Written by: J Stewart Burns
Directed By: Bret Haaland
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential
This is actually one of my favourite episodes and one that I’ve revisited a lot, and it’s useful as a further refining of the ‘bad/nonessential/essential’ scale because it doesn’t feel essential despite that and despite having one of the top three most iconic moments from the entire show. ‘Nonessential’ doesn’t mean bad or that it’s not funny, it means it’s not important to the overall development of the show and it’s not a moment where you feel like you’ve crossed into some higher plane of existence and seen the true face of God. “The Deep South” is more the basic standard the show should reach every day, and the ‘essential’ episodes take this baseline and put something special on top. And I want to be clear that these ‘nonessential’ episodes are genuinely part of my enjoyment of the show – one of the things I love about television is that it combines the moment-to-moment perfection of film (where the experience has been edited and polished for best effect) with the creative ebbs and flows of theater, where one day everything just seems to click and magic comes to life. One of the things that makes television interesting as an art form is that it’s simultaneously expensive and out-of-reach for most people to create and a working-class product that’s accessible to even the ‘lowest’ consumer. This is something that a group of people get up and make every day for six months of the year or so, and like any job that you know is gonna be there tomorrow, there are days where you don’t end up having a great idea or moment of inspiration and just use something that works. Internet scholar ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER has said the fastest way to make a character sympathetic is to make them good at their jobs, and the Futurama cast and crew are very sympathetic, and it’s a pleasure to follow them on an average day.
Part of that atmosphere is the low stakes. This episode feels far more low key than almost any Simpsons episode despite the fact that it’s literally about the characters almost drowning multiple times, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that the Simpsons are usually fighting for things that can be lost; they’re after respect or Family or Enlightenment or God or Justice, and they don’t always get those things at the end and they don’t always miss out on them either. Ironically, the fact that the Planet Express crew are only fighting for their lives makes it impossible to take their conflict seriously, because that’s the one thing we know for a fact they’ll still have next episode. Even when Fry does find something worth chasing, it’s a clear case of him being lead around by his dick – the sudden way he abandons Umbriel at the end is a hilarious joke on his shortsightedness – and so this feels like a hangout episode, which uses a typical forward-moving plot structure to create a sense that we’re going somewhere but we’re gonna do it at a lazy pace. I find that a very endearing and intoxicating atmosphere to immerse myself in.
The upshot of all of this is that the comedy is really fun to analyse because there’s such a wide scope of it. One of the fundamental comic principles of a Groening work is that the writers always try to find the funniest way of wording a line; The Simpsons made up bizarre principles and then followed them wherever they go, whilst the joy of Futurama is that it happily breaks plausibility if the joke is funny enough. This is most obvious in the runner of Zoidberg’s impossible house, but it’s also present in things like the mandatory fishing licence, the fact that the Professor’s repairs to the ship requires paper mache, or my all time favourite offhand line this show ever did (“Gimme back that cheque! I’m giving it to some giant orphans!”). One joke this show does better than any other comedy was earnest delivery of stupid statements; Billy West’s delivery of both Zoidberg (“I’ll save us! By cutting the unbreakable diamond filament!”) and Fry’s (“So, am I gonna… drown?”) stupid statements were deeply influential on my sense of humour.
Title Card: A stern warning of things to come
Cartoon Billboard: “Scrap Happy Daffy”, 1943
Donovan guest stars as himself and Parker Posey guest stars as Umbriel.
This also contains one of my favourite examples of the crew randomly hating each other (“I’d like to put the little bastard in a sack, and hurl the sack into a river, and then hurl the river into space!”). This is a bit of comedy that many sitcoms imitated but few managed to match. I’ve never been to Atlanta, so I have no ability to comment on how accurate the show’s roasting of it is. For one moment, the Professor manages to become a pure, iconic example of laziness (“I’m bored! Let’s go!”).
Umbriel’s name is a sideways reference to The Little Mermaid – Ariel and Umbriel both being moons orbiting Uranus. The unbreakable diamond filament is a reference to the book The Fountains Of Paradise. Umbriel’s father is a reference to the KFC guy. Bender hums the opening notes to “Duelling Banjoes” from the movie Deliverance. Donovan sings a parody of his song “Atlantis”. The shot of the whale and squid fighting is a reference to the panoramic at the American Museum Of Natural History. Bender’s line “my ass can function as a floatation device” is a reference to a similar line in Star Trek: Insurrection. The ‘red alert’ klaxon from Star Trek plays in the Planet Express Ship. The Colonel says “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” in reference to The Beverly Hillbillies.
Iconic Moments: 3. “Hey, guess what you’re accessories to.” | “Sweet zombie Jesus!” | “That just raises further questions!”
Next Episode: “Bender Gets Made”. “Gee, you think? You think that maybe I should use these clamps that I use every day at every opportunity? You’re a freaking genius, you idiot!”