In which Fry smells bad…
All this time on Futurama, and I’m not sure the show has ever really gotten into what it would be like for humans to exist in a universe teeming with alien life. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true: “Humans existing in a universe teeming with alien life” is a big part of the series’ central premise. Yet those aliens serve mostly as background noise to our main ensemble’s adventures, providing either the occasional threat or sight gag. They’re context, but not a context that’s explored in depth. This isn’t Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its handful of well-defined alien cultures and regular acknowledgement of millions more beyond that. This is a show that generally avoids the kind of consistency such a framework would require, because it values jokes above continuity.
Which works, for the most part. Not every series needs to produce a rich, vital mythology to inspire fans for decades after its original production. But it’s interesting to see those rare moments when the writers bump into something that could theoretically have had a deeper meaning behind it, if anyone involved had been so inclined. “Spanish Fry,” the penultimate episode of the series’ original run, is that sort of episode. It’s also an episode in which Fry spends the entire third act trying to convince a giant green lizard man not to cut off his (Fry’s) penis. So, a rich tapestry, really.
The Planet Express team goes on a group camping expedition in the Duraflame National Forest. Fry wants to see Bigfoot, which is apparently still a thing, but before he gets his chance, he’s abducted by poachers who harvest his nose and return him to the wild. This is surprisingly decent behavior for poachers—I don’t think the human versions often leave their prey alive, or go to the effort of removing a body part and then carefully sealing up the wound. (Although this might be more a function of Fry’s amazing ability to bounce back from severe mutilation.) Regardless, Fry is left noseless, and while Farnsworth offers to clone him a new one, he’s determined to get his original schnozz back, especially after he learns it’s being sold on the black market as a nostrum for flagging passions.
There’s all kinds of hints here about a sub-culture where humans are hunted for sport, (The poachers are breaking the law not for hunting humans, but because they were doing it without a license), and where our various appendages are treated with the same murderous fetishism as an elephant’s tusk or a rhino’s horn. Fry’s missing nose is referred to as “human horn” throughout, in case we were in danger of missing the point. The show’s genial tone manages to make stuff like this seem, if not exactly pleasant, than at least not terrifying, but it’s not hard to imagine a darker take, one that was still funny but made more out of the horror of being abducted and mutilated. (The big reason Fry’s predicament isn’t creepy, at least for the first half of the episode, is that he doesn’t appear to suffer any pain at all from having his nose removed.)
Things take a turn for the (even more) unsettling when Fry tracks down the alien who bought his nose. It’s Lrrr, again, which is somewhat disappointing; the show’s disinterest in world-building (at least in the long term) only really becomes a problem when the writers reuse old characters without making any acknowledgment that they’re being recycled. At this point, Lrrr has met Fry and the others several times, and he even came close to eating Leela after Earth devoured millions of Omicronian young. But while our heroes recognize Lrrr in surveillance footage, that recognition exists solely to move the plot forward; they have to recognize him in order to know where to go next. Otherwise, this could’ve just as easily been Lrrr and Ndnd’s first appearance on the show.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem (hell, it’s completely in character for them to not give a shit about humans) if Lrrr and Ndnd were at all interesting. They aren’t. Once you get past the humor of them being big lizard monsters who behave exactly like a clichéd bitter married couple (The Honeymooners meets the Lockhorns), there isn’t really anywhere else to go. Lrrr bought Fry’s nose because his marriage is struggling, and their conflict is exactly what you’d expect it to be: he’s angry, she’s nagging, and so on and so forth. Then Bender lets it drop that Fry’s actual sexual organ is in his pants, and despite all common sense, Lrrr decides chopping off Fry’s genitals is what will really solve his problems.
It’s at this point that the episode really revs up the body horror. There’s no pretense of painless surgery here; Lrrr’s guards have a truly nasty device for extracting Fry’s special bits, and no one says anything about anesthesia. (They’re even planning on storing the junk in a cooler.) The creepiness of that device, plus Fry’s legitimate fear, helps to give some juice to the story’s final act, in which our heroes try to reignite the passion in Lrrr and Ndnd’s relationship in order to save Fry’s thingie. It goes about as well as you’d expect, but fortunately Bigfoot shows up to save the day.
“Spanish Fry” is a goofy half hour that throws out some potentially intriguing concepts but doesn’t have much interest in exploring them. It’s funny enough that this laziness isn’t all that distressing, thankfully. The Bigfoot ending, in which Lrrr realizes that in trying to harvest Fry’s wang, he’s just as bad as Ranger Park wanting to cut off Bigfoot’s feet, works okay, and the fact that the episode more or less ties everything together helps to make it feel complete. But really, this is another entry in the “Enjoyable for the side jokes” category. The plot has its moments, but the laughs are elsewhere.
- Opening caption: It’s in the alien language, but according to Wikipedia, the translation reads, “Thanks for watching, Futurama slave army!”
- “Hi, I’m Ranger Park, the park ranger.” “I get it!” (Was anyone else surprised Ranger Park didn’t die? I thought for sure Lrrr would zap him.)
- “Bigfoot is a crucial part of the ecosystem if he exists.” -Bigfoot filmstrip
- A nice two-part gag: while everyone else is watching the Bigfoot filmstrip, Ranger Park is on the phone buying a classified ad so he can sell his Exercycle. Later, we see a bunch of satellites float through the night sky and one of them has “Top Quality Exercycle For Sale” written on it.
- The gag of Fry being scared in the woods, only to see a flying saucer and relax, is great.
- “Me and Bender and maybe Zoidberg if he feels like it.” -Leela, establishing how the Planet Express team pairs off to go on story missions.
- Leela sings some of “I Will Always Love You,” thinking it will help make for a romantic evening. It does not.
- This episode also has probably the best of the Scary Door jokes: a scientist makes a creature out of all the most evil animal DNA. “It turns out it’s man.”
In which we briefly said goodbye…
“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is my favorite episode of Futurama. It may very well be the best. I say “may” because picking a “best” episode is tricky business; it involves establishing a criteria and then treating that criteria as sacrosanct, discounting any number of other episodes simply because they failed to build themselves toward the same goal. Throughout its run, the show managed to excel in a number of different areas, and I’m not sure “Devil’s Hands” captures all of them at their best. (At the very least, there’s no terrific high concept sci-fi powering the plot, unless you want to really stretch the definition of “high concept sci-fi.”) But it does demonstrate the show’s humor, its self-awareness, its whimsical spirit of invention, and its heart.
This aired as a series finale, and while other parties intervened (giving us a few more years of bumpy but occasionally inspired material), it still works perfectly well as an ending. The story isn’t epic, there’s no definitive conclusion to anything, and no one dies, but intentionally or not, it feels like a group of writers carefully, and lovingly, drawing something to a close. It feels like a goodbye, even when you know it isn’t one, and that’s part of what makes it special. It might also be why I love the episode so much. I like goodbyes, at least on television.
Still, this story and the way it’s executed are so terrific, that “Devil’s Hands” would be a great episode even if it fell in the middle of the show’s run. It’s the sort of half-hour where everything is running at its absolute best, where the plot is well-constructed without being overly mechanical (pun, I guess), the jokes are regularly inspired, the characters’ behavior makes sense, and the final emotional button is one of the most beautiful moments the series ever achieved.
Once again, everything rests on Fry and Leela’s almost-relationship, but here, the tension between them is justifiable. Fry isn’t trying to badger Leela into going on a date with him; he’s practicing the holophonor (last seen in “Parasites Lost”) in a desperate effort to improve himself and express his feelings. Leela still doesn’t get much in the way of agency—the crisis at the story’s climax, when the Robot Devil tricks her into signing a contract to be his wife, is more about Fry deciding if he wants to sacrifice his happiness to save her than it is about her doing, well, anything—but the whole arc plays out considerably sweeter than it has in the past. Fry isn’t angry that Leela won’t date him; he’s just sad, and frustrated he’s too inept to really tell her how much he loves her. That makes him a lot easier to root for, whatever the gender dynamics are.
“Devil’s Hands” also benefits enormously from the return of one of the show’s most iconic one-off(-ish) villains: the Robot Devil, again voiced by Dan Castellaneta. The Robot Devil is one of the few great secondary characters the show didn’t overuse. Unlike Zapp Brannigan, or Nixon, or Kiff, or Mom, or Lrrr, the Robot Devil only took center stage in his debut episode (and then only at the end), briefly cameoing in a later episode with another actor’s voice before being brought back for the finale. While I wouldn’t have minded a few more guest turns, this has the effect of ensuring the character’s appearance here feels special.
And man, how clever is this script? It’s full of examples of self-aware humor, but the self-awareness never comes across as forced or intrusive. When Fry and Bender go to Robot Hell to solve Fry’s “terrible at holophonoring” problem, the Robot Devil offers Fry a simple deal: exchange his hands with a randomly chosen robot. There’s a giant wheel for choosing and everything, but while the Robot Devil never comes out and says it, Fry is supposed to end up with Bender’s hands, the sort of painfully unexpected twist that always comes up whenever anyone is foolhardy enough to make a deal with a devil. It’s even possible to imagine the story going this way, and being pretty good. But the Robot Devil’s plans go awry (apparently he didn’t rig the wheel enough).
The gag is that the writers intentionally reference a more obvious plotline before heading off in a different direction. That sort of joke—one that acknowledges the audience’s intelligence by referencing and mocking the obvious—is thrown out again and again. It’s nothing new for the series, but for once, none of these jokes play as lazy attempts to avoid coming up with something new. Instead, the episode accomplishes what the show has always been capable of at its best: mocking and undermining convention while at the same time embracing it. Futurama was never meant to be a revolution. At its core, it’s a workplace sitcom about a band of misfits who go on crazy adventures. By and large, it was most successful when it embraced this.
“Devil’s Hands” doesn’t really focus on the full ensemble. This is a Fry story, with Leela and Bender taking up the rest of the focus. But there’s still a clear sense of affection for the entire group, and most everybody gets one or two final gags that remind us how much the series was able to define these characters in the four years it was on the air (originally). Zoidberg even gets one of his best lines: After the Robot Devil gets his hands back and Fry (following Zoidberg’s encouragement) tries to play on his own, the good doctor shouts, “Your music is bad and you should feel bad!” It’s amazing how useful this quote is.
Plus there’s singing, and it’s really clever singing that alludes to itself while still moving the story forward. Also, the Robot Devil’s plan is a really smart piece of maneuvering, and Hedonism-bot gets covered in chocolate icing. It’s all so damn good. What stays with me more than anything, though, is the fundamental optimism of all of this, the way the show leaves you without any bitterness. In its final moment, Fry plays for Leela with his own hands, at her request: the result is a story told clumsily and not always well, but with passion and love. I can’t think of a better note to end on.
- Opening caption: “See You On Some Other Channel”
- “So musicians really Rodger your Hammerstein, huh?” -Bender
- “Though you may have to metaphorically make a deal with the devil. And by ‘devil,’ I mean ‘Robot Devil.’ And by ‘metaphorically,’ I mean get your coat.” -Bender
- “These things are always touching me in places.” -the Robot Devil, not really enjoying Fry’s hands
- “I’ve been a fool—a fully justified, prudent fool!” -Leela
- “Let us cavort like the Greeks of old! You know the ones I mean.” -Hedonism-bot
- “You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me so angry!” -the Robot Devil
- “The use of words expressing something other than their literal intention! Now, that is irony.” -Bender, paying off a running gag in song
- “Please don’t stop playing, Fry. I want to hear how it ends.” -Leela
Next week: We’re almost done! But just so we don’t end on a high note, we’re going to look at Futurama’s four full-length animated movies, starting next week with Bender’s Big Score.