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

Futurama: “Forty Percent Leadbelly”

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The old saw is always, “Write what you know.” It’s easy enough to argue the value of that advice—if people literally only wrote about what they’d experienced, genre fiction wouldn’t exist and I would’ve had tonight off—but the main point still matters: authenticity counts. If you can’t convey some sense of what you’re trying to create beyond the most basic facts, you aren’t going to get very far. There’s something intangible about sincerity, and for the artist, it’s as much about convincing your audience you know where you’re coming from as it is being able to back up your stories with multiple references. As time goes by, and it gets easier and easier to replicate the work of others, that belief in authenticity becomes increasingly important even as it becomes less difficult to fake. The more we know we can be fooled, the more we want the truth, and the more likely we are to jump on even the slightest hint of falsehood. This is an odd conflict for Bender T. Rodriguez to face. A non-stop self-aggrandizer whose laziness and sentimental streak are the only things standing between him and mass murder, Bender usually doesn’t seem to give a shit what anybody thinks of him. Only thing is, Bender just happens have a dream of being a folk singer, and you can’t be a folk singer without earning a few scars.

Of course, as Bender notes in “Forty Percent Leadbelly,” it’s been a while since he last tried to be a balladeer. (The third season, in fact, unless there’ve been casual references since then.) But that’s fine. Long-running shows like this one often tend to have a ton of accumulated character quirk waiting to be picked up or ignored as the occasion demands, and it’s better to have a call-back then to try and introduce something new out of nowhere. (Not that Futurama would be above that sort of thing.) Better still, Bender’s dream of being a folk singer is the kind of thing that never really left him, even when it wasn’t being talked about; it’s such an oddly specific idea, and it fits beautifully against the robot’s usual selfishness and greed. Bender works best when the writers find a way to balance his essential sociopathic nature with just enough sweetness to keep you guessing, and “folk singer” just makes sense in that context. It’s childlike, somehow, and earns him leeway for a whole mess of anti-social behavior.

He takes advantage of that leeway in this episode, when the sight of a famous folkie (Silicon Red, “the universe’s greatest folk singer”) at a space prison sparks his dreams back to life. It’s a smart entry for the most part, building a fun plot out of an intriguing thematic problem: how can Bender become “authentic” when his whole worldview is built on avoiding the kind of situations that make a folk singer’s work come to life? Sure, he wouldn’t be completely out of place in a prison, but Ramblin’ Rodriguez has never had to suffer the indignities of poverty, or the assault of the law; he’s too free-wheeling to have been badly used by a beautiful woman. (Actually, given how long the show’s been on the air, the writers could’ve easily had Bender draw on his history from past seasons for song material, but since this show tends to use/ignore the past on a case-by-case basis, they decided to go a different route.) His laziness drives him to a scientist with a 3-D printer, who first replicates Silicon Red’s lived-in guitar, and then, unbenownst to them both, starts to bring to life everything Bender creates in search of the perfect folk song.

It all gets a bit top-heavy by the end, as Futurama episodes tend to do these days, but there are just enough interesting ideas to hold it all together in reasonably good shape. Enough funny jokes too, as ever. Fry’s on-going anger against Bender for deserting him near the start of the story (again; I wonder if “Bender deserting Fry” is going to turn into a runner this year) is one of the better bits, as the poor guy’s justified, but increasingly petulant, rage keeps bouncing off Bender to little or no effect at all. Which kind of proves the episode’s point, if “Forty Percent Leadbelly” could be said to have a point: when you get down to it, real feeling will always have the most impact. Bender’s stint as a folk singer boils down to a lot of sci-fi trickery and gimmicks, but it’s still his story by the end, and there’s just enough authenticity in the mess to finally give him what he was looking for: an honest to goodness effective song. And then, as soon as he finds the sweet-spot of artistic integrity, Bender sells out. That is, quite possibly, as sincere as Bender gets.

Stray observations:

  • 3-D printing isn’t a bad actual science thing for the show to riff on. It eventually turned into an easy gimmick to get the writers out of a hole, but the jokes are good while they last. (“Nowadays, we can take a unique and beautiful object, and easily reduce it to a formula for mass production. I call the process ‘Science!’”)
  • Also good: “It can turn your wildest dreams into ordinary realities!”
  • Poor, poor, incredibly evil and dangerous Dr. Brutaloff.
  • Bender has a huge porn folder on his hard drive. As you do.
  • “How can I be so bad at everything I try, and still be so great!” -Bender. They should probably put this on a T-shirt so we all can be buried in it.
  • “Oh, I’m so lonely and easy.” -Jezebel, living up to the expectations of her creator
  • “Think about puppies, Bender. Cute, harmless, dead puppies.” -Fry
  • “They did that on Star Trek: TNG!” This is embarrassing—I can’t remember what episode he’s talking about. “Ship In A Bottle,” maybe?