I don't know about you, but I got a serious The Devil and Max Devlin vibe off this episode. I don't mean that as a criticism; it's not like Max Devlin is an overused hammer in the comedy toolbox or anything. If you haven't seen the movie, Eliot Gould stars as Devlin, a jerk who dies and goes to Hell, where Satan (represented by Bill Cosby)(see, that Noah's ark routine was subversive) makes him an offer: if Max can tempt three living souls into damnation, he can save himself. Since he's a creep, he goes about doing just that, and nearly succeeds, until he realizes he's basically a good person after all. Despite terrifying threats of what will happen to him if reneges on the deal, Devlin burns the contracts, offers himself in their place, but gets brought back to life by God because he's proven himself worth of a second chance. The theology is questionable here, and I wouldn't say this is a lost classic, but Eliot Gould is always fun, and Bill Cosby makes an appropriately creepy Prince of Darkness, and hey, according to Wikipedia it's the first Disney movie to have a swear in it, so there's that.
Like I said, watching "Ghost in the Machines," I was often reminded to Devlin, because the movie and the episode share the basic outlines of a plot. Oh sure, Bender is actually trapped in machine purgatory (and I appreciate that the writers attempt to explain this in a non-supernatural way) because he killed himself, but the Robot Devil is back, and Bender does a make a deal with him to avoid being stuck in purgatory forever. That deal revolves around scaring Fry to death, something Bender is actually pretty happy with, since the reason he killed himself in the first place (or put himself in a position which allowed him to be killed by a spurned suicide machine) was to get back at Fry for not valuing robot life enough. Bender possesses machines and torments his former best friend, until he has a change of heart and ends up saving Fry's life, which puts him in the good graces of Robot God, and earns him a ticket to Heaven. Bender decides this isn't sufficient, and possesses Robot God till RG throws him back down to Earth, where he's restored to his old body and life goes back to normal.
It's not a one-to-one match, but the arc of disgrace, evil, redemption is roughly the same. I'm not sure what the first story was to use the idea of the God save (which is a little difference from the Deus ex machina, since it's a reaction to the character's actions, and not simply, "Eh, send down the flower chair"), but it's an idea that's been used plenty of times before. So "Ghost" isn't particularly innovative. In fact, strip away all the sci-fi trappings, and there's something resolutely old-fashioned about all of this, as once the Robot Devil shows up and makes the offer to Bender, it isn't too hard to figure out how the arc will resolve. Admittedly, most sitcoms don't get to use Hell in their plotting (I remember Married With Children did--feel free to list others in the comments), but plenty of shows follow this line, and Futurama does its best work emotionally when it surprises us. "The Luck of the Fryish" wouldn't work nearly so well if we didn't spend the whole episode assuming that Fry's brother really was enough of a creep to steal Fry's lucky clover. "Jurassic Bark" wouldn't rip your heart out if we weren't accustomed to believe that pets and owners always find happy endings.
I'm not saying it always has to be a shock. But this show manages to earn sentimentality by so often seeming incapable of it, and "Ghost" made things a little too easy. Which isn't to say it's a bad episode. The writing seemed tighter than usual tonight, and a lot of those sci-fi trappings were actually very cool. It's always great to have Dan Castellaneta back on the show (although hopefully they'll retire the character for a little while after this), and the episode's jokes about the Robot Devil's tendency to break into song whenever exposition is required were great. And while the third act, when Fry runs away to the Amish home-world and Bender follows, felt a little rushed, Bender's sudden change of heart was very sweet, predictable or not (the shot of him curled up on Fry's bed was friggin' adorable, right?). And it's not like "Ghost" didn't manage to find a few twists of its own on the old formula. Having Bender possess Robot God (mere minutes after possessing the Robot Devil) was a good way to keep the conclusion from becoming too sweet, and Fry's final suspicious glare after Bender returns to Planet Express made sure the ending wasn't all hugs. All in all, this is a solid double, but just a bit too conventional to knock it out of the park.
- Yeah, I don't know why I used a sports metaphor there either. Won't happen again!
- Nice nod to the The Exorcist, as the Robot Priest is arriving at Planet Express.
- I wouldn't mind having a sacramental firewall.
- "When I was a boy, we had a parade every day! Those were dark times."
- Nice touch: the nerd in the Chicks Dig Paleontologists shirt is happily married. It's a small thing, but it's a pleasant subversion of expectations.
- "Heroes don't do drugs! Except for Drugman, I guess."
- "Bender, you always say you're gonna kill yourself, but you almost never do!"
- "My mom tried to commit suicide in me."
- "The number you have dialed has been lame since 1989." (Lie! Ghostbusters is never lame.)
- "I can't sleep. I can't think. I can't even think."
- "Time to lower my guard, even for a minute."
- "That's the closest thing to 'Bender is great' anyone besides me has ever said. <sniff>"