Since Futurama made its Comedy Central debut back in 2010, one of its new narrative tricks has occasionally been to pare down an episode’s focus to just one or two regular characters while ditching the rest of the ensemble for long stretches. When successful—I’d point to “Lethal Inspection” as the best example of this particular storytelling method—it offers a chance to explore the featured characters and their relationship more closely than usual, and this can open up unexpected avenues both for humor and emotional resonance. The problem is that if this main, all-encompassing story isn’t working, then there’s really nothing left to fall back on, and “Zapp Dingbat” comes dangerously close to falling into this trap. The episode is almost entirely given over to Leela, her parents, Zapp Branigan, and pretty much no one else. Fry and Bender are relegated to glorified bit parts and don’t even get the steady stream of one-liners they normally get when moved to supporting players. Beyond that, Dr. Zoidberg gets a typically Zoidberg gag here and there, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the cast don’t even get a single line between them. None of this would be a problem if Leela and her parents’ situation was funny or emotional or even simply vaguely interesting enough to warrant such an exclusive focus. As it is, I really could have used a randomly strident rant from the Professor to liven things up.
“Zapp Dingbat” opens with Leela’s parents, Turanga Morris and Munda, celebrating their fortieth anniversary. When Leela’s well-intentioned video tribute reveals just how different her parents are—Morris a laidback sort who dreamed of surfing the world’s sewers, Munda a dreamer fascinated with space and alien languages—they launch into a fight that leads almost instantly to their divorce. Leela helps her mother realize her dream by taking her into space for a trip to Saturn’s Mos Def Cantina, where they encounter intergalactic blowhard Zapp Branigan in the midst of peace negotiations with the vaguely shark-like Carcarons. When Zapp’s inevitably hideous faux pas threatens the treaty, Munda uses her knowledge of xenolinguistics to save the day, and soon she and Zapp are dating. Leela is horrified on any number of levels, certain that Zapp is really only sexing her mom on the regular to get back together with her, and she decides the only way to prove it is to seduce Zapp back. Meanwhile, her father Morris is rescued from post-divorce depression with a little help from Fry and Bender, who accompany him on his long dreamt journey through all the world’s most exciting sewers. His journey from Rio during Carnival to the Leprechaun-infested sewers of Dublin on St. Patrick's Day makes him even more relaxed and unconcerned about everything, including the thought of Zapp with his ex-wife.
On that subject, the episode takes the slightly unexpected tack of making Zapp’s intentions reasonably honorable, at least until he orders Munda to help him trick the Carcarons into their immediate slaughter. Munda dumps him because he’s an idiot and a bastard, we have over a decade’s worth of evidence that that’s all Zapp is, and it seems like a waste of much of the episode to portray him as anything else. His horribleness, after all, is what makes his character so funny in the first place, and we see some of this on display in his initial negotiations with the Carcarons, but for most of the episode he is essentially shunted to the background. The episode has to do this for Leela’s jealous delusions to work—her comically ludicrous attempt to win Zapp back in front of her mother wouldn’t be so ludicrous if Zapp reciprocated, after all—but this effectively neuters one of the show’s most reliably amusing supporting players, and Leela’s breakdown never coheres into anything funny enough to make up for it.
Part of the problem is the episode never quite seems to decide what’s motivating Leela’s behavior: Is she grossed out by the thought of her mother and Zapp together? Is this just her residual and entirely justified distrust of Zapp? Is she actually jealous of the thought that Zapp would prefer Munda over her? Of course, it’s almost certainly a combination of all these, but from a comedic perspective, “Zapp Dingbat” would have been much better off explicitly picking one and really mining all the humor from Leela’s specific reaction. At least we get some of the old Zapp magic towards the end of the episode, as Zapp invokes a captain’s privilege to preside over wedding ceremonies on his starship (in homage to Captain Kirk’s similar speech in “Balance of Terror”) and then attempts to conduct his own wedding by talking to himself in a mirror. It offers a quick taste of the utterly shameless narcissism that makes Zapp such a rich creation. I’m just not sure why we couldn’t have seen more of this side of him during his courtship of Leela’s mom.
The episode does at least end well, which inclines me to forgive somewhat its saggy middle section. Morris shows up on the Nimbus to win Munda back, explaining he has finally conquered his surfing-induced inner peace to fight violently for his ex-wife. It’s a typically Futurama inversion of the sort of life lesson a sane person would experience, and the fact that it prominently involves punching Zapp in the kidneys multiple times is just a happy bonus. The Carcarons’ decision to actually declare war after Zapp’s attempt at a fake declaration knocks out all controls except for a complicated auxiliary system located outside the ship, where only Morris’ surfing abilities and his twenty-toed feet have any chance of saving the day. It’s horribly contrived even by Futurama’s standards, which thrives on these sorts of gleefully ridiculous payoffs. This might be a bit of a churlish compliant; after all, the fact that it’s so stupidly unlikely is itself a joke, albeit not a terribly strong one. Still, it does offer an excuse for some beautiful space shots, including one of the show’s trademark zoom-outs to the depths of space as Morris joyously declares the entire universe to be God’s glorious sewer. I’m enough of a sucker for these cosmic vistas, not to mention the entire Nimbus surfing the Carcaron energy waves, to ignore the relatively weak storytelling that leads up to Morris’ big moment. “Zapp Dingbat” could have been more emotional than it was, and it sure as hell should have been funnier than it was, but at least it had enough sequences like the big final space battle (and to a much, much lesser extent, those sewer-surfing leprechauns) to feel as though you’re seeing things that could only ever happen in the world of Futurama. That counts for a surprising amount sometimes.
- One of the odder, more pleasantly surprising moments of the episode is Leela’s simple, non-joking declaration that Fry really is shaping up into marriage material. It’s an oddly sweet reminder that, yes, they are dating—the occasional fake Zapp seduction notwithstanding—and they might be headed to a legitimately happy ending one of these days. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the show be quite so earnestly romantic right in the middle of the episode, and I like that they’re still willing to try some new things here and there.
- As one of the ten or so people in the world obsessed with the vice presidents, I will never, ever tire of the Headless Body—now the Headless Clone—of Agnew. As such, I approve of the comic stylings of Nixon & Agnew, and I eagerly await their first album.
- Zack will be back with regularly scheduled coverage next week. Thanks for letting me talk Futurama with you all in his absence, even if this particular episode didn’t give me much chance to dig into what I love about the show.