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Futurama’s End

futurama-falling

Meanwhile, Futurama’s series finale (second series finale) is a charming goodbye to what used to make the series great not just because it once again draws on a big idea gimmick or links it to an emotional experience for Fry and Leela, though that combination has made for great episodes before, it’s also because Meanwhile gets the small stuff right.

Stuff like going back to the moon and meeting a mascot who lives out Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the St. Koch Cathedral, Bender barfing up nuts and bolts on a theme park ride or the use of a gimmick, a time button, in a dozen small clever ways from a moment that lasts forever to footprints on the ocean.

These were the kinds of things that Futurama used to do well and then it stopped doing them. It buried itself in repetitive lines, Hermes, Bender, Zoydberg and the Professor delivering their catchphrases in episodes with B stories almost as lame as their A stories. It brought in gimmicks, but wrapped them around weak stories. Like the Simpsons, it stopped caring about its characters and its stories and was satisfied bringing out Nixon’s head to deliver a Spiro Agnew joke that its aging writers still thought was as funny as it had been in the seventies.

Futurama used to do the New York stuff well. It used to fill episodes with tiny little details and milk laughs from its creative technobabble. It used to have great character moments instead of zombie catchphrases.

Meanwhile isn’t the first good episode this season, but it’s the best of them. It’s also Futurama going out on a high note that it doesn’t really deserve. Not coming after “Stench and Stenchibility”, “Leela and the Genestalk”, “T: The Terrestrial” or “2-D Blacktop”.

This season also had Assie Come Home and Game of Tones, but those would have been okay episodes in the old Futurama. Season 7 Part 2 wasn’t as awful as Season 7 Part 1 which was mostly unwatchable. There was nothing as bad as The Six Million Dollar Mon, Fun on a Bun or Naturama here. But there wasn’t all that much good either.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama began running on fumes years ago. Unlike the Simpsons, it wasn’t popular or profitable enough to keep doing it. It also couldn’t break out of its rhythm, introduce new characters or revitalize the formula.

Meanwhile is a nice goodbye to what the series used to be, but it’s better off canceled, just like it was the first time around.

The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, its original series finale, was a funny and clever sendoff. It also came after a season whose first half included A Taste of Freedom, Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV and Crimes of the Hot. Were Jurassic Bark, The Sting and The Why of Fry a fair trade?

I thought so back then.  But the trade off between Futurama’s bad episodes and its great episodes stopped working years ago. And it became harder to put up with episodes that weren’t just bad, but lazy, cynical and refried.

If Meanwhile were the standard, or at least if Assie Come Here had been, Futurama wouldn’t be network shopping now. Instead Meanwhile is a nice exit.

Let’s leave it at that.

What’s Wrong with Futurama?

Here’s a more direct approach to the problem than mine.

It’s been happening ever since the first movie with the whole flimsy Nigerian scammer plotline, but since the show rose from the grave on Comedy Central, it’s permeated it to the core. The problem is that the show has taken a bizarre need to shoehorn literal “8 months ago” references and plot points for just about every single episode. Last week, it was the Mayan apocalypse (and, to a lesser extent, TRON Legacy).

Now that I think about it, yes, the topical references are much more out of control. That may be a function of moving to Comedy Central. It might even be a note from CC that Futurama should be more like The Daily Show.

Or maybe it’s just insecurity. The Futurama producers are old. They’re insecure about being able to hold on to younger viewers. And they also futurama sucksseem to feel the need to “say something”. Decision 3012, like the farting robots and flag burning episodes, came out of that.

But “Ripped from the Headlines” isn’t what’s really wrong with Futurama. It’s a symptom that the show has no ideas. It has “big ideas” for pulling off Science Fiction concepts that play with time and space. And those make the show seem like it’s worth watching. As with The Thief of Baghead, the show occasionally even uses them to add an interesting plot element to a show. Those are the few good episodes.

Futurama has no ideas. It has no ideas what to do with its characters. They’re here. They do the same monotonously wacky things in every episode. They’re frozen leftovers from the show as it used to be going through their routines.

Futurama has no idea how to tell a story. It takes a sitcom plot, a cheesy adventure show plot or resorts to the Simpsons’ usual “Homer gets a wacky new job” plot. The last episode about Leela’s mother was a sitcom plot. It was bad because it was sitcom plot dressed up with aliens. When the plot sucks, the show sucks.

This is why Futurama is dead. The occasional big concept makes it briefly look smart and clever, but the show is still dead. Its characters are a bunch of tics. Its plots are taken from old sitcom episodes. Its characters behave like they’re on an 80’s sitcom.

Watching Futurama, like the Simpsons, is a reminder of a show that ran on creative energy before it ran out.

How To Fix Futurama

I’m not going to bother arguing that The Butterfly Junk Effect was the worst episode of Futurama. Beats me if it was or wasn’t, but it’s a terrible episode and it comes from Michael Rowe who also wrote the robosexual episode, Proposition Infinity, and also Bend Her and Fry Am the Egg Man.

A first step to fixing Futurama would be preventing Michael Rowe from writing episodes for anything that doesn’t have Family Guy in its title.

I don’t care about the argument because The Butterfly Junk Effect was filler. It was there because they had to put something there. There was no internal logic, it wasn’t funny and it accomplished nothing. It aired because Futurama once used to be good and it got picked up because it once used to be good and it airs episodes that aren’t any good, because it once used to be good.

Sound familiar? Look up, Simpsons, The.

 

1. Hire younger and better writers

I don’t want to be Ageist but Michael Rowe’s bio talks about him working with Andy Kaufman, Rodney Dangerfield and Rip Taylor. That would be fine if he were any good, but he’s terrible.

The average Futurama writer this season is over 50. You can tell that without looking up their bios because Nixon is a recurring gag on this series. Nixon. And Spiro Agnew.

Michael Rowe and Eric Horsted were writers on Coach. Yes Coach. We’re watching a cutting edge animated series written by writers from Coach.

Horsted wrote The Mutants are Revolting and A Taste of Freedom. This season he wrote The Bots and the Bees. I rest my case.

The only tolerable episode this season was written by Dan Vebber who got his start on Buffy and Space Ghost. The moral is fire people who have Coach in their credits. Hire people who have Buffy and Space Ghost in their credits.

 

2. Change the characters

Futurama’s dateline is 2012. Fry and Leela have to be in their mid-30’s by now. The world has changed. So change it.
futurama sucks

I’m not saying that Futurama needs hard core character development, but they shouldn’t be the same people they were 12 years ago. Not just for creative reasons, but because characters who don’t change are one-joke characters. That’s what Fry and Leela and everyone else on the show is.

And start killing off and replacing some characters. Do we really need Amy around all the time? Do we need Hermes whose one joke is being Jamaican? It’s not just change for the sake of change, but c for c would also pull the show out of its rut. Bringing in new characters would force established characters to react to them. It would shake up the static setup of the same jokes.

Bring in non-human characters. Have them create problems. Blow up the earth. Again. Do something to seriously change the format.

Ugly Americans was poorly executed, but it still had the energy that Futurama is missing. Futurama used to have that energy because you didn’t know what was going to happen next or how off the wall it was going to be.

Futurama has become sitcom stale. The characters fall into routines. Sometimes they’re just doing wacky things that the show wants them to do that make no sense. That’s how you get a roller derby butterfly steroids episode. But comedy is based on what characters want and what they can’t have. If the characters have no motivation there’s no comedy.

Either Fry is a mentally retarded cretin whose IQ is about Homer Simpson level, or he’s a slacker, but has human emotions and drives. Figure it out fast because Fry isn’t anywhere as funny as Homer and seeing him fall down only goes so far.

 

3. Drop the Staples

Mom’s Robots, Nixon, Zapp, just drop them. The funny varies and they make the show lazy. It’s like always falling back on “Take my wife, please.”

Find new staples. The old ones keep Futurama from finding and developing new ones. Every time Nixon and Mom show up, it’s “Take My Wife, Please.”

 

4. What If?

Futurama is a sorta Science Fiction series and its better episodes work like Science Fiction does. They ask, “What if?”

What if the death star was a place where the elderly went into a giant senior center?

What if moon exploration  was as boring as Disney and as fake?

What if there were a robot hell and a robot devil?

A good “What If” episode asks a ridiculously smart question. It doesn’t ret con, it doesn’t tackle current events and it shows you something genuinely new.

New isn’t space roller derby. It’s not Leela’s mother moving in with Zapp. It’s not robots having babies like people. But it just might be an alien actor whose ego is also his id and feeds off acclaim.

 

5. Make 3012 a Darker Place

I don’t mean dark dark. But Futurama’s pilot had suicide booths and career chip implants. Its current incarnation is nicer and more problem-free than our society, except for Nixon. Even the mutants got surface rights by just staging a protest. Robosexuals got what they wanted after a short debate. White Obama was elected after a brief argument.

The future shouldn’t be that nice. It should be a bit strange and unfriendly. It should be a place that freaks us out a bit. Not too much, but enough to make for comedy and new and strange effects. Social problems shouldn’t go away in one episode. There should be a sense that Fry is still in a strange and dangerous world where there might be something as freaky as suicide booths that he was never even aware of lurking in the background.

Fry has gotten too comfortable. The whole series has gotten too comfortable. There are no tensions or challenges. Change that and Futurama might just be a show worth watching.

 

 

Futurama’s Back… and No One Cares

Futurama’s 7th Season has arrived and no one has noticed. Except die hard fans maybe. For a show that people once cared about, Futurama can hardly get anyone to pay attention to it. To understand why, all you have to do is watch the first few episodes of Season 7.

They’re not uniformly bad, but two of them, The Bots and the Bees and Decision 3012 are genuinely awful and the third, Farewell to futurama sucksArms has some funny moments, but it’s a rehash of older Futurama episodes.

When Futurama was first cancelled, I felt more upset than I should have been. The show was already past its sell by date and FOX wasn’t wrong to cancel it. It was on the way to becoming the Simpsons with one note characters, outdated topical jokes and producer sneering. Now it actually is the Simpsons.

Watching an episode of Futurama is like hearing an old comedian do the same old gags. Take my wife, please. That’s Futurama now. Fry will say or do something stupid. Bender will steal something and laugh. Leela will sigh. The Professor will snort. Zoydberg will root through the trash. Nixon’s head will snort. Zap Brannigan will do something incompetent and Kip will sigh. This is Futurama condensed and this is all you get.

Futurama may only be beginning its 7th season, but it’s old. It began before the millennium in 1999. That makes it 13 years old. And the age shows. Its producers still think Nixon jokes are hilarious because they’re old. The writers and producers churning out Season 7 have done better episodes in the past, but the material is too old and they can’t think of anything to do with it. Their only resort is to do a grandiose SciFi concept, which occasionally works or default to sitcom mode.

The Bots and the Bees is a retarded concept, but it’s also a sitcom concept. It’s a sitcom concept that the Simpsons made fun of with a Robocop as single dad parody. A Farewell to Arms has its moments, but it’s a rehash of old material. Decision 3012 is Obama fanfic and it’s one of the rare times that I felt embarrassed for whoever wrote it.

Futurama needs new writers. It needs new energy. But mostly it needs to go.

Some shows get cancelled before their time, but Futurama got cancelled after episodes about robot farting causing global warming and Kip getting pregnant. Not to mention an episode about flag burning. There were still plenty of good episodes in Season 4 but the writing was on the wall.

Nine years later Futurama is moving into unwatchable Simpsons territory and unlike the Simpsons it never had a built in audience who would watch it no matter what.

Futurama’s Schizophrenic Sixth Season

Okay after the DVD movies that are listed as the fifth season, it wasn’t too unreasonable to wonder how good the 6th season would futurama sucksactually be. The answer is that it’s kind of good actually, not the best, but there’s no question that there have been some pretty good episodes. But Season 6 has also been dysfunctional. On the one hand you have a lot of high concept episodes like The Duh-Vinci Code or A Clockwork Origin or The Late Philip J. Fry. These are high concept Science Fiction with a touch of satire. Then you have, what can only be called the Real World episodes, where everyone shouts a lot about some issue, holds a rally and fixes a social problem. Proposition Infinity was probably the worst of these because everyone was out of character and nothing that happened in the episode was even referenced later, and what with Amy and Bender falling in love and getting married in the episode, that stands out glaringly. But The Mutants Are Revolting was almost as bad. But why are they really so bad? The same reason that a lot of the earlier episodes like Killer App never took off. Because the great high concept episodes are covering up that the writers have lost touch with the characters, their interactions and their voices. That’s why even the high concept episodes don’t quite rank up there with the old Futurama. Only the Duh-Vinci Code and The Late Philip J. Fry actually capture some of what Futurama used to be.

Futurama in Trouble

Futurama ratings are bad and getting worse. Half the viewers are gone. And that’s not good. Which is a shame, because the Comedy Central Futurama isn’t bad. It was slow getting out of the gate, which might have turned off viewers and there have been a few stinkers, like the robo marriage episode, which had nothing to with the rest of the season and has never even been commented on afterward, but there were also great episodes. DaVinci as the idiot in an advanced civilization. The time machine that only goes forward. Okay last’s week’s body swapping episode was on the weak side, but you can’t argue with the Robo Hungarian Empire. Futurama has a syndication deal now, which might mean that 20th Century FOX has the money it wants. There’s a 100th episode coming up, but Futurama’s future is again endangered.

Futurama In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela

One thing the Futurama producers never quite got is that Kif is really not funny without Zap Brannigan, and Zap Brannigan is only mildly funny without Kif. It’s the pairing that works. In In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela there’s no pairing, except Leela and Zap. Which might have been funny. Which is sorta funny. But not all that much. In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela isn’t bad, except for the part where it’s like a lot of other Futurama episodes. The retro Zap clips were funny. But most of the garden wasn’t. The death sphere ref to VGer is more of a geek in-joke than actually funny. And any plot that revolves around a V Chip ref is hopelessly outdated, like a lot of Futurama material. In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela isn’t bad. It’s a lot better than sitting through a modern day Simpsons or Family Guy, but it’s not really anywhere as good as it should be. Zap is mostly wasted in episode should have had a lot more professor. And for an episode about censorship that’s being aired on CC, In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela doesn’t exactly push the limits. Instead it’s exactly the episode we would have gotten on FOX.

Futurama Rebirth

About halfway in, you start to hope and think that maybe Futurama Rebirth will actually be a great Futurama episode. Then you realize it’s an episode running on two jokes that recycles better material from older episodes. Then you realize that none of that even matters because you’ve been watching two robots interact and nothing you actually saw this half hour even matters. So whatever. Season 5 or Season 6 (depending on if you count the DVD movies as a season, which some do) starts out looking kind of like Season 4. A pale imitation. And if the DVD movies or Season 5 were overblown episodes without the right rhythm, the transition back to half hour shows has the opposite problem with episodes that feel like they have too much material to fit in, without the material really showing up. There are moments when you think Rebirth might be The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings or The Sting, but it turns out to be disposable.

Futurama Bender’s Game DVD movie review

All the Futurama movies have had that stretched out element that reminds you of a stand up comedian with a half hour set who just Bender's Game Futuramarealized he’ll have to make the jokes stretch for an hour and a half, but on Bender’s Game the stretch marks are really obvious and very much in your face.

While the first two Futurama movies were certainly flawed, they at least had a big idea behind them, from time travel to deism. Bender’s Game has nothing like that. Instead Bender’s Game is nothing more than a mediocre Futurama episode with another story about Mom trying to take over things, stretched out with an extended Lord of the Rings and generic fantasy quest parody. There’s no big idea, but even worse there’s not even much in the way of comedy.

To shoehorn in the long fantasy quest parody, the first half hour of Bender’s Game brings us long unfunny scenes of the Professor’s clone and Hermes’ son playing Dungeons and Dragons. Arguably Dungeons and Dragons jokes are a little dated in the age of World of Warcraft, but so is an extended parody of the Lord of the Rings movies in 2008, and half of the jokes that fill Bender’s Game.

Bender however becomes obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons, until he actually believes he’s living in an imaginary fantasy kingdom and has to be institutionalized. Meanwhile Mom, who now runs an energy conglomerate, has cornered the market on Dark Matter, which the professor can undo by bringing his anti-crystal close to her crystal, the mission that will fill the rest of the movie. But not until even more tedious stories about Leela entering a demolition derby and getting a shock collar to control her anger are wrapped up.

The rest of Bender’s Game is dedicated to the gang trying to break into Mom’s arctic fortress only to be sucked into the fantasy universe, for an extended fantasy quest parody, which also holds the only funny elements in the movie. Unfortunately that means waiting around for the last half hour to get any laughs that don’t involve Mom’s sons posing as owl exterminators or Dr. Zoydberg pulling keys out of the professor’s stomach with a magnet.

And it’s Dr. Zoydberg’s occasional bits and the return of Roberto that are the only reliably funny things in Bender’s Game. Bender’s Game has all the staples of Futurama movies, the outdated references, the stretched out episodic feel to the whole thing, the bits of pointless cartoon nudity to remind everyone that we’re not watching this on FOX anymore, and the B Stories that aren’t funny and don’t really matter. But Bender’s Game has nothing to transcend those flaws the way previous movies did. There’s no big idea, just a half-assed series of stories divided up among the writers, that with their failure makes you really appreciate what the previous Futurama movies did right.

Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs review

When Futurama returned on DVD with Bender’s Big Score ( read review here) , for fans who had not expected the series to ever return, the movie was a mix of nostalgia and disappointment. Like Bender’s Big Score, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs has an epic universe spanning storyline (literally) but where Bender’s Big Score felt like it was stitched together out of three incompatible episodes and reminded you of an aging ex-major leaguer trying to throw out a pitch, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is a single epic story that may not be a perfect home run, but it does give you a real show for your money.

So besides not being a disappointment, what else is Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs? For starters it’s classic Futurama, from the Futurama Beast with a Billion Backsadroit SciFi references like St. Asimov’s Day, Deathball and two ceremonies on Kif’s home planet that gently parody Spock’s Vulcan ceremonies, to a clever storyline involving a tear in space that introduces a giant being from another universe made of electromatter, who’s lonely and promptly begins sticking tentacles in the heads of everyone in the universe before whisking them off to a faux heaven that comes with bird angels and Mattress Island that mixes theology with science fiction with invader paranoia and manages to tie in Fry and humanity’s loneliness into the mix. Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs manages to make pretty good use of the series’ stock of supporting characters, from Calculon to Zoidberg’s uncle to Zap Brannigan while introducing new ones, like Fry’s new girlfriend Colleen. But if there is one flaw to Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs, it’s that the movie has plenty of chuckles but not a lot of big laughs.

Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is funny, but it’s funny more in the way that The Day the Earth Stood Stupid was, rather than Insane in the Mainframe, it’s too busy telling a story to set up punchlines. As a movie it’s cheerful, funny and even insightful, but don’t expect to watch Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs while rolling on the floor. It’s a good enough trade-off, especially considering Bender’s Big Score, but anyone with expectations of watching this and laughing till it hurts is going to be disappointed.

In many ways Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs walks or jets over well worn territory for the series, from Fry’s loneliness serving to represent humanity, Leela’s determination not to join in what others follow, Bender’s refusal to resolve his own contradictions and the pulp SciFi storyline that mutates into something more articulate and insightful, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is classic Futurama, no doubt about it. And with the DVD also holding the Futurama game footage that producers have described as a lost episode, there’s plenty here to enjoy.

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