The "main character quits his regular job and tries a new profession for a single episode" is a staple of--hm. Well, I know it was used on the The Simpsons plenty of times (Marge even became a cop herself once, and a very good one), but I'm not sure how often it pops up on live-action sitcoms. It's an odd sort of plot for a more realistic show, because it requires a hefty amount of unreality to work; not only does a character have to decide to quit their job on the spur of the moment, they also have to go through training for the new position, meet a new group of characters to work off, and then find a somewhat believable reason for no longer holding onto that job by the end of the episode. I could see a live-action sitcom running a multi-episode arc where a character embarks on a new career path (How I Met Your Mother has done this a couple times), but a one-off? That's trickier.
Regardless, it's not a bad idea for Futurama to try out. It's one they've used well before, like in "War is the H-Word," when Fry and Bender joined up with the military to get a discount on gum. But "Law & Oracle," while it has some good gags, doesn't hold together very well. The plot is, for the most part, straightforward: Fry, feeling unappreciated and bored as a delivery boy, turns in his shorts and enrolls (still pantless) in the police academy. While he rises in the ranks, turning out to be a lot better at being a copper than he's been at pretty much every other job he's ever done on the show, the Planet Express crew slowly start to miss him, mainly because he was funny to laugh at, and without him around, Leela and Bender have nothing to talk about on deliveries.
There are a lot of hackneyed jokes in this section, and while the show is more than willing to swing at easy targets, there's something frustratingly perfunctory about the swings they take here. Leela and Bender's trip to Pandora gives us a so-so 3D gag, and not much else; if the show wants to take a swing at Avatar, by all means, but they could at least put more effort in than what we see here. They don't even bother to come up with a new name for the planet! And Fry's high speed chase with his new partner, URL, is equally problematic, only here, instead of too few jokes, the show throws in a bunch of seemingly random science references (Lorenz invariance, Fresnel zone), and a lame Tron nod, before busting out Schrodinger and his damn cat for the umpteenth time. It wasn't awful, but it was lazy, like the writers worked out a formula for a nerd-friendly Futurama bit and plugged in some variables.
The writing got a little tighter when the actual plot finally kicked in, as Fry is promoted to the "Future Crimes Division," a Minority Report riff where a robot with a human brain sees the future, allowing cops to stop murders before they happen. Inevitably, Fry sees Bender involved in a robbery, attempts to stop him from committing the crime (and by doing so actually gives him the idea in the first place), and then sees himself shooting Bender to prevent the theft. Ah, but it's all a plot by the Oracle robot (named "Pickles"), who faked a vision of the future in order to cover up his own intended thievery. Which Fry manages to see through because one of Pickles' fake futures showed Bender sharing with his friends, and everyone knows Bender wouldn't do that.
"Future Crimes" seems like a subject ripe for parodying, but while this is a step up from the earlier laziness, it's still pretty lazy. The whole script reeks of not-really-bothering; calling the object of Pickles' felonious intentions "the Maltese Liquor" is the sort of gag you might see on Family Guy (and an uninspired Family Guy) at that, and the way Pickles plot winds down in the least impressive way imaginable. Some of the jokes in "Law & Oracle" are funny enough--the robot who does sound effects, mimicking Michael Winslow from the Police Academy movies, was a nice one-off, and I laughed a few times at the female Chief of Police who talks in hard guy cliches while giving birth to babies in the bathroom. (Although she's also having an affair with URL, so I'm not sure how that would work.)
Overall, though, this wasn't so hot. There's a weird bit at the beginning when the episode echoes the opening of the first episode of the series, and there's no reason for it, except to remind us (inadvertently, I'm guessing) that all of Fry's angst about being stuck as a delivery boy was covered ages ago. In fact, one of the best jokes of the pilot was that, after all his fighting, he wound up with the some job title. So why bring that all up again, and with no way to justify it beyond, "Okay, Fry has apparently been delivering pizzas for the past ten years, for some reason." I don't need airtight continuity on this show, but I would like some vague sense of consistency. If you're going to retcon in new ideas, the least you can do is make sure they're worth the effort.
- Well, now we know that Scruffy is a zombie. "Life and death are a seamless continuum."
- "You think you can just waltz in here with no pants and become a cop?"
- "Put on 3-D Glasses One Minute Ago."
- "What's pink polka dots?" "Clown slaughter. It happens more often than you'd think."
- "One more promotion, and I'll be a real detective, like Sherlock Holmes or Speed Buggy!"
- "I'll never shoot Bender! He taught me how to shave!"
- "To know punchline of every joke, hours in advance!" "Like watching Leno!"
- Prediction proof glass? Yeesh.