Wed, April 9, 2003
Futurama: "The Why Of Fry"
the best of the best; if our future's like this, count me in!
It's unlikely that any animated comedy series will ever top The Simpsons in terms of all-around goodness, but in the immediate present, Futurama comes out way on top. Two reasons: right now, they have better writers. The Simpsons has been well-written in the past – so well-written that, viewed as entire series, The Simpsons retains a slight edge over the newer and more consistently extraordinary Futurama. Currently, however, The Simpsons is in a slump. Hopefully, it's the kind of slump that Friends hit a few years ago: the kind that can be rebounded from magnificently. But, until then, it remains the third-funniest animated show on Fox Sundays. Second, Matt Groening et al built Futurama more carefully at its inception, as a result of a few lessons learned the first time around.
Aside from its crew having a few years of prime-time animation experience to draw from, the primary shift in the construction of Futurama as a show was to map out a story arc in advance to cover the first few seasons. Partly, this came from the challenge of trying to put together The Simpsons as they went along, learning as they grew. And in part, the decision was based on the fact that Futurama is a sci-fi show, and those sorts of shows have a slightly different structure. (Here, in a rare departure from the norm, I actually know what I'm talking about. I spent an evening last year attending an extremely in-depth panel discussion with the series's creators, actors, writers, and animators and this was one of the things Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen talked about.)
Futurama excels by being funny and by being carefully thought out. By and large, what's also triumphant about the execution of the show is that you aren't even aware of the moments where the series is tapping into its core storyline. The show's individual episdoes are just drop-dead funny and you're along for the ride. Subtle moments add up to a bigger picture over weeks and weeks of the series (and even more weeks than usual because Fox isn't very consistent about airing Futurama in its own time slot). There are hilarious episodes like "Anthology of Interest" that are just for fun. There are spellbindingly brilliant episodes like "Godfellas," in which the show manages to be humorous and insightful at once. There are funny episodes like "Roswell That Ends Well" and "The Day The Earth Stood Stupid" that subtly contribute to the big picture without the viewer really noticing. And, occasionally, there are episodes like "Leela's Homeworld" or "The Why Of Fry" where the big picture (to-date) is snapped into full focus, and – well, not only is the comedy enjoyable, but your brain just melts from how precisely the whole thing is architected.
"Roswell That Ends Well" is a great episode for someone like me. In short, the crew ends up traveling through time to Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, where it turns out that Bender and Dr. Zoidberg are the mysterious Roswell crash spacecraft and alien, respectively. In the process of attempting to return to the 31st century, Fry manages to become his own grandfather. I'm fascinated with the fictional possibilities of time travel. (Coincidentally, I recently grazed the surface of this fascination in an article that's linked from this page.) Especially, I'm in love with the paradox of "how did x happen if x is caused by y and y is from the future, existing only because of x?" (So, if Fry is his own grandfather, how was there ever a Fry to come back and be his own grandfather?) I even wrote a paper on this topic in college, discussing Oedipus Rex. Watching the Futurama crew explore the comedic as well as sci-fi aspects of this was like a holiday for me, but it was all merely prelude to "The Why Of Fry."
Because "The Why Of Fry" is like Back to the Future, Part II. The characters are revisiting (and re-revisiting) events that have occurred earlier in the story. First, we learn that as a result of being his own grandfather, Fry is uniquely immune to the mind-control of certain aliens with plans of destroying the universe. As a result, creatures battling to save the universe actually tricked Fry into being frozen for 1000 years so that he could help them save the universe in the 31st century, a freezing which occurred in the series's pilot but only now is revealed as more than an accident. (I know, you're already excited by the fact that Fry wouldn't be his own grandfather if he hadn't been frozen so how did they know that he was the one who needed to be frozen way back in 1999? That's the fun of it!) However, just when Fry is about to save the universe, he learns that he'd been tricked and he can go back and prevent his freezing, allowing him to lead his regular life in Old New York back in the 20th century. So, he goes back, confronts the creature (named Nibbler) that shoved him into the cryogenic tube and... the rest is just damn good television.
In my opinion, one tiny part of the genius here is that in the pilot, Fry and Nibbler were crouching unseen beneath the desk all along. Adding to that is the beautiful paradox that Fry couldn't be under the desk if he hadn't fallen into the tube, so there's really no way for him not to shove his own chair back and knock himself into the tube. (There's a priceless moment where Nibbler is still trying to convince Fry to allow the 1999 version of himself to be frozen. 1999 Fry starts to tip backwards, and Fry instinctively reaches out to steady the chair while he's still listening to Nibbler. It's treated so casually that it's almost nothing, which it is – except that single action has enormous results cascading into the future.) It wouldn't be as much fun if the show weren't so meticulously constructed. The enjoyment comes from being immersed in a universe with such specific rules that you can regularly be called to question how any of it even exists but you can still understand it. If it weren't for those rules, there'd be no reason even to try. And, Futurama is so entertaining because you can have a great time just watching the comedy and not even paying attention, but if you do watch closely, the reward is all the greater.
Futurama airs weekly (inconsistently) at 7:00 pm Sundays on Fox, and reruns from earlier seasons run Sunday through Thursday nights at 11:00 pm Eastern on Cartoon Network. The first season was recently released on DVD.