In the eleven years since it premiered, Futurama has only seen six years of production. Cancelled in 2003 after four seasons, the show was relegated to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where it survived on a diet of syndication and DVD sales until 2007. Somewhere in that span, the internet spawned a fan upheaval of epic enough proportions to warrant more episodes, not unlike the ruckus caused by Family Guy’s audience that brought the return of that show a few years back. Enter Comedy Central with an agreement from 20th Century FOX to produce four straight-to-DVD films—and an all-new, bona fide season.
I’m excited to see the show get another chance, though I’d forgotten just how long ago it began—half as long as The Simpsons, that “other show” by Futurama creator Matt Groening. The sci-fi animated sitcom started on FOX in 1999 in an optimum time-slot, integrated Y2K heavily into its storyline and promised something of an imaginative onslaught. But that’s not why I tuned in all those years ago. I watched because it had the Groening stamp. No doubt, I’m far from alone in that.
Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine the show ever lasting more than a season without Groening’s name attached. The protagonist, Fry (Billy West), is a twentiethcentury dimwit who gets frozen, wakes up in the future and finds a job working with a robot, Bender (John DiMaggio) and she-cyclops, Leela (Katey Sagal) at Planet Express, a delivery service run by Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth (also Billy West), who, incidentally, is Fry’s nephew. And if that premise isn’t weird enough, the show is jam-packed with enough irreverence, ideology, philosophical shenanigans and humanoid lobsters to keep even the most casual sitcom viewer away (or at least that’s what FOX thought, tossing the show around its schedule like an ape throws excrement).
I watched the show every once in a while when it was on the air, but I’ve found that repeat viewing, and watching the series in order, does it far more justice. The first new episode, “Rebirth,” continues the events of the fourth DVD film, Into the Wild Green Yonder, which ends in the Planet Express crew riding their spaceship into a wormhole. Bender’s voice opens the new show with a perfect expression of the series’ predicament:
“On the count of three, you will awaken feeling refreshed, as if Futurama were never cancelled by idiots and then brought back by bigger idiots.”
Of the three episodes aired so far, “Rebirth” is probably the best. The plotline revolves around literally reviving the characters in a birthing machine after a devastating spaceship crash, and makes for some great meta-jokes. The writers are in top form with the dialogue, as well. When Fry asks the Professor if stem cells are controversial, Farnsworth retorts, “In your time, yes. But nowadays, shut up! Besides, these are adult stem cells, harvested from perfectly healthy adults, whom I killed for their stem cells.”
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” brings the show back to its episodic nature, but sacrifices a lot of important developments in favor of telling a standalone story. “Attack of the Killer App” takes some good jabs at Steve Jobs, and exhibits the show still has a penchant for assimilating current events and pop culture into their not-so-current setting, but ends up being something of a retread (although it redeems itself somewhat with a guest star appearance by Craig Ferguson as Susan Boil, a talking and singing boil on Leela’s ass that becomes a YouTube sensation).
I should mention that I’m probably going to enjoy Futurama no matter how much I nitpick here. Other critics seem so focused on whether these episodes will be As Good or Not As Good, as if the first four seasons are an impenetrable fortress of excellence. I’ve always viewed the series as somewhat inconsistent. The writers are capable of making brilliant, transcendent, twenty-two minute stories one week, but are just as likely to come back the next week and leave you with a half-assed let down. Still, somehow they always make me laugh, and disillusion with Futurama comes nowhere near, say, disillusion with Family Guy.
New Futurama episodes air on Comedy Central, Thursdays at 9 p.m.
Birmingham Weekly welcomes Sam Leishman to its pages. Sam is an editorial assistant here and will be writing about television, among other subjects. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.