Written by: J Stewart Burns
Directed by: Jeffery Lynch and Kevin O’Brian
We’re still in an era of firsts, and I would call this the first middling-in-a-good-way episode. Unlike The Simpsons, I do feel comfortable ranking episodes of the show based on their quality – more accurately, I feel comfortable categorising them that way. You may recall that I loosely divided Simpsons episodes into three categories – ones that were trying to make some specific satirical point, ones that were exploring a particular character, and ones that were ‘just’ trying to be funny. The Simpsons had a sprawling ambition that led it to setting out to master every idea or process it could get its hands on, including vaudeville, farce, literary storytelling, romantic comedy, and even horror. The ambition of Futurama is much simpler and permeates the entire series: it’s trying to find as many original and hilarious one-liners as it can. Even its visual gags have this effect, hitting like blunt objects in a way that Krusty sitting in a miserable bus shelter doesn’t. The upshot of this approach is that it means you always know what you’re gonna get without the story necessarily being predictable – consider the Law & Order franchise, which is almost as vividly precise in its goals but much more rigid in what it allows to happen. The flipside of this is that a single episode of Futurama can be easily measured against that goal, and the flipside of that lack of L&O rigidity is that it’s not always consistent. I divide Futurama episodes into three categories, two of which I ripped off from internet personality ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER: BAD, which are episodes that fail to be consistently funny, are actively unfunny, or have a premise I find grating or abrasive; ESSENTIAL, where either the jokes come so fast and so hard that I’m on the floor weeping with laughter, or the writers commit to a premise so original and bizarre that I’m delighted by the sheer novelty and imagination (with the best episodes having both); finally, NON-ESSENTIAL, the inbetween ranking in which an episode is consistently funny without either breaking into breathless hilarity or cooking up a great, original premise. I dislike bad episodes, obviously, but I find the non-essential episodes to be part of the show’s charm. Some days, you go into work and everything clicks and you hit a flow of inspiration and it’s like, wow, I’m on fire today! Most days, though, you go in and do a competent job, and if you’re good at it, you at least get some good work done.
(Hmm, maybe I should start putting in DN’s Ranking for every episode)
This episode is the Gallant to the Goofus of “Fear Of A Bot Planet” in that its fictional society is much weirder and more interesting, and it finds some great gags in the specific rules the Trisolians operate under (like the one of a painting opening up and a straw coming out to try and drink Fry). This is, admittedly, another episode in which a main character – Fry in this case – abandons their friends before deciding to commit to them, but it has the advantage of the individual plot beats being funny. A few years ago, there was a trend – shown in an AV Club article I can’t lay my hands on – of cutting sitcom episodes down to just the plot points, and I recall people noting that even the plot movements of Seinfeld were funny. There’s a similar thing going on with this episode and with many of the best Futurama episodes, in which the things that push the story forward are utterly absurd in themselves. In this case, we have Fry drinking water that turns out to be the emperor of the world, making him emperor, and we have the hilarious climax where the characters save Fry’s life by beating the crap out of him as he tearfully thanks them. I’m always a sucker for comedies that play something as both absurd and serious – obviously, there’s The Simpsons, but it was also the bread and butter of Community. There’s an edgier and more deliciously meanspirited sensibility to Futurama, though; those other shows (especially Community) feel like they’re trying to be nice and funny at the same time, while this episode feels much more like it’s laughing at the very idea of taking this seriously.
I think that if this plot has a real downside, it’s how it’s about Fry realising he should take Leela’s advice seriously and let her take care of him. It’s not that this is a bad idea – in fact, it’s the basis of one of my favourite episodes – it’s that it meshes very poorly with the will-they-won’t-they aspect of Fry and Leela’s relationship. My idealised romantic image is two equals carving a path of destruction through the world more terrifying and violent than either could have achieved on their own; Fry and Leela’s relationship, especially at this point, is a matter of Leela having to knock Fry’s hand away when he tries to touch a hot stove. I actually don’t mind that as a friend dynamic – in fact, it’s downright endearing, and I’ve sometimes been on both ends of that – it’s that it doesn’t strike me as a terribly healthy romantic dynamic. On the one hand, Fry is conceding control of the relationship over to Leela; on the other, it’s put upon Leela to take on so much more work for the relationship (I do believe this is what people are referring to when they talk about women taking on more emotional labour than men). I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that relationship, and I wouldn’t want to inflict either end of that relationship on anyone. When Fry’s infatuation with Leela works for me, it’s because it’s simply a motivation that sets a story in motion, and the climax works on me on that level – Fry is horrified that he’s hurt Leela and he feels terrible about himself, and that kind of attitude is what makes him a likeable protagonist.
Title Card: Presented in DOUBLE VISION (where drunk)
Cartoon Billboard: The Impractical Joker, 1937
This also has a very Simpsons-esque sideways entrance into the plot with Bender becoming the ship’s cook. It’s never mentioned after the main plot gets underway, but it does directly and specifically cause the main plot in the first place because it’s why Fry is thirsty enough to drink the emperor. I do love how it’s driven by Bender’s particularly narcissistic vanity – he has a stratospherically high opinion of himself, and when people don’t recognise him as The Greatest, it hurts his feelings.
Unfortunately, the ‘white guys walk like this’ joke is outclassed by a much older Simpsons joke. This has the first example of both Elzar and the spice weasel. My favourite comedic plot point is Fry’s solution to reciting the oath, which is genuinely clever in a stupid sort of way. The other great thing about this episode is how many examples of Futurama’s comedic poetry it has. “She’ll never help me. She’s still mad that I told her never to help me.” and “It can and for all you know it is!” are the two big standouts.
The title is a reference to the sitcom My Three Sons. Bender wears an apron with the phrase “to serve man”, a reference to that Twilight Zone episode.
Iconic Moments: 2. This is the very first appearance of the Professor’s “Good news, everyone!” catchphrase, though he has used “Great news, everyone!” before. Oddly, Bender already recognises the phrase is suspicious. | Fry’s gibberish story about the squirrel and the octopus. “Is any of this getting through to you?