How does one continue a TV show that’s already ended more than once? This is the gargantuan task before the singular assembly of math, science, Americana culture, and—oh, right—comedy nerds at the helm of Futurama, a sci-fi/dramedy cartoon adored by a formidable fanbase as much for its sophisticated emotional candor and relatable robots as for its smattering of inside-baseball physics jokes (Planet Express owner Professor Farnsworth at the horse races: “You changed the outcome by measuring it!”) and obligatory, if smarmy, pop allusions to Huey Lewis and Star Trek. Unlike the similarly nixed and then phoenixed Family Guy, whose irrelevantly nonsensical plot husks were designed for the slap-happy trafficking of arbitrary jokes alone, Futurama has always required a much more reluctant human investment—one that it coaxed from ambivalent viewers such as myself over the course of its original four-year run on Fox by deftly twisting expectations and sympathies with the same professional pride the ne’er-do-well, boxy-eyed Bender (John DiMaggio) employs on metal girders.
By the geek-gasm of a series finale, the first of the aforementioned conclusions, I was in wholesale; how can one resist a musical Faust goof featuring a hedonist automaton who smothers his rotund, metallic midriff with chocolate sauce while peering insatiably through opera glasses at a tunesmithed showdown between the Cyclops-besotted Phillip J. Fry (the millennium-skipping protagonist of Futurama, played by Billy West) and an impishly Dan Castellaneta-voiced Robot Devil? But more importantly, the egghead writers had wisely decided to quit the show’s universe by only softly resolving its primary anti-romance, the off-and-on relationship from which Futurama has consistently derived its smartest and most devastating tension. When, in season three, Fry meticulously composed a love note out of celestial bodies to amorously impress the one-eyed captain Leela (Katey Sagal), only to watch it disintegrate in a cosmic savior of a voracious black hole, the tone was too pithily despondent to immediately process: How do you express affection for someone whose superior intelligence and maturity facilitates a definition of love wholly disjunctive from yours? And when the credits rolled over Fry’s bug-eyed, sad-sack dismay without a proper return to normalcy, the effect was hardly an example of cheap tearjerkerism (though Futurama surely has its share of “wet”-pisodes); this was an ostensible sitcom daring to suck the false hope from our pitiful partnership aspirations and abandon us in a solitary confinement of our own making.
But the consolidating of Fry and Leela’s quasi-heart flutters at the end of the Fox series proved disingenuous. Those of us who bought, borrowed, or stole the DVDs and pored over the commentaries knew that the open-ended finale had been fashioned so as to provide space for further adventures, and yet when Futurama was resurrected as a quartet of direct-to-DVD movies that could be neatly chopped into a full, 30-minute, 16-episode season, the aftertaste of above-average fan fiction was undeniable. It wasn’t that any members of the four-fingered, stubby-nosed crew of the Planet Express delivery service were acting out of character, or that the one-liners weren’t as gently laugh-provoking as before: Futurama, unlike the militantly By Any Means Necessary comedy of Family Guy, or even the chubby, culture-obsessed mosaic of mean-spiritedness often offered by The Simpsons, has always aimed for more conservative chuckles that fail to distract us from the often tortuous plotline at hand. The trouble with the show’s reincarnation is that it seemed fecklessly unconcerned with Fry and Leela’s mythology, a romance that the writers and producers erected deliberately and tediously through an immensely entertaining series of developmental events, furtive feelings, and tender gestures. Only the first of the Futurama films, the superbly alt-universe-oriented Bender’s Big Score, seemed to respect the distance their par-baked loaf of love had traversed (we can likely thank Ken Keeler, auteur of many postmodern Simpsons mind-screws, for this). At the limp, contrived, Matt Groening-authored smoochfest that closes Into the Wild Green Yonder, the last and least convincing of the D2D movies, we need not loiter.
As a Futurama devotee, I’m loath to reveal anything potentially spoil-y regarding the first two episodes of the new season; which may be one reason I’ve blathered on about the program’s past triumphs and follies for nearly 700 words, though undoubtedly the yard stick by which executive producers Groening and David X. Cohen (the latter perhaps being television’s most nebbish and complicated mind) will be measured in season six is as unique and opaque as one can find in the realm of primetime boob-tubery. Suffice it to say, however, that they, if not the wealth of inimitable voice talent at their disposal, are fully aware of the challenge of extending their up-to-now moderately maintained narrative arc while avoiding saggy self-plagiarism—a humor-crime Family Guy was eventually forced to commit in order to re-achieve its pre-cancellation acumen of funny. The Futurama season premiere, appropriately titled “Rebirth,” even cold-opens with the irreverent Bender providing a pithy summary of the show’s broadcast history beneath the blissfully bombinating visual opiate of the Hypno-toad. The suggestion is hardly subtle: How do we forget that our spotty, network-jerked past never happened, and actually enjoy having a cult hit?
In watching these 45 minutes or so of bumbling, punch line-laden Planet Express exploits, I found myself hoping for the first time in my lengthy friendship with Futurama that the writers focus less on developing their already well-rounded characters and more on concocting airtight, HP Lovecraft- and Phillip K. Dick-esque storylines littered with as many subversive, audience-specific rib-tickles as possible. Fry and Leela’s inanely 11th-hour hookup might have been unforgiveable if cumbersomely carried over into this new iteration, but both “Rebirth” and the side-splitting Zapp Brannigan (Billy West)-heavy follow-up “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” reveal the writers’ wholly justified discomfort over the easiness of that perfunctory pairing. And it’s not, naturally, that I don’t wish to see those limerant alliances explored further, but halting, or even wrecking, Fry’s slovenly but dead-set twentysomething pursuit of the older, more noncommittal Leela would render the show’s emotional ballast—its secret weapon against the predictable vacuity of most sitcom entertainment—stagnant. So the numerous distractions from that awkward plot turn in this episodic dyad, from Hypno-toad’s appearance to an S&M orgy-prepared Amy (Lauren Tom) to a scantily leaf-clad Leela, might be more than simply a prurient stretch courtesy of Comedy Central.
But the new season has, more than anything, reminded me of what I first admired in Futurama, and from which Fry and Leela’s red giant-crossed affair had, in turn, provided something of a diversion: the exploration of cleverly wrought science-fiction motifs by a gallant pool of vocal alchemists. The futurist-inspired color schemes and button-over-computer-mouse technology throughout the travels of the show’s cast appear conspicuously like the year 3000 fantasies of a World’s Fair-awed boy circa 1950 or so; this is hilariously highlighted even further in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela,” where Zapp’s lurid fantasies are illustrated with the cheap-o, all-seams-showing production values of early-TV sci-fi serials. And the characters’ irrepressibly mercurial charm, as emoted instinctively by the Paul Frees and Mel Blanc-inspired Billy West (Ren and Stimpy, Doug) and Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain, The Critic), evince a similarly bright-eyed optimism that even the intermittent threat of interstellar annihilation can’t quell.
Even Bender has often bared his heart of gold, though his ass of aluminum receives more airtime, and Fry’s schoolboy crush on Leela would seem downright silly without the retro innocence of the New New York milieu to neutralize its folly and accentuate its precious sincerity. Groening and Cohen hardly envision the terrain of tomorrow as flawless, but its permissive attitude toward love of all mutant shapes and alien sizes is astonishingly utopian.