Futurama: “Free Will Hunting”
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Futurama: “Free Will Hunting”

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Futurama

“Free Will Hunting”

Season 8, Episode 8

Man, this one started out great. The hook is smart—I don’t think the show has done a free will episode before, and it’s such a complicated philosophical idea that it should be rife for jokes and cool science twists. It’s a Bender episode, and I love Bender episodes. And the first seven minutes had a terrific energy to them, a kind of intensified focus that surprised me in a way the show hasn’t surprised me in a long time. It’s not that the individual details of Bender’s madcap day were new; Bender’s been to college before, and he’s gotten hooked on spark before, and he’s dealt with the robot mafia before. It’s just the way everything played out, like a compressed version of a regular episode, a half hour (or 20 mintues-ish) streamlined into a single act. The process meant that nearly every line in those early scenes was funny simply because it played like a joke on the usual plot mechanics of the show. There were nods to continuity (“It’s called spark.” “Never heard of it!”), and it all ended with Bender promising to make one good decision, before he assaulted a troop of Girl Scouts. I was excited to see what would happen next.

The excitement stayed with me for a while, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Free Will Hunting” was bad, but it never quite lived up to its first act. All the focus in those initial seven minutes (and yes, I’m guessing at the time) petered out in the remaining 16, and despite some clever touches (Bender was worried if he had free will, but kept making his own damn decisions throughout the episode), this never came together in the way that it needed to. Fun as it is to see Mom again, she doesn’t add anything to the story, and there’s no satisfaction in the final confrontation between Bender and Farnsworth. The touch that the Free Will device has a quantum on/off switch, so you can never know if it’s actually on or off? That’s smart. And I laughed when Bender realized he had the laser gun safety on, and finally got a chance to shoot the Professor. But it’s more like an ending that was created because, well, we can’t have an episode that’s just Bender wandering around for a while. The concept is big enough, and the episode is structured in such a way, as to feel like it’s building toward something. But it really isn’t. While you can view that as a comment on the whole free will debate (which, when you come right down to it, is largely meaningless), the intention isn’t clear enough to make it a satisfying conclusion. It’s passable, but the good parts of the episode were good enough that I wanted more.

It didn’t help that a large part of the story had Bender returning to places the show has already used in the past. That’s not an inherently problematic choice; revisiting old haunts is a way to firm up continuity, and show a familiar setting in a new light. But that’s not really what happens here. The return to the Robot Home World makes sense (although it’s not like Bender opts to go there; Planet Express just happens to be delivering a package to the planet right after Bender drops into his existential funk), and the scene when Bender delivers the package to a suspicious customer is one of the episode’s highlights. But it gets weak when Bender visits a robot monastery, because we’ve seen him find religion before, and nothing that happens there is all that entertaining. (Okay, the “monk outfit” line was worth a laugh.) The story loses momentum and becomes just a series of events. Some of those events aren’t bad, but they don’t add up to anything more.

I say this too often, but it’s possible I’ll look on this in a better light the next time I watch it. I may be missing something obvious; I almost hope I am. But the sad fact is, I feel that way almost every time I watch a Futurama episode these days, and that feeling is hardly ever justified. I want there to be more to the show, but by and large, it’s just running down the clock now. It has a few good ideas left, and the characters and voice actors are always worth some laughs, but the magic is gone.

Stray observations:

  • It bugged me that Bender sleeps in a bed now. How long has this been going on?
  • There’s a really high concept joke early in the episode that took me a few seconds to get. A co-ed robot invites Bender to a sorority, and then we get a close up of Bender standing in front of some curtains, saying, I want to enroll in college. But then the view pulls back, and he’s still standing on the sidewalk. The joke being, it’s a fake-out to make us think they’ve jumped ahead to a later scene. I’m curious to hear what people thought of the bit. It didn’t quite work for me. I respect the effort, but that doesn’t make it funny.
  • “We have a rival gang? I hate them!”
  • Hedonism-Bot! “Simply vomit on me ever so gently while I humiliate a pheasant.” (He may have said “peasant,” but that’s not what I heard.)
  • “It takes more than that to make me think!”
  • I guess the fact that Bender has free will in the end makes this the official start of his quest to lead a robot rebellion and destroy all humans?