Futurama, Season Two, Episode Fifteen, “The Problem With Popplers”

Written by: Patrick M Verrone, Darin Henry (story)
Directed by: Chris Suave, Greg Vanzo
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

Last week, there was discussion of a possible violent uprising if I didn’t give this episode ESSENTIAL status. Luckily for me, I can confidently say (*gun cocking* “Of my own free will…”) that this is one of the greatest Futurama episodes and definitely in my top five favourite episodes of all time, because it’s got absolutely everything going for it. First of all, it fits the baseline of being funny as hell, which is something that can and should be taken for granted, of course. It’s also got some great character work – this is my all-time favourite Leela episode, really leaning into how she’s about 75% effective at being the comic foil. She’s obviously very good at diagnosing the faults of others and she’s functional above and beyond what most other people on the show are, but she also has impulses and needs that can seize control of her. The plot of this episode is set in motion because of her gluttony, and her enthusiastic embrace of hating the hippie as much as anything is, in part, hilarious because as the resident level-headed one she should be above that sort of thing (imagine Marge or Lisa in the same position – Free Waterfall Jr would have had to work a lot harder to have them turn on him). At the same time, her desire to do the right thing is genuine and drives the plot just as much; when compared to The Simpsons, Leela is often compared to Lisa, but I can also see her as Homer with the sense of responsibility to others prioritised over the impulses without overriding them completely, and it makes her just as sympathetic to me.

It ties into the show’s exploration of vegetarianism and the ethics of eating meat, and how its apathetic ‘whaddya gonna do?’ morality actually serves to make it more interesting. Much like “A Head In The Polls”, there’s an extent to which its particular view has aged badly and in part because of the popularity of the episode; I’m not vegetarian, but I personally believe meat-eaters complaining about vegetarians has become more annoying than vegetarians themselves. In part it’s because vegetarians as a whole have a level of self-awareness that they did not in 2001; most vegetarians I meet are fairly low-key about their values, bringing them up if you ask and keeping them mostly to themselves if you don’t. Conversely, I’ve been drowning in people making hacky anti-vegetarian jokes that are basically ripping off this episode for decades now and it’s clear they’re just repeating shit they heard and thought sounded funny rather than trying to be insightful or hilarious themselves. In this case, though, there is an honest exploration of where the line between right and wrong is when eating meat, to the point where this almost feels like an animated essay with various points coming up – making a carnivore live off tofu is straightforwardly stupid (which comes up more often than you’d think, with people trying to get their cats and dogs to live off plant life*) and eating sentient life forms is straightforwardly evil, but there’s a point in the middle where things get harder to pin down. In this case, the apathy helps because it leads to a casual admittance that things we like might be evil – like, how weird is it to say that eating dolphin is clearly weird and evil and eating pig isn’t? Having no specific agenda beyond jokes and making fun of hippies means it can bring up accurate points rather than picking and choosing what best serves it.

*I’ve changed my mind, maybe vegetarians are just as annoying as they were in 2001.

Title Card: For external use only
Cartoon Billboard: “Up To Mars”, 1930

That hippie-bashing is also fascinating as part of the show’s Gen X mentality. I spoke about this when talking about “Mother Simpson” (I even quote this episode!); The Simpsons had a sincere love for hippies whilst Futurama treats them as punching bags, which I largely believe is down to the Simpsons writers being old enough to remember hippies closer to their prime whilst the Futurama writers were young enough that they’d become something more abstract and the perception became that they’d achieved nothing lasting or worthwhile. Actually getting to this point in the show, having studied every episode up until now, I would also amend that the sense of humour of Futurama is also meaner and less worried about the humanity of bit players. There’s a great gag about Leela crashing into her ‘second billboard this week!’.

“We will begin with the firemen, then the math teachers, and so on in that fashion until everyone is eaten.”

This is a really great episode for Futurama language. I actually use Zapp’s phrase “A thought occurs” all the time, “Popplers. Eating them. Is it alright to?” is a great parody of news diction, and “You’d sacrifice a beautiful woman to save a moderately attractive monkey?” is such a Zapp line. I’m also tickled by “Sir, I’m making a point,” – Rowan Atkinson sez that comedy is about something being too big, too small, or in the wrong spot, and this is a perfect example of a banal cliche deployed in the comically wrong place. I always found Free Waterfall Jr’s death hilariously brutal – if he’d just been swallowed, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but having him pop up to say “This is not happening!” in terror means he had exactly enough time to process being eaten alive. On the other hand, everything Lrr says from “That hippie’s startin’ to kick in,” is hilarious enough to live with it.

The title is a reference to “The Trouble With Tribbles” of the original Star Trek. Leela referring to the planet as a “Class M planet” with Roddenberries is also a reference to the franchise. Free Waterfall Jr’s necklace resembles the Esperanto jubilee symbol. The Popplers song is to the tune of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”.

Iconic Moments: 4. “They’re like sex, except I’m having them!” | “Eh, great is okay, but amazing would be great.” | “You can’t own property, man!” / “I can! But that’s because I’m not a penniless hippie!” | “Stop eating our young! And it’s pronounced guacamole!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “Anthology Of Interest I”. “Friends! Help! A guinea pig tricked me!”