Futurama, Season Two, Episode Two, “Brannigan, Begin Again”

Written by: Lewis Morton
Directed by: Jeffrey Lynch
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

I will admit that the ‘nonessential/essential’ categorisation of episodes is a bit messy and intuitive to me; I know for a fact that there are definitely episodes I love a lot that I won’t consider ‘essential’, and that there are episodes I don’t personally care for much that are nonetheless either wildly popular or definitive parts of the show’s mythos. ‘Essential’ is more of a gut feeling than anything I can fully articulate. Luckily, “Brannigan, Begin Again” is wildly popular and an essential part of the show’s mythos and a hilarious episode I keep revisiting again and again because it’s just so funny. This is the point where Zapp Brannigan fully flowers as a violent dipshit with a strange sense of poetry and an ability to drive the plot forward by revealing that underneath his thoughtless, arrogant exterior is a self-serving sociopathic coward. I often notice writers are drawn to redeeming their love-to-hate villains, whether by having them atone for their past misdeeds or gradually reveal a softer side and a sense of affection for the people around them. I think of Kelso on Scrubs, who ended his reign as Chief of Medicine by sincerely thanking the assistant he’d been comically heaping abuse on for over half a decade; I think of Al Swearengin of Deadwood becoming more and more attached to the people he’d been forced to cooperate with and occasionally brutally hurt. I get the instincts that drive this – you have people transferring ‘finding a character funny’ onto loving that character in general and wanting to see them do well, you have the emotional exhaustion of playing a shitheel for so long, and in cases like Deadwood you might be making a point of how, to survive, you must have a community to support you. Which means I almost always approve of writers utterly committing to their characters being irredeemable bastards, with the best examples being Peter Campbell of Mad Men, the Gang of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Zapp Brannigan.

What’s especially funny is that Zapp is such an overpowering presence that the ostensible main emotional arc of our heroes starts nearly half way through. This is something we’ve seen in Groening works all the way back to season one of The Simpsons, and you can really feel how the team have not only gotten it down to a science but managed to bend and play with it. Part of why I’m okay with Zapp dominating the first half of the episode is because that actually feels appropriate for a story about Fry learning to appreciate Leela’s tougher, more responsible side (I know Bender was there too, but come on, he learned nothing and was never going to). Some stories feel as if a low-key character story has suddenly been hit with something large and ridiculous (“When Aliens Attack” was like this, and almost all of Regular Show had a similar effect), but this feels like the opposite, as if Zapp has blundered his way into someone else’s problems, and I love that. I also love the specific journey these guys are on; the one place Futurama definitively improves on The Simpsons is that, while Leela is still the ‘nagging’ female character, it’s more effective at making her a necessary part of the show’s structure, both comedically and plot-wise. It’s a little bit because she’s much more assertive than Marge (nobody, to my knowledge, has ever written a poem about Leela as if she’s Betty Draper) and much to do with the fact that she makes decisions that push the plot forward in positive ways as opposed to simply groaning at things. One way of looking at it is that she injects a specific energy into the story – with her, this is slightly more of an adventure story as opposed to straight comedy, and her sense of humour is distinctly sharp and moral; Fry is too lackadaisical to criticise people so sharply and Bender will be mean but without the moral undercurrent. I believe this respect for her role in the show is why the writers can deliver a story like this, and Zapp exists not just as a source of comedy but an example of pure, unfettered id that shows the necessity of a superego.

The unfortunate flipside is that it always interfered with my ability to take the Fry/Leela pairing seriously. I don’t believe in leagues, but I do believe in unequal contributions to relationships, and I think the fact that this episode sells me so well on Leela’s strengths vs Fry’s weaknesses combines with the overall pattern we’ve seen of what they bring to each other to make me think that while they’re wonderful and necessary parts of each other’s lives, they make a bad romantic pairing that would just build resentment on both sides, at least at this point in their lives. It’s not that I’m against one person bringing whimsy and large, joyful experiences while the other brings a sense of responsibility and grounding, or to two people learning and growing from each other’s strengths, or that Leela has nothing to learn from Fry, or even that I’m against any kind of relationship between Fry and Leela as they are, but what we have is a profoundly dysfunctional man with a fairly functional woman who would, in all likelihood, would be carrying him through his basic day-to-day living (and kind of is already), slowly draining herself instead of being lifted up by his presence, which is a distinctly anti-romantic situation to me. Weirdly enough, one of the quiet strengths of the post-movies revival of Futurama was that it managed to sell me much more strongly on the two of them having a functional romantic relationship in which both were ready and able to accept each other for what they are, and in which Fry was lifting Leela up as much as she was him. That said, we are also getting hints of where the characters are going to go, especially with that final line – Leela is not quite as above it all as she pretends to be.

Title Card: Not Y3k compliant.
Cartoon Billboard: “Pigs In A Polka” (1943)

This begins with my all-time favourite Futurama cold open – I like cold opens best when they genuinely have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Amusingly, the Professor and Hermes present a taped-up package to the DOOP to the crew before pulling the scissors out to give to the crew, who then take it to the DOOP unwrapped. What was the package for, then? This episode contains both many references to the past (a Glurmo half, a Robot Elder, and a Trisolian are all on the jury for Zapp’s trial, and a Decapodian, a Horrible Gelatinous Blob, an Omicronian, a Trisolian, and an Ampibiosan are pieces in Fry and Bender’s game) and a few to the future, with an Amazonian appearing at the DOOP. We also have our first appearance of the Hyperchicken Lawyer, and I always thought he was a mediocre character with a few highs.

I haven’t mentioned it at all, but this episodes contains the glory and wonder of the Neutral Planet. Hilariously, on the commentary, the crew mention fearing they were going overboard with the Neutral jokes and that they’d find it all much funnier than the audience would; I know they’re my favourite part of the episode (I’m fairly certain me and my best friend have referenced the Neutrals more than any other Futurama element if you don’t count Zoidberg noises) as they are for many other people. I’m also tickled by how Zapp has an utterly random contempt for them than just barely makes any sense. Tress MacNeille plays the DOOP chairalien, and she reveals just how important she is to the texture of the show in how she brings a ridiculous amount of gravitas to her lines that only makes them even funnier (“The jury is ordered to disregard its own testimony!”). 

“That’s a stupid question.”

There’s a lot of great animation choices this episode. My favourite is the needlessly complex shot of Zapp and Kiff staring into a cafe, reflected in the window, but I also love how rundown the old DOOP headquarters were. There’s also the great writing – “Perhaps I could paint a fence, or service you sexually, or mop the floors,” is another example of the show sneaking a punchline in the middle of a line, and the line itself is setting up two other punchlines! Like I said, Bender is kind of superfluous to the action, but like Homer Simpson that only serves to make him funnier. In terms of cleverness of a line, “They’re not very heavy, but you don’t hear me not complaining,” is his best; in terms of delivery, John DiMaggio says “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s deliver all the pillows at once!” exactly as earnestly as you have to. The animation, acting, and writing all manage to merge together like a delicious stew when Fry gets enthusiastic about what victory is gonna be like (“And then we’ll have pancakes to celebrate, and I’ll be like [incomprehensible noises].”)

The title is a parody of “Michael Finnigan”, a traditional Irish drinking folk song. The cold open is a parody of a Star Wars scene. Zapp and Kiff making a living as a gigolo is a reference to Midnight Cowboy, including the title theme “Everybody’s Talkin’”.

Iconic Moments: 5. “I have no strong feelings one way or the other!” | “What makes a man turn neutral?” | “I’m going to allow this.” | “All I know is my gut says maybe.” | “Your neutralness! It’s a beige alert!” / “If I don’t survive, tell my wife ‘hello’.”
Biggest Laugh: This is one of those things so funny that it manages to cross into a higher plane of existence, and it’s only made funnier by Youtube commenters continuing the joke with an equal amount of likes and dislikes.