There are jokes that Futurama does well, and jokes that Futurama doesn't do so well. Tonight, the show returned for the start of its seventh season with two new episodes, "Neutopia" and "Benderama." It's good to have the Planet Express team back in the skies, and doing that crazy thing they do, but intentionally or not, the double-feature premiere gave some great examples of the series core strengths and weaknesses, which makes my job as a reviewer a whole lot easier, I'm telling you. I mean, if David X. Cohen had stopped by my house and confessed to me his insecurities about comedy writing, or if I was actually good at my job, sure, I'd be better off than I am right now. But I stopped believing in unicorns a long time ago, and the wishes that come with them, so I'll just stick to hard cold reality, and focus on the difference between "Neutopia"'s Goofus and "Benderama"'s Ganja.
Don't get me wrong: both episodes were funny, and neither were perfect. But "Neutopia" wasn't all that effective, despite a premise which, if not brilliant, at least had some potential. Planet Express has gone bankrupt, and in order to keep their building, Fry, Leela, Bender, and the others need to come up with eleven million dollars, and fast. So, like any sensible company, they try and make a sexy calendar exploiting their female employees. This fails, due to the fact that three photos (Leela, Amy, and a hastily hired La Barbara) doesn't make for much a of a calendar, so the Professor decides to steal Leela's idea from earlier in the episode and turn the Planet Express ship in a transport shuttle. Due to his (and the rest of the men's) rampant sexism, things go badly, and the plane and its passengers crash land on a planet riddled with rock men. (Well, three of them.) One of the rock men takes an interest in the group, and tries to teach them a valuable lesson about gender equality. This doesn't go so great, so the rock man makes everybody gender neutral. This goes sort of great, but because Hermes and La Barbara want to have sex again, the rock man gives everyone a gender again, except he reverses what they used to be, and was as if a million Futurama slash fiction writers cried at at once, and fell silent.
There's a lot of plot there, which is one of the problems with "Benderama"; it's less a story than a "stuff keeps happening, and it more or less makes sense, and then it stops." The best Futurama scripts are the ones which have a problem that remains relevant throughout the entire episode, even if there are a lot of wacky left turns between Point A and Point Zed. Here, there's the threat of foreclosure, and the man vs. woman sparring, but neither of those threads is enough to give much sense of rising action. What really hurts, though, is the so much of the episode is given over to making lame gender stereotype jokes, which have fascinated the writing staff since the very start of the series, and have never been quite as funny as they all seem to think. The intention is obvious: when the women obsess over shoes, or the men refuse to ask for directions, it's a stupid gag, but it's a self-consciously stupid one, and we're supposed to laugh at the stupidity of the humor. It's a lazy sort of gag-writing, but it's a kind that Futurama often puts to very good use. Unfortunately, here, there's just too much of it. Zoidberg does a quick stand-up routine early in the ep, and it's funny because he's so bad at it. Yet far too many of the "real" jokes were are equally as terrible, and could've popped right out of a terrible stand-up routine from the mid-eighties. This is a series which has always struggled a bit with its female characters, and it simply can't support the satire it seems to be attempting here. It's not a complete wash, since much of the rest of the humor works. (And Zap Brannigan is used sparingly, both here and in the next episode, which is smart.) But man, somebody needs to tell them they either need to find a new layer to the "Women be different from men!" junk, or else lose it entirely.
On the other hand, we've got "Benderama," which mostly sticks to two of the show's big strengths: science jokes and Bender. When the Professor invents a machine that can make two smaller copies of any object, it's only a matter of time before Bender gets ahold of it and puts it use making his life a fraction easier. Only, given that Bender is making copies of himself, every new version is just as lazy as the original one, and since every new version comes with his very own copying machine, it's only a matter of time before the copies make copies to do their work, and those copies make copies, and so on. Soon, the Professor determines that Bender's Benders will devour all matter on the planet (forgot to mention, the machine needs matter before it can make duplicates), and the group sets to work destroying all the little Benders to save the planet. They almost succeed, except Bender saves a copy, and that copy starts breeding again, and pretty soon all the water on the planet has been turned into alcohol. Then an ugly giant (voiced by Patton Oswalt) arrives and runs amok, and Bender(s) is the only one sober enough to save the day.
"Benderama" works because the script holds together, starting from the original premise (duplicating machine), and then introducing complications over time. The ending is a little softer than it might've been--the mini-Benders all leave because they don't want to do any more work, which makes sense character-wise, but feels a little like a deus-ex-machine--but the good will built up by the rest of the half hour makes up for this. Patton Oswalt does a great job as a hideous monster who really, really doesn't want to go crazy with rage and murder everyone (unsurprisingly, the giant is a perfectly nice, friendly guy whose life is first ruined, and then ended, by Bender being an ass). And, where "Neutopia" bogged down, "Benderama" moves briskly along, as the replication premise is clever, and the math behind it solid enough to be geeky without being obscure. (Although, much like Fry, I had no idea what the formula the Professor showed to prove that Bender's Benders would destroy the world meant.) When Futurama sticks to characters and concepts it cares about, it works well, but when it shifts its focus to a subject the writers don't seem to have much knowledge in (I suppose you could say they were deconstructing sitcom tropes of the 1980s, but if they were, it still wasn't funny), it stumbles. Still, a generally strong debut. Bender's back, baby! And so are we.
- For the record, I did not choose that screen shot. I would've gone with the Professor's photo shoot.
- Another problem with "Neutopia" is that none of the sexual permutations of the group went on long enough to really get beyond surface level bits. Surely they could've done more with "Fry and Bender are chicks"?
- "Wait! I found a loophole in the mortgage--if we actually pay it, we can keep the building!"
- "I promised myself I wouldn't post naked until I was married."
- "A three month calendar? What is this, Mercury?"
- "Who ever heard of a plane with a woman president?"
- "In your face, decumbent urinators!"
- "I don't know what you're doing back in the galley, 'cause you got a first class seat."
- "I heard your distress calls, and came as quickly as I wanted to."
- Scruffy is still a woman! What ramifications will this have in the future? Guessing none.
- Newhart gag: "Hi, I'm Bender. This is my robot Bender, and this is my other robot Bender."
- "It's like fine cognac, aged with a hint of scrotum."
- "Your face has been declared a weapon of mass disgusting!"