Great art requires honesty. Which, y’know, duh. But it’s true; and it’s true not just of high literary works or epic drama, but of brilliant comedy. A joke isn’t as funny unless there’s some pain inside it—it doesn’t have to be a particularly complex pain, or a deep one, but it does have to be real. Maybe it’s seeing slapstick and remembering the agony of physical injury. Maybe it’s a bit of cringe comedy, of knowing all those times in your life when you tried your very best and failed horribly. Maybe it’s satire based on a system that destroys lives. Maybe it’s a snickering corpse, pointing the way towards death. Look, this is getting heavy, and we don’t really need that, especially not for a goofy 30 minute cartoon about an over-acting robot. But the message at the heart of “Calculon 2.0” is one Futurama has kept in its heart from the very beginning: You want to go big, you have to earn it. If you want to move people, if you want to make them remember you long after you’re moldering in your grave, you need to be honest, with your audience, and with yourself. It can be a bleak, humiliating way to go through life sometimes, but if you can’t hack it, a hack is all you’ll ever be.
So, morbid musings aside, “Calculon 2.0” was a lot of fun; the title character, killed off in last year’s “Thief Of Baghead” (as a reporter sums up at the start of this episode, “The celebrated robot actor killed himself on stage in a failed attempt to make a death scene more convincing.”), returns briefly from the dead for a second chance at stardom. Calculon has always been one of the show’s reliable one-joke laugh getters, a goofy chance for Maurice LaMarche to do a Shatner impression to compete with the one Billy West regularly employs for Zapp Brannigan. His death was something of a surprise, and it’s even more surprising to see the lengths Fry, Bender, and the others go through in order to bring him back from the dead. I’m still pretty sure Scruffy got killed at some point, but I don’t remember any scientific/black magic ritual to get him into the cast. But Calculon gets the works, in a subplot that takes up about a third of the episode’s running time.
Maybe that’s the reason it takes so long to get the robot back on his shiny metal feet again; 20 minutes and change aren’t going to fill themselves. And yet the earlier sequences never play like padding. We get a reason why Fry and Bender are so desperate to bring Calculon back, and it dovetails nicely with the season’s on-going interest in their friendship: The two hate the actor who replaced Calculon on All My Circuits (whose name I never quite got—Vacstrong? Faxstrong?), and their inability to watch the show is forcing them to talk to each other outside of bath time, and it’s killing their relationship. So Farnsworth offers them a chance to resurrect the old ham. It’s a complicated plan involving grave-robbing, a trip to Robot Hell, and science that, as Amy describes it, is “like magic, but with electricity.” The trip to Hell alone justifies the runaround, as the Robot Devil, desperate to get the ghost of Calculon off his hands, does everything he can to make sure Fry wins their contest. He fails, but lets them have the ghost anyway. One sacrificed robot goat later, and Calculon is ready for action.
And what action! (Please respect my unholy segue talent.) The whole episode moves at a good clip, with character motivation clear and logical throughout: Bender and Fry want Calculon back, Calculon wants his old job back, he realizes his over-acting style has been replaced by a lot of method bullshit (okay, “authentic and honest emotion” bullshit), the shame he experiences briefly gives him a chance to recapture his lost glory, and then he dies again. That’s about it, and it’s not a bad little plot, but what makes this work are the incidental details. Like that robot goat. Or Calculon’s decision to try and jolt his career to life by performing his one robot show as HAL 9000, the killer artificial intelligence from 2001. Or Calculon’s monologues in general, especially his love of the dramatic pause. The heart in all this wasn’t incredibly strong, but it all hung together well, and there were plenty of solid laughs.
And maybe there was a little heart. Nothing to get too worked up about, but throughout the episode, Leela does her voice-of-reason shtick, and her growing irritation about Calculon’s utter self-blindness isn’t only funny, it’s illuminating. Because she’s right, and three-quarters of the way through the episode, it becomes obvious the writers aren’t going to ignore Calculon’s hamminess or the way the times have left his particular idiom behind. The jokes become funnier because there’s that layer of sadness to them, however ridiculous. Calculon is doomed, and the fact that his self-delusions seem to become even more over-the-top in the face of that doom is hilarious. He’s only a real actor when he faces the truth, just as this show is only really effective when it has some core of the real, some definite, concrete weight to balance the absurdity. Calculon’s dead now. And soon, Futurama will be too. Laugh while you can, folks.
- For those who like continuity: This episode takes place a year after Calculon’s death.
- “Yes, the number I was thinking of was the letter M.” -The Robot Devil
- “This is the least scientific thing I’ve ever seen!” Resurrection really freaks Hermes out. “Seriously, this could not be less scientific!”
- “It’s not what it looks like, but it’s very similar to that!”
- It doesn’t translate to the page, but Calculon’s contemptuous “Who’s she?” at Leela was great.
- A cell phone as a studio exec. That works.
- “I’ll have to start at the bottom.” “But Fox already said no!” Some wounds never heal, I guess.
- “Mr. Derisgreat? Mr. Ben Derisgreat?”
- “Second take? I’ve never heard that phrase. What does it mean?” -Calculon, actor, 3013-3013