Bear with me a second.
During its initial run on TV, Futurama produced 4 different seasons of episodes which aired over 5 seasons on Fox. Which means there’s a weird staggered effect and some episodes that were made in the first year were aired in the second, and occasional episodes were shifted years later (“Route of All Evil” notably was made in the third production season, but didn’t air until the fifth). When the series was canceled after its fourth/fifth season, the active fan community had a hard time dealing with this disparity, especially as the DVDs came out grouped by production season and ordered as they were produced. It’s a minor thing, for sure, but it helps to be able to group episodes together when discussing trends or gaps/spikes in quality. The episode numbers assigned by the studios (and appearing at the end of each credit sequence) held to the production-season way of thinking, so the consensus on the internet was to think of this original run as four seasons. End of discussion?
Hardly. Five years after the last episode (the great “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”) aired, Futurama experienced it’s first rebirth in the form of “Bender’s Big Score” – a straight to DVD film that would later be chopped up into four episodes. BBS would be followed by three more movies, “Beast With A Billion Backs,” “Bender’s Game” and “Into the Wild Green Yonder.” All of these movies were produced in the same manner the crew would have produced a new season of the show. Thus making this production season 5. But technically, they aired during a “sixth” season, but “first” for Comedy Central, who had been running the rest of the series in reruns.
When Comedy Central picked up the show for another 26 episodes to be aired over the course of two years, they complicated the season-issue even further. All 26 episodes constitute production-season 6, but as they were aired in 13-episodes chunks over the course of two discrete years following the airing of the movie-episodes, these could also be considered seasons 7 and 8. iTunes has the new batch of 26 listed as seasons 7 and 8, but the DVDs call the first set of 13 “volume 5,” continuing from the previous seasons’ DVD sets, but ignoring the movies altogether.
The numbering of the episodes since the original run suggest the following: Movies are season 6 (even though there’s no production season 5); the first 13 of the new batch are season 7; the later 13 from the new batch are season 8. Two more years worth of the show are in the pipe right now, again being done as part of a single production season – which is going to further exacerbate this issue.
Which is all to express why the title of this post is so convoluted. I want to explore Futurama’s return to television in an HD, post-movies world. It’s not all classic, it’s not even all good. There are some real stinkers in the line-up, but also some gems. Since Comedy Central makes it tricky to watch these episodes for free, it might be helpful for someone wanting to catch up to know what to avoid. An awful lot has been written about each of these episodes, and for more detailed descriptions and opinions of them, I’ll refer anyone to the AV Club TV Club write-ups and, of course, Can’t Get Enough Futurama.
(These feel to me like proper extensions of the show’s original run, with copious amounts of heart and nerdy humor.)
The Duh-Vinci Code – Fry, Bender and the Professor go to Italy (and then outer-space, naturally) to uncover the secret of Leonardo Divinici’s machina magnifica. More impressive than that machina is the non-stop joke machine that this episode becomes. Light on emotional resonance, but packed with jokes and a ludicrously escalating conspiracy plot, this episode is just a fun ride. “Hi Animatronio!“
Lethal Inspection – Bender and Hermies team up (what) to find Inspector 4, the man who let Bender pass inspection despite the fact that the robot had no back-up body. This one starts with a pretty weak “Sithal War” reenactment. That’s barely a pun. Somehow, this episode mines some good fear and loneliness out of Bender. That character needs to be humanized more often – at his worst, he’s down right evil; at his best, he’s cute and/or a good friend. Here, he kind of transcends even his best and becomes vulnerable and impotent.
The Late Philip J. Fry – Fry, Bender and the Professor get into trouble testing a machine that only moves forward in time. This one ends up serving as a high-water mark for the series post-original-run. The high-sci-fi-concept serves the emotional core of the story well and the humor is relentless and spot-on. While not my personal favorite of the newbies, I can see why this episode is held in such high esteem in the fan community.
A Clockwork Origin – The Professor defends evolution from those that believe in intelligent design only to later intelligently design his own form of life. Some of the developments in this episode happen a little too quickly to feel organic, but the brisk pace keeps the jokes coming fast. I’ll admit that I’m partially taken by this episode because of the way it mercilessly handles creationists. The only real human emotion that eeks out comes from the Professor, in a line I’ve oft repeated.
The Prisoner of Benda – The Professor develops a machine that lets people switch bodies. Hijinks ensue. For me, this is the MVP from season 6 (or 7/8, or volume 5/6, or whatever). Everyone trades bodies multiple times, and following the action becomes something of a mental exercise. It feels a lot like “The Farnsworth Parabox” from season 4 – which is another one of my favorites.
Mobius Dick – Leela hunts down a space-whale that devoured the original Planet Express crew. At some point, Leela stopped being the only sane person in the crazy house. The first couple seasons had her pegged as an audience cypher, but her obsession in this episode borders on madness (as is fitting of a cartoon obviously emulating Moby Dick). There’s a great scene that includes rubble of long-abandoned spacecraft, like Serenity and the Satellite of Love – there’s a fun game to be made of identifying them all.
Law & Oracle – Fry quits his job at Planet Express to become a cop. In the process, it satirizes Police Academy (take that, Police Academy) and Minority Report (not exactly timely, but, sure, take that). I credit by buddy Al with instilling in me the desire to see Fry succeed. I know he’s the protagonist – and an everyman to boot – but Fry is frequently enough the butt of jokes that I genuinely feel good when he does well. For my money, he’s one of the best heroes on TV. We get this success in spades, plus solid jokes and a twisty plot. It’s stupid fun, but I really dig this one.
Tip of the Zoidberg - The Professor asks Zoidberg to fulfill his promise and kill him (with sexy results). This is another one of these episodes that explores specific character relationships that we may have brushed off previously. It’s interesting and a little touching. Honestly, it’s just nice to see a Zoidberg episode that doesn’t suck (as far as I’m concerned, season 2′s “Why Must I Be a Crustatian in Love?” was the last one to succeed at all). In addition, there’s a good Rue Goldberg contraption at the end, and who can say no to that?
Cold Warriors – Fry infects New New York with his 20th century common cold. Taking a page from original-run greats “Luck of the Fryrish” and “Jurassic Bark,” this episode splits its time between Fry’s family life in the 20th century and space-age adventures in the 31st. Oh but don’t worry, it doesn’t tug the heart strings quite so mercilessly. There is one atrocious Barack Obama joke in the flashbacks, but there are also several adorable drawings of young Fry. Balances out.
Overclockwise – Cubert violates the terms of Bender’s license agreement by increasing his processing power. Mom puts Cubert and the Professor on trial, forcing Planet Express out of business. Questioning their go-nowhere relationship and the struggling business, Leela leaves. This one is jam-packed with incident – on writing that plot summary, it felt more like I was relating the plot of a full-length movie. Unlike the Futurama movies, this episode gets in and out in 22 minutes and manages to hit a bunch of relevant emotional beats.
Reincarnation - Futurama is reimagined in three different styles – old-timey black and white Disney (a la Steamboat Mickey), 8-bit video game and anime. They all revolve around the destruction of a diamond comet. Most charming of the bunch is the first – I’m a sucker for that kind of “golly-gee” earnestness. But the others are strong too. Even the anime segment finds some new and non-obvious shots to take at the genre (no small feat).
Good for a chuckle:
(I like these episodes, but I know that part of that is just me liking the characters and their universe. They’re not without merit, but they’re also not anything special.)
Rebirth – The crew is killed and the professor brings the back to life. Because, you know, how else would the series go on? This episode is cute, but since it’s the first one back after the movies, you can tell they haven’t quite found their sea legs yet. The next two episodes (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” and “Attack of the Killer App”) are on my don’t-bother list, so maybe this one is notable for simply not being terrible. No, no, no, that’s too harsh. There are some good gags here too.
Proposition Infinity – After dating Amy, Bender crusades for robosexual rights. Get it? It’s like Prop 8. Hey, look, turn that 8 on its side, and it looks like infinity. Topical humor is always sorta awkward on Futurama, and Bender’s super-jerk personality makes this a hard episode to love. Luckily, the jokes salvage it some. Again, not great, but also not terrible.
That Darn Katz! – Amy presents her doctoral thesis to the board at Mars University and the idea is stolen by a race of outer-space kitties. It’s exactly as cute as it is stupid. They go for a lot of easy cat jokes, but thanks to the internet, cats are funny.
The Mutants are Revolting – The mutants fight for their rights and we learn of the maiden voyage of the Land Titanic. I guess one episode about the Titanic is just not enough for Futurama. I’ve always like the mutants-in-the-sewers mythology, so further exploration is appreciated.
Futurama Holiday Spectacular – Another anthology-style episode that tells the stories of Robohanukah, X-mas and Kwanzaa. The crew dies in each segment. There’s also a song in each segment and an appearance by Al Gore. I’m dazzled by the spectacle of this episode: “Coolio!” “Al Gore!” “Songs!” “Kwanzaa!” It is, however, occasionally embarrassing. If I were feeling more hardcore, I might put this in the Ignore List. But, the fact remains that I enjoyed the experience of watching this one.
Silence of the Clamps – For like the billionth time, Bender has a run-in with the robot mafia. Clamps is featured prominently, which I like. The problem with mafia jokes is I feel like I’ve heard them all. Also, let’s be honest, that’s some grim shit to be joking about. And of course, Bender is an unrepentant asshole. Yay.
Benderama – Hijacking the Professor’s new matter duplication machine, Bender makes countless copies of himself. Cool science fiction concepts are explored through the endlessly reproducing Bender. Actually, some of the concepts they delve into are more straight-up science. And I appreciate that. Fine gags and Paton Oswalt – good enough for me.
The Ghost in the Machines – Bender dies, but his ghost lives on in the cloud. After making a deal with the Robot Devil, Bender attempts to scare Fry to death. I like that they explain how a robot ghost is possible, and the emotional beats surrounding Fry and Bender’s friendship at the end are nice, but it’s proceeded by 19 minutes of selfish, unlovable Bender. Which, by definition, is hard to love.
Yo Leela Leela – Leela creates a children’s television show. Kind of predictable, but every bit as cute and funny as it promises.
Fry Am the Eggman – Fry finds an egg that hatches into a monster. Surprise, he loves the monster. Too often, this episode relies on insane violence for laughs. Also, the sorta-Scotish guys from the monster’s home planet are more miss than hit.
All the President’s Heads - Fry, Bender, Leela and the Professor go back in time to foil a Revolutionary War plot. I have a lot of fun watching this one. There are a handful of nice history jokes and I’m always in favor of cartoonizing Ben Franklin. The premise, however, is ultra-wacky. I’m all for wacky, but the justification for time-travel here strains credibility.
Blights on the record:
(Oh goodness. While each one probably has a few good gags, these episodes are unfunny messes. When I started this list, I thought I would have more than 4 in this category – means they had about an 80% success rate… I guess that feels right.)
In-A-Gadda-De-Leela – A gigantic censorship robot threatens Earth. Also Zap and Leela fuck. It’s just too mean-spirited and not funny enough to justify it.
Attack of the Killer App – Everyone buys new MomCorp. EyePhones (sigh) and Bender and Fry compete for followers on their Twitter accounts. Only it’s not called twitter. This one is pretty awful. And while I do like Mr. Chunks, a two-headed goat that cannot stop vomiting, the center-piece of the episode is Leela’s sing boil (named Susan) that sings Les Mis. I mean, “groan-worthy” is too kind a description for that gag.
Lrrreconcileable Ndndifferences – Lrrr (ruler of the planet Omicron-Perseai Eight) has a fight with his wife Ndnd. The Planet Express crew helps them get back together. Not a recipe for disaster, but nothing really works in this episode.
Neutopia – The crew are made genderless and then forced to switch genders. Lame jokes about men not asking for directions and women being bad at math ABOUND. Remember the joy with which the men slung sexist jokes in “Amazon Women in the Mood?” No such joy or ironic detachment joins the humor in this one. Not hard to skip.
Bah! I finished with episodes I don’t like. Here – this will cheer us up and make us all feel better about Futurama: