Written By: Brian Kelley
Directed By: Brian Scheesley
I enjoy that we’re four episodes in and still having many fundamental aspects of the show established; people often describe this show (and others) as ‘planned, but I prefer the word ‘prepared’ because it’s not so much about an exact point-by-point list of chores as it is a stock of tricks that has been thoroughly vetted, and it goes to show how well-prepared this show was that almost every element integral to it was pumped out in the first four episodes, laying the groundwork for later developments like President Nixon’s Head, Scruffy, and the jokes about the characters all randomly hating each other (especially Zoidberg). I also enjoy how they were mostly worked in naturally – Amy, Zoidberg, and Hermes were introduced in about the most obvious ‘we’re throwing a new element at you, pay attention’ kind of way, but everyone and everything else was introduced as a plot element to push the immediate story forward, and this episode is no exception. In this case, Zapp Brannigan is introduced as the antagonist o’ the week. The thing I find interesting about Zapp is that, by all rights, I should find him extremely irritating – he’s a one-note idiot who will say and do the most obviously stupid or wrong thing in every situation, and that one note is hit harder and harder as the series goes on. Worse, he’s an obvious misogynist written by mild sexists, and such characters tend to grate on me – see the works of Joss Whedon, where he creates a lot of cardboard misogynist villains who act as punching bags for his morally righteous heroes. Sometimes stories like this can seem like men trying to distract you from their own sexism by taking down men more obviously shitty than they are; at worst, they come off as taking an hour to say “rispetti le donne!”.
Zapp Brannigan is different, and I think it comes from the fact that the show is, above all other considerations, just trying to be funny. Futurama is a lot of things, but it’s not ideologically motivated – not to say that it doesn’t have a point of view or sense of morality, but that it uses ideology to create comedy as opposed to using comedy to express ideology. That is to say, Zapp Brannigan isn’t a statement from Futurama about how stupid misogyny is, he’s Futurama using a misogynistic character to tell jokes. From there, you have an explanation for why I continue to find him funny as the series goes on; the show is using its full intelligence to come up with the dumbest things for Zapp to say and do, and as it gets smarter and more sure of itself, the dialogue and action get more complicated and funnier. Within this episode alone, you have the sublime poetry of “I have made it with a woman. Inform the men!” – I love the fact that the second line mirrors the first but at half the length, creating a blunt rhythm that makes the joke even funnier. It also helps that the show works to make him uniquely stupid and uniquely sexist within the context of its universe; Fry can match up to him in terms of the stupid ways he can talk, and sometimes Fry and Bender end up falling into sexist attitudes, but Zapp’s stupidity and attitude towards women is above and beyond what anyone else is capable of, which makes his jokes unique within the landscape of Futurama.
The other element of the show introduced this episode is Nibbler, which is a good segue into talking about Leela. What fascinates me about her is how the show simultaneously often wobbled on her character while also delivering my all time favourite Comic Foil. The bad first: I think Leela was the vortex to all the show’s worst tendencies with writing women. Futurama often fell back on lazy stereotypes that I feel rarely actually reflected on what women are like – the catfighting jokes between Leela and Amy were the ones that annoyed me the most, because it felt like they were ripping from hacky old sitcoms rather than anything I’ve ever actually seen women do, even when they were in conflict with one another. With Leela specifically, they tended to apply jealousy and insecurity in a way that didn’t feel true to the character – I buy that she’d be lonely and frustrated and insecure, but I fully believe she’d have the sense not to impulsively react to every insult thrown her way. This ends up tying into the fundamental issue the writers have with her, which is the same issue many men have when writing women – not fully grasping the emotional toll of dealing with sexism every day. One thing that affected my view on gender politics was the writer Zoe Z Dean’s comment that women don’t hate men, they fear us; when men write women, we tend to project what we would do onto them, which leads to a lot of “if someone were sexist towards me, I would simply insult them”, which misses both the underlying exhaustion I tend to see women express regarding sexism and the potential consequences women can suffer from when they do respond. I’m not asking for every episode to be a bell hooks essay, but it doesn’t feel true, and truth is a fundamental part of comedy, even if you’re deliberately showing a falsehood to be funny.
At the same time, this has the first real great examples of my favourite part of Leela’s characterization: that she’s only 90% a perfect Comic Foil. Leela is always actively trying to do the smart and right thing, and that makes her a perfect Seinfeld-esque commentator on the absurdity of Fry, Bender, and the rest of the universe. What makes her one of the all-time great characters is that she does have plausible, irrational impulses that take over at inconvenient moments. I can just about believe Leela would end up throwing Zapp a pity fuck that she would completely regret, but I 100% believe she’d be petty enough to not turn to him for help even with certain doom on the line; outside the plot, there’s a great gag where she thanks a man for not caring about her eye and then hypocritically wretches at his weird tongue. I identify with Leela because she’s smart enough to not do stupid things and yet she still does stupid things occasionally – she’s not some uberperfect creature who never makes mistakes and has saintly amounts of patience, she’s someone who generally has the discipline to do the right thing most of the time but occasionally gets tripped up by greed and ego and becomes loudly outraged by getting arbitrarily shat on by the world, and she’s forced to deal with the consequences of that. This is not my favourite example of that, but it is the first major dive into that aspect of her, and we can already see that her better, more compassionate instincts ultimately end up taking over when she tries (keyword: tries) saving Nibbler and the other animals. Leela was never perfectly served by the show, but she was a crucial addition to the Groeningverse in how she shows a new variation on someone trying to find the balance between her higher and lower instincts.
Title Card: Presented in Brain Control where available
Cartoon Billboard: The Wacky Rabbit, 1942
As we all know by now, Zapp was originally going to be played by Phil Hartman before he was murdered. Billy West took over the role and made the character a mixture of a Hartman impression and several announcers he’d known. Originally, Zapp’s gut was supposed to grow in every shot, but the animators gave up when it got too hard. Kiff mentions that the date is April 13th, which was the airdate of the episode. When West performed the entity of pure energy, the sound engineers couldn’t figure out where the strange crackling sound was coming around until they discovered that West could do that sound with his voice.
I love that sequence where Amy takes the other characters out, and we get a classic breakdown of ironic reappropriation (“Why’s everybody wearing rings?” / “Because nobody wears them anymore.”). There’s a gaydar joke that dates the show, not because it’s offensive but simply because I don’t think I’ve even heard or read the word ‘gaydar’ in like a decade (“Unless I’m getting interference from a gay weather balloon.”). This episode also introduces Dark Matter and the way the characters are fuelling the ship with Nibbler’s poop, a great example of the show making the plot inherently funny.
“What she oughta do is find a nice guy with two eyes and then poke one out.”
Much of Zapp’s character comes from parodying Star Trek; his point of inspiration was ‘What if William Shatner was captain of the Enterprise?’ and his dynamic with Kiff comes from the thought of Spock being a number two who hates his captain but is dependent on him. Brannigan’s Law is a reference to the Prime Directive. The crew escaping Vergon 6 as it explodes is a reference to the climax of A New Hope. The hologram of Vergon 6 is a reference to the hologram of Endor in Return Of The Jedi.
Iconic Moments: 1. “You see, Killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shutdown.”