Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that. In the middle of a passable but not particularly memorable season, tonight’s episode of Futurama, “Near-Death Wish,” was a stone cold classic, a fine mixture of heart and acidic humor, combined with just enough sprinkling of science to give it the necessary nerd cred. As I mentioned in my review of the premiere, the show has settled into a groove of decent jokes, likable characters, and occasionally affecting sentiment, but it rarely seemed to be able to get to that next level of storytelling to combine these elements together into something more. That’s part of the life cycle of any series, for the most part; once you work through four or five seasons worth of A material, all of the obvious storylines are gone, and it’s time to either had in a new direction, or else mix and match bits of what’s come before. Sure, tonight’s episode does a bit of that. As Fry points out, we’ve been to the Near-Death Star before (first time in season two’s “A Clone Of My Own”), and we’ve dealt with troubled parent-child relationships many times on the show. I don’t know if the reveal tonight that Farnsworth’s parents are still alive and living in the geezer Matrix contradicts established continuity, either. But I don’t much care. This worked, and it kept working from beginning to end, because it was sincere and consistently funny, and because it featured a lengthy diatribe about the creative failings of The Matrix.
Let’s start there—I suppose on any other series, I would call spending three minutes ripping apart a movie that’s over a decade old indulgent in the worst way, a breaking of the fourth wall that only serves to let the writers get over a grudge, and endear themselves to the geekier parts of their fan-base. But works. (Or else this particular geek was endeared.) It’s funny, for one, and it’s relevant to the immediate story; Fry, Leela, and Bender are visiting the part of the Near-Death Star where old people are used as batteries, which, according to Leela, is an idea swiped from that old movie The Matrix. This prompts an exchange between the three in which they point out how stupid the central concept of the movie is, given that humans put out a minimal amount of energy compared to the amount they take in, and there are hundreds of things which would serve as better batteries. I’ve had half a dozen friends complain about this over the years, and what sold this bit for me was the just barely buried irritation behind the writing. You got the sense that someone was settling a grudge they’d held for a long time. Sometimes, Futurama’s attempts to get humor out of the obviousness of their attempts to get humor fall flat, but this one didn’t. It was just really, really satisfying, and reminded me of one of the easiest ways to get labeled a geek: taking movies too damn seriously.
“Neard-Death Experience” serves as decent proof of the fact that a great story and understandable characters can help enhance comedy. The plot was simple, but effective: Fry, feeling lonely and neglected because of Farnsworth’s gleeful apathy, finds out that Farnsworth’s parents are still alive, and he goes to visit them. The three hit it off well (it’s sweet, and entirely consistent, that Fry would be so entranced by “Shabado” and “Gram-gram”’s charms; he’s basically a ten year-old kid at heart), and due to a minor incident with some pissed off security robots, Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth end up coming back to Earth. Farnsworth isn’t happy to see them, and he’s especially unhappy when he spies on them bonding with Fry; when Amy and Leela confront him about his spying (he’s in the bathtub, and despite Leela’s desperate attempts to avoid it, he gives them both the full monty), he tells them how his parents refused to neglect his scientific dreams, instead forcing him to live out in the countryside where there were no computers, but where there were plenty of eagles eager to grab a boy’s mouse-frog hybrid right out of his hand.
The beats are all familiar, right down to the eventual reconciliation between Farnsworth and his folks, but they work, because they’re effective in their own right (as the saying goes, there’s a reason some things become familiar), and because the show finds ways to subvert or riff on them without destroying the heart of the story. For one, there’s the fact that Farnsworth’s complaints demonstrate his parents really did care about him, as they refused to let him go to MIT as a 14 year-old, and kept trying to find ways to help him mature. Instead of trying to trick us into thinking Mom and Pop were bad, “Near-Death Wish” plays an open hand from the start. When the elder Farnsworths try and explaint themselves, they talk about Farnsworth having an older, even more scientifically driven brother—only, they misunderstand, because the brother they’re talking about (who they eventually had commited to a mental institution, where he stayed for twenty-five years) is our Farnsworth. It’s an almost too clever twist that gets saved by the flashback to Mom and Pop reading a chemistry book to comfort their child, and by Bender trying to mention how he met a man ages ago who was the younger Farnsworth that Mom and Pop thought they were talking to. The emotion is still there (that chemistry book scene is really wonderful), but the show manages to twist around and mock what’s it’s selling at the same time as it sells it.
And the final secene, with Farnsworth altering his parents’ virtual reality program so they can spend some time on the farm and play with him, is, well, maybe it’s late, and maybe I’m tired, but that got to me, and it got to me good. So I’m going to give this an A. Maybe I’ll regret it in the morning (and I get grade regret fairly regularly with this show), but the episode felt right from beginning to end.
- “We couldn’t be more proud of you. Unless you’d won the award.” -LaBarbara, giving her son context for years worth of therapy.
- “You see, I came down with a searing case of Who gives a crap.” -Farnsworth
- “Let’s boldly go where we’ve gone before!” -Fry
- “They look just like you, Fry—arms, legs, ugly.” -Bender
- Let’s all share a moment of silence for a homeless rodeo clown named Floyd.