Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Toon-arama: Futurama (1999-2013)

Not only is Futurama the namesake of the CommentaramaEmpire, but it is(was) a heck of a cartoon. This was a cartoon the way cartoons are meant to be: irreverent, clever, funny, and doing things you could never do in a live action show. If you haven’t seen this show, you should give the old episodes a try.
The History of Futurama
Futurama was born in March 1999 as an offshoot of the Simpson’s. It was created by Matt Groening, who developed it with David X. Cohen for Fox. Unfortunately, Fox put it on at the end of football games, which meant that it was pre-empted or started in progress more often than not. And so, for four years, the show limped along with episodes being shown in parts, out of order, or not at all. Still, the show found an audience. Thus, when the show was essentially killed when Fox refused to pick it up again in 2004, Comedy Central picked it up for four direct-to-video films, which would then be broken up into episodes. Those proved so popular that another 26 episodes were made to take the series through 2013 before it was cancelled.
What Is Futurama
Futurama is the story of Philip J. Fry, a pizza delivery boy who delivers a pizza to a cryogenics lab and ends up accidentally frozen for a thousand years. He emerges to find a completely unexpected future. All of humanity has been brought together under one government... an incompetent government run by the head of Richard Nixon. Humans and robots and aliens live side by side in harmony... with periodic bouts of belligerence and tons of crime and other vices. And little else has changed.
Fry becomes a delivery boy for a company known as Planet Express, which is owned by his nephew Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, who is 160 years old. The Professor is brilliant, but insane and extremely forgetful. Working with him are a series of colorful characters like a cycloptic pilot (Turanga Leela), Hermes the Jamaican Bureaucrat, Dr. Zoidberg the incompetent alien doctor, Amy Wong the spoiled rich girl from Mars, and Fry’s best friend Bender, a robot designed to bend things... who has become a criminal and moral menace.
The show is episodic in nature but cumulative, as it builds its world and the characters show by show. And what a rich world this is.
Why This Cartoon Rocks
Futurama works on so many levels:

● At the top level, it’s a cutely drawn cartoon with funny robots and creatures, lots of comedic punch lines, and cartoon-violence. The kids will love it, even though the show is probably too adult for kids in its themes.
The show also introduces some unforgettable characters, such as Mom, who appears to the public to be the sweetest little old lady in the world, but who is really a ruthless, chain-smoking, tyrannical industrialist with the power to control all the robots on earth. Or characters like Nibbler, who appears to be a cute kitty-like thing that is really a super intelligent being observing the earth... he poops dark matter. Or Zapp Brannigan, a parody of James T. Kirk in the worst possible way. Or Robot Santa, who makes X-mas a terrifying experience. Or Lrrr or Morbo.
● At the next level, you have a great “fish out of water” story where 20th Century Fry finds himself living in 30th Century New New York. In episode after episode, Fry runs into dozens of things he never would have encountered in our time and he is forced to deal with them. Here, the writers have a great sense of humor in picking which will be meaningful to Fry and which won’t, and how he will react. This is made all the better in that the writers always play with expectations and they fill Fry’s world with strange characters who make it even harder for Fry to figure out what is “normal” for this world. Fry too pollutes this by giving everyone a completely wrong view of the past.

The writers also bring in lots of familiar ideas from the present, which one would think wouldn’t make it to the future, such as the idea that a condo being in New Jersey rather than New New York makes it as bad as a condo into which sewage leaks, or Atlanta (which sinks into the ocean) being an airline hub, or rap music being “the classics.”
● At the next level, you have a strong and interesting social commentary. Excluding the last couple seasons, the show was largely conservative/ traditional and very subversive to modern elitist thinking. Indeed, whenever it poked fun at our conventions, it typically punished the people poking the fun in some ridiculous manner. Thus, for example, a hippy peacenik who claimed we could make peace with a hostile alien race led by Lrrr just by giving off good vibes, and who frees an ape that is being fed to Lrrr as an offering, gets eaten by Lrrr, which solves the crisis... and give Lrrr gas... and makes him high. In another example, Fry is lectured about our primitive morality and how wrong we are to oppose public nudity, only to have the Professor strip naked and everyone cringe and demand that he get dressed again.

In episode after episode, liberal sacred cows get slaughtered. The UN (now DOOP) proves to be cowardly, incompetent, and wrongly conquers a planet. Bureaucrats are brought down by their own obsessions with procedure. Environmentalists and vegetarians are idiots and hypocrites. Etc. Leela too is constantly trying to be a good liberal, but gives it up in every episode when it interferes with her ability to solve problems.
(As an unfortunate aside, this is not true with the last two seasons which dealt heavily with pushing liberal propaganda in episodes dealing with environmentalism, animal-rights and gay marriage.)

● Next, there is a strong emotional layer in this show. There are episode, like the one where Fry’s dog dies waiting for him, which will make you cry.

● Finally, you have the heart of this show... the nerd jokes. Futurama is crawling with scientific and philosophical jokes as well as references to nerd culture, such as science fiction and Dungeons and Dragons. Whole episodes are based around these nerd jokes. And these are subtle; they are not explained. For example, in one episode, Bender is describing a nightmare he had:
Bender: Whoa, what an awful dream. Ones and zeros everywhere. And I thought I saw a two.
If you don’t know that machine language is limited to ones and zeroes, then you won’t get this joke, because no one will explain it. In another rather famous episode, Fry becomes his own grandfather despite the paradox. In another, our universe ends up inside a box in our own universe. In another, the Professor complains that the result of a race was changed by the racetrack observing the ending with a quantum finish. All of these jokes and many, many more come straight from quantum physics and philosophical principles.

This is why this show works: it offers something at every level – from childish humor, to more clever humor, to social satire, to truly deep jokes that require some knowledge to fully understand. But since each level is presented with equal earnestness, this show can be enjoyed by anyone. It is unique, it is clever, and it has strong characters. It's also amazingly quotable.... "I know where you live!"... "I'm gonna buy you so many lizards!"... "Bite my shiny metal ass!"... "How can the power go out? I live in the future!"... "Death by snu snu!"... etc.


Kit said...

"Bite my shiny metal ass!"


Doesn't look that shiny to me.

Kit said...

Also, "Death by Snu Snu" resulted in one of the funniest sight gags I have ever seen: Death by Broken Pelvises.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It's shiny all right! I love the whole "death by Snu Snu" idea. Brilliant! :)

Backthrow said...

I don't know... FUTURAMA is one of those things that contain many of the elements that I love, and yet the final product, while having some laughs here and there, kind of just leaves me cold. Comedically, it plays like post-Season 8 SIMPSONS to me, when it should affect me like the very best of the early years of the series, but just doesn't.

I'll give it another try sometime (there are many episodes I don't think I've seen... I caught the show mainly in late-night reruns on CARTOON NETWORK, several years ago), but it's a rare day when I find my original impressions (as an adult) of an entertainment piece to be entirely wrong.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, If you don't like it, then you don't like it. People have different tastes.

shawn said...

I loved Futurama. At least seasons 2-4. Season 1 was a bit weak, but then most show's season 1 are weak.

The interim movies- meh.

Seasons 5-8 were pretty funny, but failed to completly capture the magic of the original run, with the writer's liberal leanings creeping in. Still it was a smartly written show and I'll miss it.


tryanmax said...

Futurama is one of those shows that I'll always sit down to if it's on. Unfortunately, it seems like it's only ever on at 2am. Even in syndication, it can't get no love. Gladly, I haven't seen any of the last couple seasons.

5minutes said...

I just did a big retrospective on Futurama for an Internet forum and the basic gist was pretty much what was here: the earliest episodes on Fox were far more daring in terms of content, while the movies were decent-to-average, and the Comedy Central episodes were more aggressive in terms of boundary-pushing behavior.

During the first 4 seasons, there was the occasional liberal agenda-heavy episode while Kristin Gore (Al's daughter) was on staff, but for the most part, you could count on the show skewering everyone, South-Park style, minus the crudeness. The writing was wittier and funnier and the stories really had an emotional edge lacking in most TV nowadays.

The movies were a nice bridge between Fox and Comedy Central, but were mostly forgettable.

The 4 final seasons (they say 2, but when you split 1 season over 2 years and call it 1 and 1.5, that's 2 seasons) started strong, but ultimately got dragged down by the weaker writing and agenda-heavy episodes with no balance. The first half of the first season and the last season was the only ones that came close to the glory days of yore.

Having said that, Futurama was still some of the best animation on the tube, with the exception of South Park.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I agree. Seasons 2-4 were the best. The movies were meh, and the later seasons were good, but lacked the magic of the first few years. All told though, one of the better cartoons to come along in a very, very long time.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, The networks have been brutal to this show... especially early on. I remember seeing 90% of the opener and then nothing for three weeks because games ran long. Then you would get half an episode here, half there, and then suddenly a full one. I stopped watching until I stumbled upon them again in the off-season and really loved them.

The most recent seasons are good, but lack the magic of the first few years. They clearly lost some of their key writers. They also have taken an unfunny liberal bent where they push liberal ideas and push them and push them and push them to the point you get sick of them -- in the past, their social commentary was always much more subtle.

AndrewPrice said...

5minutes, Exactly! I very much appreciated the fact in the early years that they attacked everyone... there were no secret cows. Unfortunately, they lost that in the last couple years.

Speaking of Gore, I thought it was hilarious that they actually got him to appear on the show as leader of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers. LOL! I have to admit that I never thought he had the sense of humor to do something like that. It was funny too when he was playing Dungeons and Dragons: "I'm a level 10 Vice President!"

Anonymous said...

Love the show, my favourite adult cartoon.

It has some really classic episodes that really stick with you, some of them are really deep, some absurd, some heartfelt and all of them funny.

It was never quite as good when it came back, but it was still better than most shows on TV.

My favourite quote is the internet meme "shut up and take my money".


Tennessee Jed said...

Never saw this one, but a nice write-up tryanmax. You are the toon king :)

tryanmax said...

Today is actually Andrew's article, but thanks for the title!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Agreed. The variety in the episodes is really impressive. Some are very deep, some are heartfelt, some are absurd (like the grandfather episode or the Santa episodes), and so many moments stick with you. It's the kind of show you can quote over and over in so many different contexts.

"Shut up and take my money." LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, If you're into this sort of thing, it's well worth seeing. I love it and from the sound of things, so do a lot of people. :)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Nice title! LOL!

KRS said...

Okay, guys, I recently took a very brief look (first episode, beginnings of two others) at this on Netflix and was singularly unimpressed. Based on my respect for your opinions, I shall concede that I did not give it a fair chance and will have another go. I am placing precious minutes of my life in your hands.

"Shut up and take my money!" Y'know, I think I saw that on a bumper next to, "Republicans for Obama."

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, If it's not your thing, then it's not your thing. So choose wisely. If you want one of their best to sample, check out the episode "Roswell That Ends Well" or "Amazon Women in the Mood."

Kit said...

"Amazon Women in the Mood" is probably one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

"Death by snu snu!"

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It's one of my favorites too.

Kit said...


The above link displays what is the best sight gag of the series.

"I never thought I would die like this. But I always really hoped." -Fry

Zapp Brannigan: "We need rest. The spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised."
Amazonian: "IT TIME SNU-SNU!"

Kit said...

Bender: "Bite my shiny metal ass!"
Robot Hooker: "You couldn't afford it honey." (snaps)

"Hey, do I preach to you when you're lying stoned in the gutter? No! So beat it!" -Bender

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That is an excellent sight gag. The whole episode is like that way.

Anonymous said...

(sigh) "Jurassic Bark" is enough to make any grown man cry, including this one and I never owned a dog!

I watched the show in its original run but I have yet to see the Comedy Central episodes. If they release a complete boxset of the show (Fox, movies, and CC), maybe I'll pick it up one day.

I remember the great Star Trek episode in which Fry has a line that rings true for many, especially me:

"Because it... it taught me so much. Like, how you should accept people, whether they be black, white, Klingon or even female... But most importantly, when I had no friends, it made me feel like maybe I did."

And one of my favorite lines from anything. I don't remember the episode but Fry and Co. are battling these giant brains and this exchange happens...

Fry: "I'm gonna kick your ass!"
Brain villain: "We have long since evolved beyond the need for asses."

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, "Jurassic Bark" will make you cry. It's a tragic.

I LOVE the Star Trek episode. I love how they are all still fighting and I love Shatner's version of "Slim Shady." Totally agree about that quote from Fry. I also like "I'm not leaving until I get my Kwatloos." LOL!

The brain episodes are great too.

Anonymous said...

I had to come in with some more love for Jurassic Bark, the only cartoon that bought a tear to my eye. Just amazing writing that can make you both laugh your ass off and cry in the same 22 minutes.

When they release a box set of the whole show I will buy it.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Agreed!

Koshcat said...

I watched both the "Amazon women in the Mood" and "Star Trek". I watched the first season when it first came out but didn't love it. These were very funny.

I loved the idea that Star Trek was banned because it became a religion.

Death by snu snu!

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Isn't that fantastic? Death by snu snu... LOL!

I love the Star Trek episode too. Everything about it is perfect.

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