Futurama returns to the air tonight on Comedy Central at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Nerds make terrible liars. We don't really understand the social conventions that make polite lies necessary, and we lack the interpersonal skills necessary to sell anything but the most basic falsehood. We stammer, we roll our eyes, we snicker through mouths we can never remember to cover in time, not because we don't care who knows what we're thinking, but because we assume no one is paying attention. We value the truth, because we are weird and obnoxious and loud and clumsy, and so all we have is our brains, and the Truth, and how we express it. Sometimes we know it's important not to explain or correct or describe, but we can't stop ourselves from doing it. Nerds make terrible liars because we hope, deep down in that weird place where we keep all our Captain Power/Captain Planet crossover fan-fic, the truth really will set us free.
Futurama is a nerd show. It's created by smart people who don't tone down their jokes or their world-view in order to reach a wider audience. So it's a show the tells the truth, at least the truth how David X. Cohen, Matt Groening, Jeff Westbrook, Kristin Gore, and the rest of the writing staff sees it. Because of that, it can be surprisingly mean. There's death and bitterness and dogs that wait for years for a master who will never return, and nobody ever turns to the camera and tries to teach us a lesson about any of it. Futurama works to make us laugh and to screw with our heads, and then it leaves us to draw our own conclusions. That can be off-putting at times, but it's worth it, because every once in a while, when something approaching sentiment happens on screen, it's so rare and simple that it always feels earned.
To put it another way: I love The Simpsons, like any reasonable person should, and I can't stand what the show has become. I blame Frank Grimes. Season 8 is the last full season I own, and while I've seen later episodes, and enjoyed many of them (and yeah, I liked the movie), "Homer's Enemy" is where I mark the beginning of the end. Not because it's a terrible episode, but because it fundamentally and permanently undermines the series' core. "Enemy" has newcomer Frank Grimes railing against Homer's stupidity, his luck, his sloth, his grotesque ineptitude. It's a clever piece of meta-commentary on certain basic elements that have been with the show since the beginning. It gets laughs out of pointing out how ridiculous these characters are, and how monstrous they would appear to an outsider. Since the show relies on us caring about these people, this seems like an odd approach, especially eight seasons in.
Now, "Enemy" is hilarious, no question. The rub is, The Simpsons can't support that level of darkness without losing its heart. The series at its best tempered Matt Groening's Looney Tunes brand cynicism with James L. Brooks' deft emotional touch (I am grossly oversimplifying here), giving the audience the safety net of family to fall back on during even the most vicious comedy. Season 8 overall works to systematically remove that safety net (despite the sweetness of "Grade School Confidential" and "The Secret War of Lisa Simpson," among others), and "Enemy" is, for me, the breaking point. It ruins the tenuous reality of the series so profoundly that nothing they've done since has been able to entirely recover from the loss.
I mention this here not because I want to start another comment war about a series I'm not even recapping (wow, I wasted two paragraphs! I'm really glad I get paid by the parenthetical), but because it's the easiest way I can think of to explain why I think Futurama has a chance to make its return to the airwaves a successful one. It goes back to the whole truth-telling philosophy I belabored above. There are a lot of differences between The Simpsons and this show, but the most fundamental and positive one to me is that Futurama started out at the "Homer's Enemy" level of misanthropy. There's no James L. Brooks around to lighten the mood, and while I wouldn't trade my favorite Simpsons' episodes for anything, I think this difference of approach makes Futurama more resilient. We don't have a safety net now, but we never did. From the very first season, Fry, Leela, Bender, Farnsworth, Zoidberg, Hermes, and Amy have been punctured, ridiculed, cloned, exploded, and humiliated, because they're nerds, and that's what happens to nerds. (Yeah, even Leela. She started off as the "responsible one," but made the transition to late-period-Marge-craziness early on.) So when Fry learns the truth about his brother, or Leela meets her parents for the first time, it's a perfect, beautiful moment that can't be undone by, say, panda rape in season 12. Fry's already confessed to shitting in a wastebasket. Leela's had sex with Zap Brannigan. How much lower could they possibly go?
After a promising but mildly lumpy start in March of 1999, Futurama managed to hit near perfect over the course of four seasons, despite Fox's best efforts to kill it thoroughly dead. It told some of the best sci-fi stories on television, and some of the funniest, and when the writers decided to break your heart, they did so without remorse or comfort. For a brief window of time, the smartest show on TV was a cartoon that aired on the same network as When Animals Attack. Then it was over too soon. "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings" is one of my favorite half-hours of television ever, bringing back Dan Castellaneta's brilliant Robot Devil, working in terrific singing jokes, and putting a wonderful, sincere cap on the Fry/Leela romance. The show left too soon in August, 2003, but in leaving, at least they got a chance to give loyal viewers a conclusion worthy of what came before it.
Ah, but this is the future, in which we will spend the rest of our lives, and in the future, premature cancellation isn't always forever. Deals were made, blood oaths signed, and in November 2007, we got the first of what would eventually be four straight-to-DVD movies: Bender's Big Score, The Beast With A Billion Backs, Bender's Game, and Into The Green Wild Yonder. All had their moments, but none of them lived up to the series's glory days. Not all the jokes worked (the "feministas" in Green was the gag that kept on gagging), and the pacing, especially once the writers got past the 20-minute mark, was uneven. Still, it was something, and the situation got even more promising when Comedy Central (which had bought syndication rights for the original 72 episodes and the movies) green-lit a 12-episode run starting in June of this year. Sure, "Devil's" was a great grace note, and the problems with the movies were troubling, but come on. We have the original seasons no matter what, and with the original creative team and voice talent all returning, why the hell not give this another try?
Futurama's sixth season (the movies count as the fith) starts tonight, with "Rebirth" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela." "Rebirth" deals with the ramifications of Wild Green Yonder's cliffhanger ending, as Professor Farnsworth works to bring his employees back to life, lest their skeletonized corpses run out of sick time. I'll save you the worry: it's good. It's not incredible, but it's works, and it's proof that running time really was the biggest drawback with the movies. The only real problem is that the Fry/Leela connection hasn't quite settled into its new territory yet. Given how much of the original run's emotional highpoints hinged on the will-they-won't-they dynamic between the two characters, it must've been tempting to try to restore the status quo to pre-"Devil," especially after the kissing and so forth in Yonder. So serious points to Cohen and Groening for doing the opposite of this, but it's odd to see Fry and Leela so readily declaring their love for each other. The question for the rest of the season is whether or not they can find grounded ways to make that relationship work.
Judging by "In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela," the answer is "... maybe." "Gadda" is the weaker of the two premiere eps. It's still funny (though not quite as funny as "Rebirth), but the storyline doesn't build to the sort of wild, resonant pay-off that Futurama does best. There's a lot of clever references and one-liners, and Zap Brannigan is featured prominently, which is never a bad thing. At times, though, it's almost too frenetic. That may play better on the re-watch, but after the moderate high of "Rebirth," it's a let-down.
I'm not too worried, though. There are enough promising signs in both episodes that I'm willing to put up with some uneven-ness. I laughed a lot, and I'd rather have overly-frenetic than tedious. The nerd in me would like to point out that this season may suck. Futurama may have already hit its creative peak, and we may never again see the likes of such manic joy as "The Farnsworth Parabox" or "Roswell That Ends Well" or "Godfellas" or "Xmas Story" or "Where No Fan Has Gone Before" or a dozen others I could name. It's been a long time since the show was great, and people can change. I'm hopeful, though. The odds may be against it, but the odds aren't everything, and even if the new season never gets better than "Rebirth," I can live with that. I'm just glad the show got it's much deserved second (and a half) chance, and I'm beside myself that I get to tear it apart with all of you.
- I may be over-grading "Rebirth." I had it pegged as a B+ initially, but thinking about it for the review I liked it just a third of a grade more. Besides, I'm so stoked that we get new episodes that I don't mind some inflation.
- "Yes, it's sort of a comedy central channel, and we're on it now." "I get it!"
- "Only one thing can keep him alive. Possibly this thing!"
- "Why does everything I date run away?"
- David X. Cohen was not kidding about the nudity.
- I hope to deal more with the geekier aspects of the show in the weeks to come, but I'll warn you in advance, I'm more of a pop-culture obsessive than a science guy. So please point out what I'm missing, won't you? (I ask because you're normally so shy.)
- "I love Fry. This Fry." "I love Leela. Any Leela."
- I now want a Chamber of Understanding. But only if it comes with the disco ball.
- "We can avoid humanity's mistakes!" "Like the tuba!"