Futurama, Season One, Episode Eight, “A Big Piece Of Garbage”

Written By: Lewis Morton
Directed By: Susie Dietter
DN’s Ranking: ESSENTIAL

Here we go! This is the first truly great episode of the show. The ones building up to it are good and even moving, but I don’t revisit them anywhere near as frequently as I revisit this one. All the potential the series has shown has flowered into one rollicking, hilarious half hour of television. I think what makes it work so perfectly is that it locks into two ideas: parodying disaster films, and satirising contemporary wastefulness and shortsightedness in environmentalism. Everything flows from one of those two concepts; the former gives the episode structure and the latter gives it bite. The fundamental principle driving the series is asking “what is the funniest way we can drive the plot forward?” and this episode has a deep enough understanding of disaster flicks and science fiction to find absurd plot points. They find the incoming disaster with a smelloscope! The disaster is a giant ball of garbage that will be here in seventy-two hours! The stakes are raised when the first solution fails because the Professor put the timer in upside down! The whole thing is heroically solved by making garbage! Part of what makes the show so funny is that this provides a jumping off point for some truly absurd poetry (“That smell could be anything! A fault stench coil, some cheese on the lens, who knows?”) and part of it is that it all makes a distressing amount of sense. It follows all the rules a disaster movie is supposed to follow even as it’s based on some hilariously stupid ideas. Wernstrom is my favourite example of this because he is, beat for beat, the villain of any number of disaster films, but the specific details of who he is are so strange and hilarious. This is where the overeducation of the writing staff comes in most useful, lifting the dynamics of university life to imbue his relationship with the Professor with a strange sincerity. If there’s any specific thing it’s saying, it’s that academia is dominated by pettiness and overachieving (locking into two ideas doesn’t mean it won’t allow other ideas to emerge).

The satirical aspect is also something that works well, never falling into preachiness. I want to say it’s because much of what it’s saying is true, but then I realise how many things I’ve seen that have inspired the response “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole”. I think it’s that it’s never trying to be anything less than funny, and the fact that it’s often a poignant insight into the flaws of society is a bonus. What I particularly like is how the episode tracks environmental issues from many different angles – systemic, individual, and how each can intermingle. Corporations generate junk, individuals buy it and throw it out, governments do nothing to properly resolve the issue. There’s even a sincere dive into how someone like Fry can perpetuate this dysfunctional system because they really do find an almost spiritual kind of joy in junk, which is something that I enjoy partly because the series itself aims to remake ‘junk’ culture into something worthwhile and fun – perhaps that’s why I’m forgiving of the potential preachiness, because it’s from the perspective of someone willing to acknowledge their own complicity as opposed to finger-pointing. It’s very much part of that Groening morality in which people as a group find the fastest and easiest solution to an immediate problem without thought for the long-term consequences. The line that makes me nod thoughtfully the most is “Some experts claim the ball might return to Earth someday, but their concerns were dismissed as ‘depressing’”, because it so perfectly conveys that, and of course the final lines are a perfect conclusion to that whole theme – there is an extent to which a good Futurama episode is an animated essay. 

Title Card: Mr Bender’s wardrobe by Robotony 5000
Cartoon Billboard: “A Corny Concerto”, 1943

This episode establishes that The Simpsons is a work of fiction within the Futurama universe, and has a cameo by Nancy Cartwright as a Bart doll (as well as Ron Popeil as himself). Between Wernstrom and Mayor Poopenmeyer, “A Big Piece Of Garbage” really establishes Dave Herman as a load-bearing element of the show. I notice fans tend to think of Herman as an unsung member of the cast, which I can only assume comes down to the fact that he never actually plays a serious character the way the others do – the main trio obviously get the lion’s share of the sincere emotional content, and Phil Lamarr, Maurice LaMarche, and Lauren Tom get episodes and moments thrown to them with Hermes, Kiff, and Amy sometimes, but as far as I can remember Herman only ever plays comedic supporting characters, though he does so with the same energy and skill as anyone else in the cast. Contrast with the fact that nobody describes, say, Harry Shearer as an unsung member of The Simpsons cast despite him also exclusively playing supporting members, because they all have their day in the sun at some point. Perhaps this speaks to the way comedy can be underrated compared to serious drama, even with comedy fans talking about a comedy; I definitely think it speaks to the two different aims of The Simpsons and Futurama – the former creates comedy out of empathising with its characters and letting them go strange but sincere places, while the latter makes fun of them.

The plot point of the Professor putting the timer in upside down was actually lifted from an incident in which terrorists made the exact same mistake in 1991. This episode actually has our first instance of Zoidberg eating garbage, though we don’t know he’s doing it because he’s desperately poor yet. The joke of Fry going to press the launch button and missing completely despite it being surrounded by a target is a perfect joke – perhaps this show’s equivalent to “Four Krustys!” as a platonic ideal of a joke. It also works as a skeleton key for Fry’s stupidness in my mind – where possible, he’ll do something the wrong way.

The plot as a whole riffs on Armageddon. The garbage barge is a reference to Mobro 4000. “We’ll Met Again” plays over the credits in reference to Dr Strangelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb).

Iconic Moments: 1. “Wid gusto.”
Biggest Laugh: This is one of my favourite lines in the whole series, and a pure distillation of the series finding hilariously lazy ways to fulfill genre expectations.