Every so often, Futurama likes to dust off what remains of its conscience and try its hand at some social commentary, often of the environmentally friendly sort. Reaching way back into the show’s history, the first season episode “A Big Piece Of Garbage” (which aired on May 11, 1999!) dealt with the planet’s bulging landfills, the third season’s “The Birdbot Of Ice-Catraz” explored the consequences of oil spills and the thorny issue of animal culling, and the fourth season’s “Crimes Of The Hot” looked at global warming and technology built with a complete disregard for fuel economy, and that’s just the first three that spring to mind. In keeping with a show as alternately brilliant and stupid as Futurama, these episodes’ perspectives were always gleefully muddled, convincingly arguing one side of the debate before switching sides and arguing the other; ultimately, most of these episodes ended with the sort of well-meaning Planet Express crew shrugging and going back to their business. That’s roughly the plot of tonight’s “Leela And The Genestalk,” although it takes a while before that becomes clear. Indeed, outside of the name of Mom’s latest evil company—Momsanto, a shamelessly unsubtle riff on the controversial agribusiness and biotechnology company Monsanto—there’s little indication that this is a message episode until the final scene, in which Mom reveals just why she is experimenting on people and plants.
Admittedly, the final scene isn’t so much a message as it is a quick sketch of the arguments for and against genetic engineering, with Mom pointing out that her experiments will feed the poor and cure the otherwise incurably sick. The obvious counterargument to this is that she’s still evil, and while she doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the non-existent ethics of her experiments, Mom does happily point out that she’s doing this to get slightly richer, and altruism doesn’t enter into it. Leela falls into her standard role in these episodes, which could charitably be described as the lone voice of sanity and less charitably described as a moralistic, flagrantly hypocritical killjoy. The second description seems more justified in this case, as she drops any objection to Mom’s experiments the second she’s told that her squiditis can be cured. It’s hard to blame her too much for this convenient compromise on her principles, especially when the episode’s quick argument seems to be that there isn’t a coherent objection to genetically engineered foodstuff beyond the vague acknowledgements that the long-term consequences are unknown, a point underscored by the final shot of giant, suction-cupped beanstalks covering New New York. Again, Futurama does like to muddle its own arguments.
The trouble is that this scene necessarily feels like an afterthought, and it seems a strange fit with the rest of the episode, which more or less plays like a fairy tale. When Futurama tackles a big issue like this, it doesn’t go in for lengthy, sober examination of the pros and cons, but it does generally integrate these themes into the overall plot. Leela suffers a bit here as a character; if nothing else, bringing up the ethics of genetic engineering earlier on in the episode would also have allowed her to articulate a position more than 30 seconds before she reverses it. Such an instant turnaround could be a funny gag, but the setup is just a hair too obvious for the punchline to really land. The final scene essentially makes a joke out of going through the motions of a full-fledged social commentary. But it’s difficult for the show to do that gag without just looking like it’s actually going through the motions.
Still, I don’t want to harp on this any more than I already have, because while it’s an odd way to end an episode—especially this episode, which so seldom seems to line up with its own message—it’s not a fatal flaw for what is generally an enjoyable entry. The opening gag, in which Bender reminds the gang of a neighbor the audience has never seen and then reveals that he beat him up and stole his cowboy hat, is another familiar, meta gag, but the show tends to get away with these things when Bender is involved, if only because his enthusiasm for senseless violence is so infectious. The trip to the cowboy bar and the mechanical buggalo represent a decent opening setpiece, if only because I always find it oddly amusing when Futurama, a show set 1,000 years in the future, mines the pop culture of 40 years ago for its jokes. Indeed, that same principle is at work with the episode’s best pop culture gag, when Bender and Fry recreate the old climbing up the wall gag from the ’60s Batman show, only to be greeted by the heads of Adam West and Burt Ward.
The most intriguing element of the episode is its use of fairy tales to drive the story. Like the final scene’s genetic engineering debate, the references to “Jack And The Beanstalk” and “Rapunzel” are just sort of there, with no particular reason given for their inclusion beyond the fact that it provides a convenient structure for the story. If nothing else, it says a lot about how idiotic the original Jack was if Fry can be subbed in for him so seamlessly, and the transparently unconvincing conman—who, it must be said, actually did give Fry magical beans, intentionally or not—is a more successful example of Futurama simultaneously using and deconstructing a familiar trope. The decision to sell off old Bessie, otherwise known as the Planet Express Ship, feels like it could have been given a tad more weight in the story given its overall importance to the show, but since it’s almost certainly going to be back next week, that isn’t really a major complaint. Indeed, the removal of the ship subtly serves the story, as it’s easier to justify a hidden, nearly inaccessible fortress in the clouds when our heroes no longer have access to a craft that can take them anywhere in the universe.
The episode is generally content to lean on familiar elements—it doesn’t really do anything with Leela’s parents or Mom and her idiot children that the show hasn’t done before—but I laughed at a decent percentage of jokes, so it’s hard to be too critical. “Leela And The Genestalk” doesn’t push the show’s boundaries or deepen our understanding of the characters like the best Futurama episodes do, but it’s a resolutely solid story. At this point in the show’s improbably long life, such an accomplishment is hardly an automatic thing. The episode derives much of its strength by focusing back in on its three core characters, supplementing them with a recurring player like Mom whose utter shamelessness and crassness are generally good for a laugh. Besides, her rage is often the perfect vehicle for the Futurama writers to air out their esoteric mini-rants. Anyone who watched this episode is unlikely to forget the difference between a pun and a play on words in a hurry. That really has to be considered a vastly important public service.
- I didn’t mention the big crossover gag in this episode, as Bender comes face to face with a pair of Mom’s experiments that look exactly like Finn and Jake from Adventure Time. There’s not too much to say about the scene beyond acknowledging that it’s a thrill to see John DiMaggio’s two signature characters sharing a scene, with Bender predictably telling Jake to shut the hell up. That quick exchange is also a good illustration of just how different the two voices really are, even though both are relatively subtle variations on DiMaggio’s normal voice.
- The mechanical buggalo spontaneously attaining sentience feels like another throwaway gag that could have supported an entire episode. Eh… it probably worked better as a throwaway gag.
- Thanks for letting me sub in for one last time; I’ve been watching Futurama from the beginning and writing about it off and on for the last few years, so it’s nice to check back in on the show one last time before it bows out, especially since this proved to be such an enjoyable episode. Zack will be back next week to take you through to the grand finale.