Futurama, Season One, Episode Six, “A Fishful Of Dollars”

Written By: Ron Hughart
Directed By: Gregg Vanzo

I remember this as a mediocre episode, not because it wasn’t that funny, but because it was the most major example of the show not quite finding its feet yet. Fry’s defining trait, aside from his stupidness and his terrible hygiene, would become that he’s almost too comfortable in the future (“Oh, it’s just a flying saucer. Excuse me, you can’t park here!”); not only does his sudden obsession with recreating the twentieth century seem really bizarre in retrospect, it’s even stranger having sat down and analysed the show so far, because his first reaction to losing everything and everyone he ever knew was jubilation. I think I can see what they’re trying to get at – Fry panicking at finding he’s genuinely lost something he cared about and then slipping back into old habits at the first opportunity – it just doesn’t ring true, which ruins some of the pathos and most of the comedy. For the most part, the emotional core doesn’t feel true to me; the one exception is the ending, in which Fry chooses to commit himself to his friends. I think the problem with these early episodes is that they keep making ‘the characters choose to stick together’ the climactic decision of episodes, and I know this sounds ass-backwards, but I think it’s too early in the series for that to have a real impact. The characters may be at least 75% of the way there on their own, but they don’t yet have a shared history or specific chemistry to draw on; it’s not just that I don’t ‘know’ these people well enough to care if they stick together or not, it’s that the ways they hurt and betray each other are neither strange enough nor specific enough to these particular characters to land yet. “I, Roommate” worked because Fry’s way of hurting Bender is so weird and specific that it sticks in the head; “The Series Has Landed” worked because Leela makes a choice to commit to Fry at the start of the episode and the rest is a process of her discovering what that really means. Weaker episodes like this and “Fear Of A Bot Planet” don’t have that same sense of an unpredictable yet entirely logical journey.

At the same time, there’s still a lot of good stuff here. This is our first introduction to Mom, the billionaire supervillain who hides her evil under the mask of a sweet old lady, and perhaps the finest character ever crafted for Tress MacNeille. She’s always been one of the greatest voice actors ever and she’s played many fine characters in many fine shows, but Mom feels like someone finally unleashed something that was always within her. There’s a lot of Agnes Skinner in Mom – simultaneously a sweet old lady and a bitter asshole – but weaponised. Mom’s Sweet Old Lady routine is entirely a mask and her bitter rage is who she really is. On top of this, the basic satirical point of the episode is a really good one – Mom is deliberately selling less efficient robots so that she can continue making money off them by selling robot oil (something many real businesses do, the way they sell products that break down shortly after the warranty runs out so the customer has to buy a replacement) – so what you have is a really necessary point being made through the vehicle of good ol’ fashioned Golden Girls meets Joan Rivers meets The Three Stooges comedy. MacNeille really leans in on Mom’s bitterness too, finding a character way meaner than any of those influences and consequently way funnier. Much like Zapp Brannigan, Mom has a certain poetry to the way she speaks; we haven’t gotten to the highs of “Jam a bastard in it, you crap!” but she’s already playing with rhythms and deliveries (“No it isn’t! Shut your filthy clam!”). She might be one of the most successful examples of the show remixing the spare parts of reality and pop culture to create something wholly new. 

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Cartoon Billboard: “Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions”, 1933

Pamela Anderson guest stars as herself and shows the appropriate amount of good humour.

This also has a whole scene about the characters getting advertisements in their dreams, a concept so horrifying to me that I hope it never comes to fruition. I enjoy the gag of the makeup saleslady trying to draw attention from Leela’s eye, a small moment of Shit Women Have To Deal With. We see a very, very early appearance of Scruffy giving Bender a back massage. There’s a few obvious jokes, like the whole ‘time traveller generating enormous interest in a bank account’ or characters in the future referring to pop music as ‘classical music’, but they work (especially when they go somewhere weird like ‘stuffy old songs about the buttocks’). I also love the gag of Fry announcing his PIN to anyone unprompted.

The title is a parody of A Fistful Of Dollars. Fry watches Sanford And Sons. The concept of a time traveller generating interest in a bank account is lifted from The Sleeper Awakens by HG Wells. Fry listens to “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mixalot. Professor Farnsworth drops a reference to the Ed Wood film Bride Of The Monster.

Iconic Moments: Fry drooling in response to finding out he’s a billionaire has become a popular reaction image.
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