After a run of four excellent, occasionally classic episodes, tonight’s Futurama episode falls a bit flat. It’s an entertaining enough half-hour of television, but it isn’t especially funny. It takes some well-explored areas of the Futurama universe—the Robot Mafia and the Wong family’s mistreatment of the Native Martians—and doesn’t really offer anything we haven’t seen before. There’s a thematic arc here about poverty and privilege and Amy realizing that being rich doesn’t inherently make you better than other people, but the idea never really coheres into anything especially illuminating. And, particularly by the standards of the last few weeks, the episode goes fairly light on the big crazy sci-fi concepts, telling a straightforward story that could be refashioned to take place in the here and now with minimal tweaking, give or take a certain invisible, money-vomiting lobster. And yet, I’m inclined to forgive at least some of this. Because “Viva Mars Vegas” is a heist episode, and heist episodes are always at least kind of awesome.
“Viva Mars Vegas” finds the entire Planet Express team off for a weekend getaway to Mars Vegas—all except Zoidberg, whom Amy disinvites because his absurd poverty means he simply can’t be trusted at a casino. His luck changes when the loot from the latest Robot Mafia heist literally falls into his lap, and he heads off to the Wong family’s casino to celebrate. After a crustacean-themed riff on “Big Spender” and Zoidberg managing to run his money up to over $10 billion, he predictably loses everything when he bets everything for the third time on 34 Red. Zoidberg isn’t bothered about his reversal of fortune—for a moment, he made everyone on Mars happy, and he considers that enough—but the Robot Mafia feels differently, and their attempt to get their money back ultimately leaves them in control of the Wong’s casino and Zoidberg invisible. In an effort to steal back the casino, Amy plans an elaborate heist, which involves Zoidberg sneaking into the casino vault and eating all the money inside, rendering it all as invisible as he is. In an episode that really doesn’t work as well as it ought to, the heist is one of the more successful elements. It isn’t nearly as insane as you might expect a Futurama heist to be—just imagine a heist that’s as fiendishly complicated and sci-fi-driven as, say, the body-swapping in “The Prisoner of Benda”—but the episode does a solid job of deconstructing the standard heist tropes, in particular Amy’s refusal to divulge all the details of the plan until it’s actually begun.
Generally speaking, Futurama has three major tools at its disposal to put its own spin on a well-worn narrative formula. It can filter the standard story beats through its impossible sci-fi universe, mock the established tropes and conventions of the parodied genre with a barrage of meta-humor, and lean on the comedic strengths of its ensemble. “Viva Mars Vegas” does only a little of the first of these and a lot of the last two, albeit to rather mixed effect. It perhaps says something about the standard Futurama has set when an episode featuring the Robot Mafia, the Native Martians, and a talking lobster turned invisible by a translucidating light polarizer doesn’t feel especially sci-fi. The problem is that both the Robot Mafia and the Native Martians serve the same story function here in pretty much exactly the same way as human mobsters and Native Americans would—nothing in the episode happens because these characters are robots or aliens. Hell, Clamps barely even uses this clamps this time around.
Zoidberg’s disappearance feels more sci-fi, but the episode doesn’t really explore any of the possible implications of invisibility—even Zoidberg’s semi-unintentional voyeurism while Amy is taking a bath is just sort of left hanging there—nor does it connect Zoidberg’s disappearance with, say, the fact that his coworkers ignore and exclude him. His invisibility is a plot necessity, a reasonably clever and enjoyably gross way to get the casino’s money out of the vault, and not much else. The show obviously isn’t under any obligation to really go nuts every week with its outlandish sci-fi concepts, but then again, that is kind of a big part of Futurama’s appeal, and this week feels a little empty without that creative energy. Indeed, the show’s resurgence over the last few weeks has been fueled by telling stories that really could only ever happen on Futurama: Hermes upgrading himself into a robot, Fry falling in with secret Neanderthals and Leela erasing her memories, or Bender searching for robotic free will. Tonight’s episode isn’t about Zoidberg turning invisible, but rather about the gang robbing a casino, and you don’t really need the Futurama universe to tell that story.
Admittedly, none of this would really matter if the episode were hilarious, or if it wove a compelling emotional story for its characters—indeed, you could argue that the basic story of last week’s classic, if you change the virtual reality of the Near-Death Star to just another retirement home, could have been told in a contemporary setting with even fewer changes than tonight’s episode, and yet the story worked brilliantly in part because it revealed a side of the Professor we had never seen before. “Viva Mars Vegas” has the kernel of an Amy story that it wants to tell, as Zoidberg shows her why being poor isn’t a bad thing and she does the right thing for the Native Martians. But this arc never really makes much sense, in part because Amy doesn’t seem all that different at the start of the episode from how she seems at the end—this is actually a case where Futurama’s tendency to send characters way over-the-top to hammer home their flaw of the week is sorely missed. The other issue is that it’s her parents who exploit the Native Martians in the casino, whereas she’s just sort of clueless and indifferent about the whole thing (her “What’s rent?” rejoinder to her mother is easily the best observed Amy moment in the episode). The story also hinges on the latest revelation about Sir Reginald Wong’s deal with the Native Martians, something that comes out of nowhere and again doesn’t really have anything to do with Amy’s journey.
And then there’s the most basic problem of all, namely that “Viva Mars Vegas” just isn’t all that funny. This is a subjective thing, admittedly, and there’s certainly a good number of gags that work decently well here, such as the Professor’s observations about God’s hand in Zoidberg’s shifting fortunes and the gang’s first ever visit to the Chart Room. The Robot Mafia is still an enjoyable presence, even if Clamps isn’t used much. The Donbot’s hyper-awareness of whatever the latest necessary plot complication is and overly explanatory lines (“You know, I think I’ll close the safe a little prematurely today”) remain one of Futurama’s cleverest sources of meta-humor, but the humor is too purposefully over-written and archly self-aware to be all that funny. The episode is able to get a little extra comedic mileage out of the cast, with Bender, Hermes, and the Professor’s increasingly preposterous attempts to stall the Donbot the funniest use of the cast. But I just wasn’t especially amused by this episode, which is particularly disappointing since Futurama has often been genuinely hilarious over the last few weeks. “Viva Mars Vegas” is a solid, enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes, but not much else. Even the giddy thrill of a good old casino heist can only carry it so far.
- I know my review has been pretty unforgiving towards this episode, but the episode was pleasantly entertaining enough that I feel totally comfortable bumping this from a B- to a B on the strength of that awesome live-action title sequence. Comedy Central previously showed this for a season seven promo, but it’s nice to see it lead off an actual episode.
- Bender feels a little underused here, but he shines in his 15 seconds as the crazy Texan robot millionaire here to lose all his money at the casino, and there’s some great animation of his weird “Texan” gait and crazy spinning head. Generally speaking, Bender’s half-assed participation in these schemes is always good for a laugh, so I got a kick out of his exclamation to Hermes: “Nelson! Thank god you’re here, Hermes!” I also loved John DiMaggio’s intentionally awful stab at a Texas accent.
- “Maybe the mafia should get involved in the casino business.” “What are you, an idiot?” “Pretty much, yeah.” “Then you won’t notice when I claim your idea as my own.”
- “Smell with your eyes with what I see with my nose!” Blind Joe, truly a poet.
- Zack will be back next week. Thanks once again for letting me chat Futurama with you in his absence!