E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial isn’t the most current of targets Futurama could choose to take on, but the show has always been free-wheeling about its pop culture targets. Besides, Spielberg’s “boy meets alien” fairy tale is such a classic staple of science fiction cinema that it seems like something the show would have to take on sooner or later. (I’m pretty sure the writers ran a few isolated gags about the movie in earlier seasons. There had to have been something about a floating bicycle, right?) This could’ve been great, but in order to work, the humor needed to be sharp. While surprisingly affecting bursts of sentiment are one of Futurama’s greatest advantages, those don’t really work in parody, especially when that source material is something already rich with emotion; most of the effect of the episode is going to be based around undercutting the film’s iconic moments, and nearly all of those iconic moments have some intense feelings underlying them. Unless the writing staff pulled off some remarkable double-act, or gave up the E.T. jokes early on, this entry was going to be all about the jokes. And since most of those jokes were going to be riffs on a decades old movie, that wasn’t going to be easy.
For a little while, “T.: The Terrestrial” looks like it might pull it off. The jabs at NBC, while routine by now, are always welcome, and Lrr’s favorite new show “The Finder-Outer” is a clever take on high-concept procedurals. Lrr’s son, Jrr, wants to earn more merit badges, and Dad decides the best way to do this is for the boy to conquer Earth. The sequence that follows, with Jrr nervously confronting a confused Richard Nixon while Lrr eggs him on, is a good example of putting a “normal” concept (merit badges, fathers pushing their sons) into an extraordinary context, and in doing so, generating new material. Or, to say it in a less pretentious way, it feels like a new idea, and one with a some mileage left in it. Jrr’s reluctant, stammering attempts to follow the script are endearing enough to bring the character into focus.
It’s frustrating, then, that a good part of the rest of the episode is taken up with a lot of eh reversals on E.T. scenes. While scrounging for herbal supplements for Professor Farnsworth (the supplements are marijuana stand-ins, which is the laziest possible stand-in) on Omicron Persei 8, Fry gets left behind by the Planet Express crew. Jrr finds him, and, mimicking Eliot and E.T.’s first scenes together, lures him out of a toolshed behind his home. Actually, the “luring” isn’t intentional; Fry sees what looks like candy on the ground, and eats the trail of it leading to Jrr’s chair, but it turns out the candies are Jrr’s turds. Which is really gross, in a not particularly hilarious kind of way. The script resolutely sticks with the gag, bringing it back multiple times through the rest of the half hour, but while it loses some of the shock value, it never becomes something worth retelling. Really, it’s just the half-assed nature of the gag that disappoints. Slurm was funny because there was a whole story around the soda’s hideous origin. Fry eating colorful shit pellets? Eh.
The rest of the Jrr/Fry sequences are, if not quite as disgusting, about as inspired. The plotline has been done so many times before that it just doesn’t have much life left in it, a problem the writers seem to tacitly acknowledge by throwing in scenes of Bender trying to cover for Fry’s absence. These scenes rely heavily on a regular Futurama gag, the “characters ignoring the obvious because if they didn’t the story wouldn’t keep going, wink wink” moments, like Leela falling for every alibi Bender can come up with, and the whole crew getting taken in by the robot’s careful use of Fry’s voice recorded on an answering machine tape. But these gags are funnier because they play off Bender’s sociopath/friend relationship with his roommate, and the ways he twists the tape are stupidly brilliant enough to be worth a few chuckles.
Even when the writers are falling back on outworn material, there are still enough sharp ideas to keep an episode from being a complete waste. Even the Jrr/Fry scenes have a few winners; Fry using high-tech equipment to spell out S.O.S. was funny, and while the initial gag about a love-powered bicycle fell flat, the callback late in the episode when Lrr and his men try and follow an escaping Jrr on their own bicycles found a way to make a seemingly crummy concept (which, in its initial iteration, is basically just “Ha ha, E.T. is sappy”) into an effective one. “T.: The Terrestrial” is the show in autopilot mood, relying on our affection for the characters and some shallow humor to get most of the work done. But every couple of minutes, there’s something to remind you why coasting isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world.
- “This truly is the Golden Age of Television.” -Lrr
- “We now go live to the White House lawn, where such things usually land.”
- I get that the story was about Jrr, Lrr, Fry, and Bender, but it would’ve been nice to have some resolution to the whole embargo thing.
- Hermes likes pot. ‘Kay.
- After Jrr zaps a headless Spiro Agnew clone out of existence, Nixon calls to “Rose Mary” to clear his desk off. Rose Mary Woods was the real life Nixon’s secretary for the majority of his political career.
- “Hey Bender, you better check your ass. I think it’s leaking enchantment.” -Leela
- “You shot your hamster!” “I told you that was suicide.” -Lrr, Jrr
- The butts glowing was pure hackiness. Blergh.
- On the plus side, Leela made out with Bender in a closet while he was pretending to be Fry. Hot!