Futurama began its seventh season with a plotline about a robot copulating with a vending machine voiced by Wanda Sykes, so I realize it might sound silly to argue that the show is starting to feel a little safe. Really, it feels rude to overly criticize Futurama at all. When the show was on Fox a decade ago, it was a famously unloved stepchild/whipping boy for a crew of network executives who appeared to aggressively dislike the show. The first two episodes earned high ratings in the 8:30 timeslot, where it was airing as an uncannily perfect bridge between The Simpsons at 8 and The X-Files at 9. The network promptly shuttled Futurama to Tuesday, where it lost half its viewership while sandwiched between perpetual underperformer King of the Hill and forgotten gem The PJs.
From there, the show bounced around the schedule, rarely staying in the same timeslot for too long — which, in the days before DVR, was the equivalent of banishment to Siberia. It finally died a quiet death in the summer of 2003…or it would have, if a fervent online fanbase and the changing economics of the television landscape hadn’t convinced Comedy Central to resurrect the show. Now, Futurama is a steady performer. The last season averaged 2.5 million viewers (counting DVR numbers), which is a good enough number for cable. There’s a sense that the show has finally found a peaceful place in TV land where it can amuse a core group of fans with its trademark sci-fi silliness. Futurama is the puppy you loved when you were a kid who actually did get to go and live on that farm upstate, and you can visit the puppy each week, and it never grows old.
Which is part of the problem. Now starting its third 13-episode run on Comedy Central, there’s a sense that Futurama has become less of a comedy and more a great source of Futurama in-jokes. The show has created one of the most vibrant fictional universes in TV history, but that universe isn’t expanding anymore. Most of the lead characters have been reduced to a few key traits. Fry = stupid, loves Leela. Amy = hot, raised on Mars. The Professor = “Good news, everyone!” At the same time, one-joke characters have been popping up more frequently: Count how often the Headless Clone of Spiro Agnew has appeared four or five times since the show’s resurrection (including last night) versus once pre-cancelation. The existence of one-joke characters is the problem. The problem is, like The Simpsons before it, the show is no longer creating any new one-joke characters.
I’m being cruel to be kind, because Futurama is a show composed with so much obvious intelligence that it can feel dizzy. The show can do stupid-smart Airplane!-style humor. Like when a fem-robot walks up to a bar and says: “I need to loosen up. Give me a screwdriver,” to which the bartender gave her an actual screwdriver. At the same time, the show can do weird, dark, slow-burn humor with a big pay-off. The second episode of the premiere made a running gag out of Fry constantly telling Leela, “Take my hand.” After a series of unfortunate events, the final shot of the episode was of Fry and Leela’s severed arms, floating through space, with their hands intertwined.
Futurama is still capable of knocking it out of the park. Last season’s triptych finale “Reincarnation” was one of the show’s best episodes, and the time-hopping “Late Philip J. Fry” from 2010 has to be in the conversation when we talk about the best Futurama episode, period. And the show can still inspire belly laughs, like this chestnut:
Leela: “Well, it wasn’t a bad life. If only I could get back that the time I watched TRON: Legacy.”
Fry: “Leela, I’ve made up my mind. Before we die, I’m going to find and destroy every remaining copy of TRON: Legacy. It may take a couple of hours.”
Heehee. Stupid TRON: Legacy.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich