Monday, July 5, 2010

Thoughts on New Futurama

Avatar: The Last Airbender Monday may be late this week due to the holiday weekend. If I'm able to finish today, it will go up today; if I'm not able to finish it today, however, I may not be able to get it done for a couple of days. Sorry for the last-minute notice. As an apology, here's some proof that I do occasionally think about things other than Avatar:

The first two episodes of new Futurama, I was too excited by the new-ness and Futurama-ness of it all to form a reliable opinion. In particular, the fact that they didn't push the reset button on the Fry-Leela relationship, despite having memory loss as a plot element in the first episode and potential cheating in the second, was deeply impressive.

Last night's episode... not so much. Most of it was pretty good. Nothing on par with the best episodes of Futurama past, neither as heartwarming and -wrenching as "The Sting" or "Luck of the Fry-rish," nor as deliciously plot-tastic as "The Why of Fry," nor even as simply and happily entertaining as "The Deep South" or "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," it was for the large part entertaining enough, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments.

But then there was Mr. Chunks. Though he did give rise to one obscure-but-hilarious-if-you-get-it joke ("Pukeme-Pooyou"), which Futurama has always done well, mostly he was the kind of moronic gross-out "humor" that all too often mars even the best episodes of Comedy Central's other big animated shows, South Park.

This worries me, to say the least. The move to cable allows Futurama more freedom than they had on network television, true, and that opens up new artistic tools for both the comedy and drama of Futurama. But the greatness of Futurama has always lain in the fact that it is capable of being smart, subtle, and (despite and sometimes because of the inherent cynicism Matt Groening brings to everything) surprisingly uplifting. That's not really possible when you have a poo-eating, perpetually vomiting goat as a major plot point.

The other thing that deeply distresses me about the episode is that there's no hint in Fry's and Leela's interactions that anything has changed between them since the original Fox run. They don't act at all like a couple, and Leela even refers to Fry as "a good friend." What happened? Did they break up over "In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela" after all, and the writers just forgot to tell us?

The reason I thought it was daring of the writers not to reboot the Fry-Leela relationship was that unresolved sexual tension -- the classic "Will they or won't they?" -- is one of the driving sources of conflict, drama, and humor in many long-running serials, from comic strips to sitcoms. While it is impossible to move the characters forward without answering the question eventually, it can be very difficult to sustain a series after one of its major conflicts is resolved. Bringing Fry and Leela closes that arc, and it also reflects how far those characters have come: the Fry of first season and the Leela of first season could have never worked, mostly because he was a thoughtless, insensitive, lazy buffoon, but also because Leela could not permit herself to have a functional relationship.

Over the course of the series, both matured. Leela discovered her homeworld and even a family, and Fry's experiences slowly made him capable of caring. Compare the Fry of the real-world portion of "The Sting" to the Fry of the first season: he's still lazy and stupid, but he is genuinely loving toward Leela, without ulterior motive; he just wants her to be well. And then, of course, there's Fry's future self, Lars. The path from first-season Fry to Lars is clear, and it leads right through the Fry of "The Sting" -- his feelings for Leela make him want to be a better person, so he becomes one. It is perhaps not the healthiest relationship in the world, but it seems to work for them in the end.

Or it would, if the writers let it. The Fry of "Attack of the Killer App" is not the Fry of "Into the Wild Green Yonder." It's the inconsiderate jerkass of "I, Roommate," the third episode of the first season. Fry doesn't act like that anymore! Not toward Leela. For Leela, he would sit by a hospital bed for days, drive out his own mind-expanding parasites, or make a deal with the Robot Devil! Of course he would swim through puke for her. That shouldn't even be in question!

I hope, very much, that this episode is a fluke. Even the best show can have the occasional terrible episode, where everyone is out of character and the writing doesn't quite fit the show. Heck, my last AtLA Monday was one. So, I remain on the fence about new Futurama, but they still have plenty of time to win me over.


  1. Me, I just thought that the episode made the rookie mistake of thinking that internet memes would still be funny months after they first occurred and have been driven to the ground, although the relationship thing is a problem too. They're pretty much at the point where any future development rings hollow, which is a damn shame, cause I like Fry, I like Leela, and I like 'em together. This dance of theirs, though, where they go "I like you" "I like you too", and "why are we, two consenting adults with fully functioning sexy-parts, incapable of making a move?" got old by the time the show was first canceled.

  2. Well, what's really obnoxious is that, in the last movie, they MADE a move! They are obviously an item in the first new episode -- so why aren't they one anymore?

    And yeah, the only animated show that can really pull off topicality is South Park, because they have a turnaround time of less than a week. Their secret: really crappy animation made on incredibly advanced equipment. It's not really something other shows can (or should, honestly) do.