Futurama’s seventh season begins just about as impeccably as it possibly could, with its meta take on the durable squinty-eyed Fry (Billy West) meme accompanying the show’s opening credits (it reads: “Not sure if new episode or just rerun of episode I watched drunk”). From that point forward, the first round of episodes doesn’t slow down in the slightest, doing what the colorful, cult-followed animated sci-fi sitcom does best: striking a persuasive balance between intelligent, alacritous jokes and tender character-building moments. With an evidently higher budget (the special effects appear significantly amped up compared to previous seasons) and a cast of superlatively gifted voice actors more in lockstep with one another than ever before, Futurama continues to be a more consistently well-assembled program than current-era The Simpsons.
Most successful animated comedies are built around a core familial bond of some sort, and while the majority of the Planet Express workforce aren’t strictly blood relatives, they’re nonetheless bound together more tightly than the Griffin (Family Guy), Smith (American Dad), or Brown (The Cleveland Show) clans by a substantial margin. While those series thrive on domestic dysfunction, Futurama is typically about its crew of 30th-century misfits tackling a common-day problem in a futuristic environment, one that usually starts rather trivially and grows into total chaos. This formula is untouched in the excellent season premiere, “The Bots and the Bees”: After accidentally impregnating the company’s new, feisty soda machine, Bev (Wanda Sykes), Bender (John DiMaggio) becomes a father to a son who unfortunately hasn’t inherited his old man’s bending capabilities. Bender cycles through a range of uncommonly human reactions to suddenly becoming a dad, from outright fear and detachment to, ultimately, genuine affection and devotion. What results is a profoundly touching last act nearly rivaling season six’s superb “The Late Philip J. Fry” in its full-circle heart-wrenching qualities that further dignifies DiMaggio as one of the most versatile voice actors currently in the profession.
The action-packed “A Farewell to Arms,” penned by Simpsons alum Josh Weinstein, recalls the unabashed thrills of that show’s fourth and fifth seasons. An impressive mixture (in that it’s decidedly better than its likely inspirations) of 2012, Melancholia, and, perhaps purely coincidentally, Prometheus, the episode packs all the elements of a great apocalyptic disaster movie into a scant 22 minutes. The discovery of underground cave markings and an alien pyramid that turns into a spaceship (heads up Comedy Central: Damon Lindelof might be calling) leads to a streak of mishaps that threatens to permanently separate the members of Planet Express. The episode smartly uses the perpetually rocky relationship of Fry and Leela (Katey Sagal) to adequately ground the world-ending pandemonium. After 15 solid minutes of pure hilarity, the episode closes with a final scene that’s fueled by unadulterated love, devoid of any forced sappiness or cliché. After the calamity subsides, quite literally, Fry and Leela’s severed appendages are free-floating in space, hands eternally clasped together. Truly, not many other shows besides Futurama could pull off something as concurrently gross and sweet as this.