Futurama, Season One, Episode Nine, “Hell Is Other Robots”

Written By: Eric Kaplan
Directed By: Rich Moore
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

I’m genuinely shocked this one comes so early! I knew Futurama found its feet relatively early compared to most television comedies, but somehow I always missed that this one comes straight after “A Big Piece Of Garbage”. This is a far more successful riff on ‘robot versions of human things’ than “Fear Of A Bot Planet” because it has both a more specific Thing to make roboty and a more dynamic character arc. The thing that gets me about this episode is that the first two thirds are almost exactly the arc of a crappy anti-drug special, just as much as “A Big Piece Of Garbage” is almost exactly a disaster film. What this means is that it gets to mess with the fundamental nature of one of our characters; the basic arc of an anti-drug special is, like almost all cop procedurals, the Disruption and Restoration of Order, in which there is a violation of morality that is then fixed. It’s incredibly easy to generate laughs out of applying this to Bender – on one level, as David X Cohen has pointed out, being a robot means they can do things to him that would feel cruel if applied to a human (love that shot that includes a crate of robot limbs after he melts his own). But we also know him so well at this point that we can laugh at seeing him acting out of character, which ironically ends up revealing immutable aspects to him. It really clicked for me when he responded to the Planet Express Crew’s flagrantly fake delivery with “Another job well done,” because it’s basically the kind of thing he would normally say in a wildly different context. Bender is funny because he’s so selfish and thoughtless that he has a complete lack of guile; he never questions the motivations of anyone around him because he doesn’t, you know, care. Neither of these facts change just because he’s taken on a new philosophy.

You know, really thinking about what I just wrote above makes me realise that there’s an even bigger joke hiding under all of this I never noticed – this isn’t just a parody of morality plays, it’s a full-on sincere expression of the morality of Futurama. I realise, of course, that the whole joke of the third act is the characters trying to turn Bender back to his original self, maintaining the status quo as we all knew it would, but it does actually feel like you could sum up the moral outlook of the show with “I’ll never be too good or too evil again!”. The violation isn’t in Bender jacking on, it’s in Bender being destructively annoying as opposed to a funny presence. It feels like part of the slacker aspect of the Gen X outlook this show has – an idea that you can be kind of an asshole so long as it’s not beyond what’s reasonably funny. In fact, I can see now how the not-quite-dystopia-not-quite-utopia aspect of the setting is matched with the relationships between the characters; part of the show’s moral outlook is being at peace with the fact that there’s evil in the world. Mom is a terrifying supervillain who cannot and will not ever be stopped and will vampirically suck the life out of the universe for her own personal benefit, and while the show never denies her evil, it never gets bogged down in despair over that fact either. This extends to the characters on a personal level too – Bender is an asshole, an alcoholic, a liar, a pig, a Communist, and he’s never going to learn better but he’s a) funny and b) reliable. It’s a little bit of a ‘better the devil you know’ thing, but I also think it’s part of Futurama’s morality that one takes the good with the bad.

By the way, I’m aware this is almost certainly not what the creators intended. I’m describing an effect here, not an intention.

Title Card: Condemned by the Space Pope
Cartoon Billboard: Betty Boop And Grampy, 1953

Two-thirds of the Beastie Boys guest star in this episode, with Adam “King Adrock” Horowitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond appearing as themselves and Horowitz filling in as Adam “MCA” Yauch. Their appearance is also a great example of the show’s creativity as it comes up with a funny way to show a hip-hop concert done when the performers are heads in jars. Dan Castellanetta makes his first appearance as the Robot Devil, camping it up as both supervillain and Broadway star – and I love how he drops that for bored exasperation whenever he has to do boilerplate shit. Scruffy makes an appearance as a roadie at the concert. We have some early examples of the characters inexplicably hating Zoidberg (“This is a witch hunt!”). This episode also introduces a little bit of character design I always liked – Fry’s brown turtleneck that he wears on fine dining occasions. It strangely seems to suit him.

The title is a reference to the phrase “hell is other people”, the climactic line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. Fry receiving the kiss of death is a reference to The Godfather Part II. Professor Farnsworth drops a reference to “Oprahism”. Hookerbot5000 is a reference to the Pimpbot5000 on The Late Show With Conan O’Brien. Bender stays at the (ugh) Trump Trapezoid. Fry drops a reference to the Prince song “1999”. When Fry and Leela enter the facade on top of Robot Hell, there’s a loveheart with “HS + MB” in reference to The Simpsons. The punishments in Robot Hell riff on the punishments in Dante’s Inferno. The golden fiddle sequence is a parody of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by The Charles Daniels Band. There’s a reference to the Coalsack Nebula, often referenced in Star Trek. The Beastie Boys drop a reference to their song “So What’cha Want” during the “Robot Hell” number.

Iconic Moments: None, outside the song.
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