Futurama Rises From the Dead
- Tuesday, January 08, 2013
Not many canceled television programs get a second chance. They're either consigned to the netherworld of half-remembered series, or possibly, if there are at least 100 episodes, syndicated on broadcast and/or cable channels and maybe released on home video. But to be brought back after several years out of production is very rare. Family Guy, the animated, cruder Simpsons wanna-be was revived on Fox and enjoys continued success after its post-cancellation popularity on home video and cable syndication. Now we have the revival of another animated prime-time series canceled by Fox: Futurama.
Created by the man who conceived The Simpsons, Futurama was Matt Groening's satire of all things science fiction. Its premise, borrowed from among other sources the original Buck Rogers comic strip, is a pizza delivery guy, Phillip J. Fry who, after falling into a cryogenic booth, is preserved for a thousand years. Once thawed, he finds himself in "New New York" and eventually joins an intergalactic delivery company, Planet Express, led by an ancient mad scientist, Professor Farnsworth. Fry soon becomes friends (of a sort) with Bender, a robot programmed to be boorish and self-centered -- essentially a cybernetic Id. Fry is sweet on Leela, the voluptuous purple-haired, one-eyed pilot of the delivery rocket they use to go to various worlds.
When the series was in its initial run on Fox, I watched for awhile but found it too uneven to hold my attention, especially when it paled in comparison to its more family-friendly, near relative, The Simpsons. Others may have felt similarly, leading the network to cancel the show. Just like Family Guy, though, cable syndication created a cult following and soon, several made-for-TV movies were successfully produced leading to the return of the series on Comedy Central. Because of the looser content restrictions on cable, there was speculation as to whether the revived series could be faster with the gross-out humor and looser with the sexual escapades, particularly those of Commander Zapp Branigan -- a more lustful version of a Captain Kirk who constantly seeks to bed Leela and thwart Fry's romantic overtures.
Just as science fiction typically uses futuristic scenarios to address issues of the present, so Futurama rarely strays far from our own time in its lampooning of social or technical topics. Thus, in the new run, the first episode is appropriately titled "Rebirth." The crew, having been destroyed in a collision with Branigan's ship, is revived when Professor Farnsworth drops their mortal remains in a vat of pink goop. "C'mon, stem cells, work your astounding scientific nonsense!" yells Farnsworth.
Fry asks, "Aren't those controversial?"
"In your time, yes," answers Farnsworth. "But nowadays, shut up. Besides, these are adult stem cells harvested from healthy adults when I killed them for their stem cells."
This kind of humor takes a little time to get accustomed to, and it's best to watch it comically delivered by the talented cast, but it's an example of the series' topic-oriented humor.
In the third new episode, "Attack of the Killer App," the gang is all excited because there's a new version of the popular "Eye-phone." People line up for miles to get the latest electronic toy, similar to the recent release of iPhone 4. Except this phone literally fits into one's eye socket and beams out a holographic screen. Users are constantly online, viewing YouTube-type videos and humiliating themselves and others by posting embarrassing moments to the internet. But the Eye-phone's release is a plan by one of the series' villains, Mom, CEO of the malicious MomCorp, to gather user information to control the minds of over a million Eye-phone users. Satire of Apple and Facebook's latest privacy incursions is a good example of Futurama's skewering topical comedy.
But the show's predilection for sex jokes, now less hindered by broadcast network standard and practice policies, was on display in "In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela." This episode features Zapp Brannigan and Leela lewdly seated together in a small fighter ship attacking a giant "Death Sphere," named similarly to a word for female genitals, that's programmed to eradicate sexual impurity throughout the galaxy. After having destroyed several transgressing planets, the censoring vessel is headed to earth when Zack and Leela try to stop it. Failing their mission, they crash land in a forest, apparently the only humans on the planet.
Zapp convinces Leela that they might as well play the role of Adam and Eve, including their leaves only attire, and begin populating the human race. Well, you get the idea. Obviously, the humor, written by some very bright people, is aimed squarely at the mostly youthful and geeky male demographic and uses its cartooning style to get away with material that live action would struggle with even on cable channels.
The earlier incarnation of the series had more heartfelt treatment of its characters and some very impressive storytelling that exploited the show's premise, such as the fifth season's poignantly ironic tale of Fry and his 20th century dog, "Jurassic Bark," (available, apparently legally, here.) So far, the grosser and more lascivious elements of Futurama are overwhelming the harder to write character-based plots that lifted the show to Simpsons-level storytelling. I doubt I'll be going back to the Futurama that lives again.
Season 6 of Futurama airs on Comedy Central, Thursdays 10:00pm eastern/9:00pm central. Seasona 1-5 are available on DVD.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.
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