Back to the future

Comedy Central resurrects Groening's other show
By RYAN STEWART  |  June 26, 2010


When we last left our heroes, Fry, Leela, Bender, and the rest of the Planet Express crew had traveled into a wormhole, possibly never to be seen again. At the time, it was Futurama's way of portraying its own uncertain future — the show was facing cancellation by the Fox network. Now that Comedy Central has resuscitated Futurama, after seven years, you can believe that it found a way to address that as well: emerging from the wormhole, the senile Professor Farnsworth points out that they managed to discover some kind of "central channel." One of the other characters finds this funny. "Yes, it's sort of a comedy-central channel," Farnsworth replies. "And we're on it now!"

For the uninitiated: Futurama, created by Matt Groening (along with David X. Cohen), follows the adventures of Philip J. Fry (voice of Billy West, who also does half of the other characters), a slacker who wakes up in the year 3000 after having been accidentally frozen in an abandoned cryogenics lab, where he'd shown up back in 1999 to deliver a pizza ordered by a prank caller. In the future, he meets up with his last remaining relative — the ancient professor — and a group of oddballs. Like Leela (Katey Sagal), a cyclops who's also a space captain, and Hermes (Phil LaMarr), a Rastafarian bureaucrat, and Bender (John Di Maggio), an alcoholic robot prone to saying things like "Bite my shiny metal ass."

Futurama has always been a sharp blend of subversive humor, broader character material (like Dr. Zoidberg, the humanoid-crab physician), and sneak-attack jokes that don't hit until the second or third viewing. It's not unlike the humor on Groening's more famous animated show, The Simpsons, but it's not identical, either. Futurama is generally darker and more melancholy, with a wistful nostalgia for the visions of the future once presented at World's Fairs and in old comic books.

In another departure, not only from The Simpsons but also from practically every other animated series at the time, Futurama has a somewhat linear (though flexible) plot line that's centered mostly on the romance between Fry and Leela. The first new episode, which airs tonight (June 24 at 10 pm), spends some time re-establishing that continuity by bringing everything back to normal. (The process involves robot clones and a urinal camera.) But it's enjoyable enough to see these old faces again, and the plotting doesn't seem necessary, since all we really need to know is that Fry and Leela are still romantically entangled. A better idea might have been to reintroduce each character in a way that made them all more accessible to those who've never seen the show or don't remember it from its initial run.

The second episode feels a bit stale, with its plot about a hyperactive V-chip satellite that "censors" planets by destroying them. The humor in these episodes is not as sharp as it used to be — which is understandable given the hiatus. There's a gag based on a series of winces by Zapp Brannigan (the cocky, clueless pilot) that just aren't funny enough to justify their repetition. But surely the writing will get better as the season goes on, and none of the groaners is bad enough to render Futurama unwatchable. That same second episode also features my favorite joke of the new season thus far: when the gang need to persuade the population of Earth to change their ways or risk annihilation, the professor says, with Al Gore–like confidence, "People are sure to clean up their acts when presented with cold, hard facts from rational folks like us."

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