Back to the Future

Animated sci-fi sitcom Futurama made its triumphant return last week in the form of a direct-to-DVD movie. Kevin Nguyen discusses the show’s brilliance and its critiques of our modern world.

Last Tuesday saw the long overdue return of the animated science fiction comedy Futurama, which, in my opinion, is one of television’s greatest programs. The series followed a deadbeat pizza delivery boy named Fry who was transplanted 1,000 years into the future. There, he lived his life as a deadbeat interstellar package delivery boy at Planet Express, befriending a cyclops named Leela and an alcoholic robot named Bender. The show’s writing, animation, and voice-acting was nothing short of brilliant.

Unfortunately, Futurama became a show that attracted more critical acclaim than viewers.

Futurama

Bender becomes God, then meets God in the episode “Godfellas”; courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television.

While the show’s premiere in 1999 amassed widespread hype as a follow-up to Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, it failed to find the audience that Fox had hoped for. Perhaps the humor only appealed to a niche audience, or maybe Fox’s tradition of impatiently changing a show’s time slot lead to Futurama’s tragic cancellation after four seasons,despite it winning three Emmy awards (Arrested Development, anyone?).

But in the five-year gap between Futurama’s finale and its return, interest in the show’s revitalization never waned. Strong DVD sales of the 72-episode series, late night syndication on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, and the successful revival of Family Guy would persuade 20th Century Fox Television to produce four direct-to-DVD feature-length Futurama films, the first of which, Bender’s Big Score, was released last week.

The first seasons of Futurama played it relatively safe, relying on much of the same humor that had made The Simpsons successful. Moving into the later seasons, though, the show started to hit its stride. As the characters developed, the show’s writers were afforded more space to pen impressively clever sci-fi storylines. Season three’s “Godfellas” episode was a side-splitting teleological romp in which Bender meets God, and “The Farnsworth Parabox” from season four found the Planet Express crew encountering doubles of themselves in a parallel universe.

The cleverest theme that ran throughout the series was its consistent vision of the future. In the episode “Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?”, Fry says, “Now that’s what I call a thousand years of progress: a Bavarian Cream dog that’s self-microwaving!” A thousand years from now, imagine a world where technology has made everything bigger and faster. By grotesquely exaggerating the vices of modern society,the show questioned the current direction of our progress. By developing bigger weapons and faster cars, are we really moving forward? Unlike most science fiction, which imagines the future as either utopian or distopian, Futurama conceives the year 3000 as something both funnier and scarier–an exaggerated critique of the present.

But it’s been a long time since the folks behind Futurama put anything new together. How does Bender’s Big Score fare?

Astonishingly, it’s better than I could have expected. With the entire original cast returning, and with an obviously higher production budget, the first Futurama film feels like the series never went away. The writing and animation are sharp, and there’s no shortage of laugh-out-loud moments throughout, including a guest appearance by Al Gore and a brief musical number between KwanzaBot (Coolio) and Chanukah Zombie (Mark Hamill). Admittedly, the film’s length makes Bender’s Big Score feel like four episodes TV episodes played back-to-back, a bit much for the casual viewer. Plus, many of the movie’s jokes reference the earlier series, which may be a little confusing for those new to Futurama.

Even though Family Guy’s return to television was a commercial success, the show was considered by many a disaster in terms of quality. If Bender’s Big Score is a sign of what’s to come, then, contrary to Futurama’s depiction of the next 1000 years, we’ve all got something to look forward to in the future.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.