Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2. Futurama (A Stern Warning Of Things To Come)

”You watched it! You can’t unwatch it!”
-An unseen narrator;
“Anthology Of Interest II (Season 3, Episode 18)

Run time: March 28, 1999 – August 10, 2003 / March 23, 2008 – present
Created by: Matt Groening
Broadcast via: Fox / Adult Swim / Comedy Central

You might think it bold of me to go straight from what is arguably the most respected and influential drama in cinematic history to a cartoon about the misadventures of a space delivery crew in the thirty-first century. But when it comes to quality, one can’t be too dismissive. And if I may cut right down to it, The Simpsons was one of the best shows of the 1990s, hands down, regardless of genre or style. We can dismiss with the notion that animated shows are inferior to live action; they’re not better either – just different.

Some artists work better in the cartoon medium. Matt Groening is living proof of this. His aforementioned Simpsons is possibly the most profitable cartoon ever, and at 22 seasons so far, still shows no signs of stopping. But his cartooning applies beyond this, most notably to his weekly comic strip Life In Hell. But towards the end of the ‘90s, Groening started applying his sarcastic sense of humor towards his reverence of the science fiction shorts and serials of his youth. Along with David X. Cohen, he envisioned a future world of fantastic design but social verisimilitude. The future, according to most fiction, is either full of possibilities or peril. It always seems to be either idyllic or dystopian, usually to prove some point about some garbage like the human condition or something. Which makes it refreshing to have access to a vision of the future that skewers life then as it does now. Futurama is a show that sticks it to us silly humans in the present by showing us how ridiculous things will be in the future. The fact that it’s an animated sitcom makes it all the better. How else could you have robots and aliens coexisting as “Earthicans” in New New York City, circa 3000?

The hook of Futurama is pretty simple, practically standard for “lost in time” fare: On New Year’s Eve 1999, New York native Philip J. Fry (he’s most commonly referred to by his surname) is a pizza delivery boy (in his mid-twenties) who is pretty lousy at life in general. While delivering a pizza to an “I.C. Weiner” he stumbles upon a cryogenics lab and, in a way that could only happen in cartoons, ends up stumbling into a freezing chamber and waking up a thousand years later in 3000. It is a world he does not understand but embraces more than the one from his own time. And thanks to him, we are given not only the most stupid character this side of Homer J. Simpson, but an entry into a pretty dense and intricate retrofuture fantasy world that seems not-too-far removed from our present day-to-day reality’s facts and foibles.

I hope I’m not making Futurama sound like some slice-of-life comedy. It’s definitely not like that. But it’s no standard sitcom, either. Fry becomes roommates with a robot that has to drink in order to remain powered and efficient, and tried to off itself in a suicide booth when it discovered what it’s purpose was (helping to construct parts for a suicide booth). Fry becomes employed by his great14-uncle’s interplanetary deliver company (Planet Express), thus still maintaining “delivery guy/slacker” status as he encounters strange new creatures and worlds every episode. He even falls in love with a cycloptic mutant who doesn’t let a lack of depth perception stop her from piloting the spaceship.

Yes, The Simpsons came first, and there’s Family Guy and South Park and many fine Adult Swim shows to get your ‘toon on, but Futurama bests them all in every category. Of course, this is strictly subjective, but for my money’s worth, Futurama is the best-looking, best-written and best-voiced animated series being offered to audiences. The gorgeous and seamless blend of hand-drawn cell animation and computer generated imagery works perfectly, as exciting action sequences are pulled off with just as much finesse as the gags. The writing staff consists of many PhD-certified math nerds (who also happen to dig Beck and Beastie Boys), which works to the show’s advantage. They put the science into science fiction, from significant plot elements to tiny background jokes (one of my favorites is Studio 122133). While not a hyper-comedy, just about every verbal or visual beat is laced with humor. Jokes are everywhere, and the cast is vivid: there are over 200 speaking roles in the show, humans and robots and aliens and mutants and more all coexisting in a universe where assimilation means the same tedium and chaos that exists on Earth today.

Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, this show was not immediately embraced. Oh sure, it found plenty of fanboys (and girls) from the beginning, but it never reached the levels of those other animated shows that were setting the new standards of the time. But this supposed weakness turned out to be Futurama’s biggest strength: There is something very classic in its storytelling. The freshness comes from the jokes and characters, but the storytelling (while always remaining enjoyable and engaging) is fairly typical. Which gives it a timeless feel, despite being so topical yet futuristic. Fox famously fucked with the Futurama crew during their run (throughout the ’99 to ’04 stretch, by scheduling the show irregularly and never putting much effort into promotion), but when they finally pulled the plug on production, something amazing happened. Futurama didn’t stop. Oh, sure, the staff had disbanded and new scripts were not being written. But Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim brigade had picked up the show, and was airing it regularly on their late night programming. As DVD sales remained steady and Adult Swim kept airing the still-funny reruns, Futurama became cult classic. And then, nearly five years after it had been cancelled, it was reborn. In the form of four feature-length movies (the equivalent of sixteen episodes), Futurama was brought back to life, with the entire voice cast returning to their beloved roles.  After the success of the direct-to-DVD films, Comedy Central picked up a new season of 26 episodes. The show returned to pretty impressive numbers (much more so for being on cable station Comedy Central instead of basic network Fox) and much critical and fan adoration.

While it’s future is certainly not set, it remains in top form. And the success of this new season means that Futurama will continue to remain the best cartoon of this new millennium for some time. Long may the hilarity continue.

An upbeat number that displays the many colorful characters, buildings, and avenues of New New York City, complete with an opening title gag (this article's subtitle comes from the caption for season two's "The Deep South") and a short clip from a classic (and often unrecognizable) cartoon. Short, sweet and to the point.

BEST CHARACTER: BENDER (voiced by John DiMaggio)
The laws of contradictions hold no weight for Bender Bending Rodriguez, a robot hailing from “America’s heartland” (Mexico) who drinks, smoke, womanizes and steals without a second thought. Exposure to magnets turns his into a folk-singing loon. He has given birth to beer, enslaved an entire planet, and committed more felonies than every character on The Sopranos, or another other show about criminals for that matter. Of all the crazy characters we encounter throughout the universe, few are able to shake things up any more than this natural-made troublemaker.

BEST SEASON: 6 (of 6, for now)
Not just for being the newest, freshest and most exciting, the newest season is the best because (similar to the rebirth of Family Guy) it brought back an energized cast and crew ready to top themselves. Though we’re only halfway through it right now (new episodes start airing sometime soon next year), each episode has been a winner, exploring and further parodying science fiction themes, concepts and conventions for a more accepting and capable audience.

BEST EPISODE: “Jurassic Bark” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Though “Roswell That Ends Well” won Futurama its first Emmy during the third season (and it was a swinging good time-travel romp), “Jurassic Bark” is a very funny episode about a boy and his dog that also plays with storytelling conventions by giving us a split timeline between the 3000 timeline and Fry’s original twentieth century timeframe. The juxtaposing scenes culminate in one of the most touching and heartfelt moments of any series, let alone a silly cartoon featuring a walking Jewish space lobster.

BEST MOMENT: The ending of “The Sting” (“The Sting,” Season 4, Episode 12)
Fry gets stung by crazy space bees, putting him into a coma that sends Leela reeling into a guilty stupor, unhinging her sanity scene by scene. It’s not until the very end that we realize what emotional, sweet, dizzying and funny turns Futurama is capable of. One of the craziest and most satisfying resolutions in a show known for some pretty good endings.

BEST “SCARY DOOR”: "The Most Evil Creature Of Them All!"
Not only does Futurama spoof sci fi, but it also loves to poke fun of The Twilight Zone with its 30-second mini-comic "Scary Door" shows. There have been many great ones throughout Futurama’s run(s), but this one – so over-the-top and yet so dry at the same time – is my personal favorite. Since I can't find a YouTube clip, I'll post the transcript from The Infospehere, a Futurama Wiki that seems to have it down:
[Opening credits.]
ANNOUNCER: You're on a scenic route through a state recreational area known as the human mind. You ask a passerby for directions, only to find he has no face or something. Suddenly up ahead, a door in the road. You swerve, narrowly avoiding The Scary Door.
[SCENE: A scientist is in a Frankensteinesque laboratory mixing chemicals in a beaker.]
SCIENTIST: I have combined the DNA of the world's most evil animals to make the most evil creature of them all.
[A pod reminiscent of the ones from the movie "The Fly" opens with a cloud of steam. It clears, revealing a naked human male.]
NAKED MAN: It turns out it's man.

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