Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Futurama: “2-D Blacktop”/“Fry And Leela's Big Fling”

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So this is it: Futurama’s final season. Again. The show was first cancelled in 2003, making Comedy Central’s decision to end the series this fall a cruel kind of anniversary gift: Congratulations on making it this far, dearest, and now let’s never see each other again. Matt Groening has expressed a desire to find another network to keep the home fires burning, and it’s possible he’ll succeed. Given the show’s history thus far, anything’s possible. But for right now, it’s best to go forward on the assumption that this is The End. The Finale. We’re passing the event horizon and heading towards the singularity at the heart of the black hole, from which no light escapes. And so on. This may sound grim, but given all the second chances Futurama has earned and received, it’s hard to be that disappointed to have the show reach the end of its proverbial rope. TV series, like everything, don’t last forever. Maybe the best thing to do now is to enjoy what’s left, savor the memories, and try not to make this sound like advice you’d give a terminally ill patient.

On a more upbeat note: the double shot of new episodes that marks the start of the second half of the seventh season, “2-D Blacktop” and “Fry And Leela’s Big Fling,” are solidly entertaining and a return to the competent groove the show found for itself in the past couple years. Both entries show flashes of brilliance, neither one quite sustains that brilliance, but there’s a reassuring cohesiveness the bodes well for the season ahead. More than anything, the hour is a good chance to reflect on the show’s core, the pieces and ideas that combined have helped it survive over the years. Even at its worst, there’s always something about Futurama that works, and it’s not a bad idea to begin the final run with some brief thoughts on why that is.

There’s the pacing, for one. This is a fast-moving show, and, as is often the case with longer running comedies, that tempo has only increased; once the world and the characters are set into place, there’s a certain amount of shorthand that allows writers to get to the gags and cram as much plot as possible in without worrying much about making sure everyone’s up to speed. Speaking of speed, well, that’s the focus for “2-D Blacktop,” a goofy Fast And The Furious riff that mixes pod-racing theatrics and a quick homage to one of the oldest science fiction classics around to pleasantly unexpected effect. Stories that veer off in unexpected directions are a hallmark for the show (spinning off The Simpsons’ habit of not getting to the main plot until after at least five minutes of just barely related incident), but the whiplash can still create something of a shock, as it does here. At first, it looks like the plot is going to be centered on Professor Farnsworth’s newly created love of speed, contrasted against Leela’s over-protective desire for safety. The latter character trait is better grounded than the former, as it seems like Farnsworth’s essential old-manishness would go against being reckless and hot-rodding, but hey, he’s a mad scientist, they make their own rules. (And space ships.) (And clones.)

This isn’t a bad hook for a story, and we go briskly from Farnsworth and Leela clashing, to the Professor deciding to abandon the office for a life of ship-rebuilding and drag racing, in a few scenes. There are some good jokes—Leela’s Safety First ship, with its padded monitors, no windshield, and hand-clamps, is great, and I love the G-rated hooliganism of Farnsworth’s new crew of toughs, especially Minx, who is suffering from the scars of her father’s verbal abuse. (“It wasn’t what he said that hurt. It’s what was left unsaid.”) Solid B-material. The same can be said for a lot of “Fry And Leela’s Big Fling,” although that episode’s main story is more grounded in honest sentiment; there’s more of an effort to tell an actual story about the two main characters, whereas in “2-D Blacktop,” anything even remotely psychological is merely an excuse to get us to the next joke. Which is totally cool. The only serious criticism is that there really isn’t a lot of momentum here. Fast-moving as it is, there are no stakes behind the story, so there’s no real urgency to create tension; at least, not for the first half.

Things get more interesting once Farnsworth and Leela decide to race, and that’s where another one of Futurama’s key traits come in: its commitment to deep bench geekry. The Farnsworth-Leela face off doesn’t just take place on a floating drag strip—it takes place on a floating Moebius Strip, which leads to one of Farnsworth’s crew correcting Hermes on the number of laps left in the race, because the strip only has one side, and, well, I’d need some graph paper. The big reveal in “Fry And Leela’s Big Thing” takes off on the twisting ending of a classic Twilight Zone episode, although the connection is thin enough that I might just be imagining it; but really, “humans in a zoo” is a stock enough sci-fi concept that it doesn’t need to be referencing anything specific to fit in with the general air of story ideas swiped from a hundred or so years worth of genre ephemera. And while there are a fair number of simple reference jokes, the writers’ clear love of the work their commenting on often leads to fresh takes on old material, homages that aren’t simply regurgitations but a kind of new mythology for the show’s batshit universe.

For example, take my favorite part of both these episodes, the trip to two-dimensional space: At the climax of their Moebius strip race, Farnsworth and Leela’s ships collide head on, smashing themselves together into a flat disc, and flinging everyone on board (Leela, Farnsworth, Fry, and Bender) into Flatland. (Well, something like that.) The name comes from an 1884 novella about a universe that existed in two dimensions; writer and schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott (not a typo) used the premise as a way to mock closed thinking, but also committed to exploring how such a place might function, and some of what he imagined finds its way to the screen here. It’s a completely unexpected twist, and while it doesn’t really pay off anything that’s happened earlier in the episode (Farnsworth’s been using “dimensional drift” to get an edge in his races, but this about it), the pleasure of seeing such a strange concept brought to life makes the episode’s structural iffiness almost irrelevant. While the show is often deeply cynical, there’s an unabashed, unshakable joy about exploring science, be it mad or otherwise, that elevates the material.


Then there are the characters themselves. This is a little more hit or miss on Futurama; in weaker episodes, the show’s ensemble is reduced to walking punchlines. But at its best, these are people (and aliens) (and robots) worth caring about, and that comes through in “Fry And Leela’s Big Fling.” The first segment of the episode has Fry and Leela (who are keeping their relationship on the down low from their co-workers) trying, and failing, to find some alone time together. It’s goofy, and sweet (I love the romantic dinner he puts together made up of office supplies; it’s ridiculous, but the ridiculousness doesn’t make it less romantic, which is nice), and reinforces what’s been slowly established over the past few seasons: They’re together, but still dating, and Fry’s still super sensitive about the whole thing. So of course there are complications when they finally find the perfect spot away from it all, and Leela’s ex shows up. This is where the character stuff gets a little shaky, because Leela’s willingness to abandon Fry to catch up with her ex doesn’t really make a lot of sense—a romantic vacation isn’t really good “catching up with ex-boyfriends time,” no matter how uninterested Leela may be in him. But that’s made up for by the fact that it’s all an elaborate contrived environment created by the apes of Simian 7 (led by Dr. Banjo, last scene in “A Clockwork Origin”). The ending is something of an anti-climax, but that’s partly by design; after struggling through personal insults and prairie elephants, Amy, Bender, and Zoidberg arrive just in time to see Leela and Fry leaving for home, unaware they’ve just made love under the watch of a bunch of damn dirty primates. Not to get meta or anything, but that’s not a bad model for a TV show: contrivance, resulting in comedic chaos, but everybody goes home happy. For a while, at least.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, Gunther’s back! And he seems to be doing okay for himself.
  • Didn’t Scruffy die? He got better, I guess.
  • “Your mouth just wrote a PayPal transfer request that your butt has insufficient funds to cover.” (Slightly terrifying to imagine that PayPal still exists a thousand years into the future.)
  • Bender and Fry going to Karate class was pretty damn adorable. “Today we’re gonna do spinny kicks!”
  • “Leela, Professor, don’t do this! It’s too exciting!”
  • “Point is, the new Shrek won’t look nearly as good.” -Professor Farnsworth on being stuck in the second dimension.
  • That bit about no longer having a digestive system was so cool.
  • “I knew we’d get us killed somehow.”
  • “Working in financial services, you really get to help rich people realize their expensive dreams.”
  • “What would you say we are, Fry?” “Nude and interrupted.”
  • “The smear lines are impeccable.” -on ape art.