It’s getting difficult to review Futurama. The show is in its seventh season, which is impressive for any series regardless of its production history (and there’s no question, Futurama’s production history is more impressive than most). But, by now, the show lacks the ability to substantially surprise us. We know its range, both in terms of the kinds of jokes the writers love to come back to, and the sort of emotional beats they’re comfortable hitting. Apart from the occasional delightful gimmick (like last year’s season finale, “Reincarnation”), this is a series content to muddle about in its clearly established comfort zone, knocking all the low hanging fruit off the branches, occasionally stretching for something just out of reach.
Honestly, that’s fine. That’s how TV works. The vast majority of shows figure out their fighting weight in their second and third seasons, and then spend the remainder of their existence slowly putting on the pounds until they finally collapse into obsolescence, heart failure, and cancellation. Futurama isn’t at the height of its powers, but it’s still fun to watch, often hilarious, and occasionally brilliant. As a fan, I am completely cool with this.
As a critic, it means I have the unenviable task of picking and poking and digging at things in a way that will inevitably make me look harder on the show than I actually am. Take, for instance, tonight’s première episodes, “The Bots And The Bees” and “Farewell To Arms.” Both are fine—the first a little more than the second—but I’m going to have to say more than “fine,” or it’s going to sound like I didn’t enjoy watching them. So, before we dig in, I'll just say I’m glad to have the show back, and if it maintains this kind of batting average for the remainder of the season, that’ll be cool. I hope for greatness, but I don’t require it.
“The Bots And The Bees” could’ve been entirely crap but it still would’ve been worth watching for the sight of the baby Bender bot. Well, baby Ben, I guess—whatever his name is, that fucking thing was so cute it ruined what little capacity I have for rational thought. Ben is Bender’s son, and if that sounds strange, well, it is. The episode opens with Professor Farnsworth bringing the Planet Express team together to share his latest achievement: He bought a soda machine named Bev. Voiced by Wanda Sykes, Bev is funny enough, although unpleasant. She exists mostly to make the baby (after a fight with Bender turns into a bought of wall sex), then ditch the kid with his dad, and then show up later once Bender has grown fond of the boy so there can be drama. It’s mean-spirited—and, worse, lazy—to make Bev into the easiest stereotype of a crappy mom, and most of the jokes that come out of that characterization aren’t great. Sykes makes the most of the part, but there isn’t much to it.
Thankfully, the episode is more about Bender and Ben bonding, and Bender turning out to be a doting, supportive father. It’s a little sweeter than usual, and somehow, the attempts to undercut that sweetness just make the relationship even more adorable; a montage of father and son spending time together includes petty theft and bank robbery, and yet seems about as wholesome as the show ever gets. But it works, because it’s fun to see Bender getting emotionally attached to anything. Ben grows up, and wants to be a bending robot just like his dad, but his programming won’t allow it; so Bender allows Farnsworth to replace Ben’s memory card with a bending module, allowing his son to achieve his dreams while sacrificing the boy’s memories of their time together. This would be sappy (and pretty ridiculous), if it weren’t for Bender’s sobs throughout the operation. Somehow, because he acts like he’s the tragic heroine of a Lifetime original movie, it’s hard to take any of what happens that seriously (although it’s still sad). Plus, the episode ends with Fry, who’s become radioactive due to excessive amounts of Slurm, tied to the front of the ship to help Rudolph the gang to bending college. Fry is at his best when he drinks too much.
“The Bots And The Bees” benefits from a straightforward plot; “Farewell To Arms” is loopier, throwing together a standard Fry-and-Leela runner with the potential end of the world, jokes about 2012 and the Mayan (I’m sorry, Martian) calendar, and Zap Brannigan being an ass. There’s a story, to be sure: while hunting for Fry’s pants, the team finds a Mayan—again, sorry, Martian—calendar, which, after Amy’s helpful translations, seems to indicate the world is about to end. Since the weather has gone all hellfire and electronics no longer work like they should, everyone takes the prediction entirely at face value, and there’s a rush off the planet. While this is going on, Fry and Leela try and share some time together, despite Fry’s inability to successfully rescue Leela no matter how hard he tries. He even sacrifices his spot on the stone space-ship so Leela can get to Mars, only for the evacuees to learn that Amy mistranslated the calendar and it’s Mars that’s going to be destroyed. End of the world stories are fun, and Zap’s antics are entertaining as ever, but there’s so much plot in action that the attempts at emotional connection are a little fuzzy, and the jokes don’t have the cohesion they would in in a more directed narrative.
Basically, “A Farewell To Arms” is just one thing after another until everything stops. The through line is Fry’s efforts to protect the woman he loves—which end up nearly killing her—and Leela’s exasperation at getting suckered, bashed, and broken by Fry's efforts, even though she still likes the guy. People frustrated by the show’s on-again/off-again approach to the Fry/Leela relationship may have problems with this episode, and it’s hard to argue that this isn’t extremely well-tread ground. But there’s still some mileage to be gained from it. The main problem here is that there’s no real change between two characters even in the course of the episode itself. In the end, both of them lose an arm, we get a funny “world’s smallest violin” gag, and then they hug. Leela accepts Fry, even if he is inept, but then, she accepted him all along. “Farewell To Arms” has enough good pieces to carry it through, but it would’ve worked better if it had been tighter, and better plotted. Still, not a bad double feature for the show’s return.
“The Bots And The Bees”: B+
“Farewell To Arms”: B
- I was briefly worried that the idea of robots making babies didn’t make sense, considering that we know Bender came from a factory (and we’ve never heard of a pregnant robot before), but the idea that robots have all been programmed to procreate in order to meet a demand for mechanical men that the factories can’t fulfill wasn’t bad.
- So Mars is gone now? I’m curious if they’ll bother to maintain continuity with an entire planet.
- I’m not a huge fan of when the show does jokes about contemporary pop culture, but Leela’s line about Tron: Legacy was great, as was Fry’s response.
- Fry: “What is it? I’m on the edge of my butt!”
- Farnsworth: “I hate to crush a boy’s dreams, but what the heck!”
- Fry: “Merry College Registration Day!”
- Fry: “No way will I let God get my pants!”
- “Is it just me, or is the world ending more often these days?”