noel said! Oh Futurama, you are such an embarrassment of riches. [DB]

My feelings about new Futurama effectively explain why I have absolutely no interest in the Veronica Mars movie. A great TV show is alchemy, and you can’t reassemble alchemy years later, just a rough representation of what it felt like at the time. [TV]

Next week: The Roundtable welcomes a new member, David Sims, just in time to visit a batch of episodes that find a series’ regulars dealing with their own interlopers. First up, Sutton Foster plays “Yoko” on Flight Of The Conchords—and Genevieve Koski is into it. After that, Erik Adams introduces The Simpsons to “Homer’s Enemy,” Frank Grimes (or “Grimey” as he liked to be called). (“Yoko” is available on HBO Go and Amazon; “Homer’s Enemy” should be playing on an eternal loop in your mind.) 

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