Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed by: Chris Loudon
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL
Fry’s pursuit of Leela is one of the more controversial elements of the show. One of the bright spots of the internet is the expansion of empathy, and women have had a voice to make it clear that being pursued when they’ve made it clear they’re not interested is at best incredibly annoying, and to point out how much media is based around romanticising the idea of a man trying to wear down a woman into falling in love with him. I can see how it’s hard to watch Fry trying to whine Leela into loving him when you’ve gone through that experience yourself. I also come at it the other way, having gone through that ‘pining for one woman’ thing in high school and having it blow up in my face; I don’t blame anyone but myself for how it turned out, but I can only feel disdain for an ideal that achieved nothing but making me unhappy. Treating fellow human beings as problems to be solved never ends well. The really frustrating thing is that I don’t think the writers were deliberately trying to romanticise anything – I almost think there was no motivation for it at all beyond ‘why not’. But the flipside of that is that sometimes they made a genuinely great story out of the concept. This episode is, perhaps, the one that dives most deeply into that story, and not only is it my favourite of all of them, it’s one of my favourites of the show overall.
To my eye, Fry’s chase of Leela in this episode is presented not as a romantic ideal, but as a character who wants one thing in particular and is taking steps to get it. He could have been trying to save the universe or he could have been trying to win a bake sale cook-off, and it would have served this particular story just as well; it feels to me like the narrative isn’t particularly invested in whether he succeeds or not, because this isn’t a story about love or romance, it’s a story about the feeling of disappointment. Despair has been one of the major emotional aspects of the show going all the way back to the pilot; wanting something that you can’t have, because you were born in the wrong era or the wrong class or the wrong country, because you missed a lucky shot or wasted that lucky shot or were the wrong kind of person at the wrong time in the wrong place – or, perhaps worst of all, you were just too stupid. I think one thing the show does believe in is that there is some kind of combination of words or actions Fry could do to make Leela love him; I’ve seen people criticise this episode for leaning in on the idea of a romantic gesture, and I get why, but this feels like it leans in so far that it ends up revealing the awful feelings that kind of thinking can give you – if you operate under the idea that love and human connection are something you win at through superior competence, then any kind of failure to connect to someone is a reflection on who you are as a person, even when it’s not really anybody’s fault.
More generally, I can see how Fry’s situation here works as a metaphor for my own cases of thwarted desire. I love the movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind because I feel like the central romantic relationship in that works as a metaphor for all attempts I’ve made to connect with other people, romantically or otherwise; I love the movie The War Of The Roses because the central romantic relationship in that works as a metaphor for all my failures to connect with other people because I kept letting points-scoring get in the way. Similarly, I can recognise my own despair in Fry here, in this situation, and interestingly the episode invites me to do that through what should be a ridiculous B-plot. In general, this is a surprisingly elegantly structured episode – this episode is famous for being a response to a note from the executives to increase the stakes, with the joke being that they then immediately created a plot in “there is nothing and stake and no threat… beyond the shame of defeat!”. I’ve always been tickled by how nobody points out that this leads directly to a threat to existence as we know it. Anyway, both halves of this plot and the progression between them are funny as hell; the former makes jokes about people taking a banal situation too seriously, and the latter makes jokes about people casually accepting a horrifying one. Most interesting, though, is the way the B-plot of Bender trying to join the Globetrotters ends up woven into the emotion of the A-plot – more than one person has observed that the sound of Bender sadly whistling the Globetrotter theme is as poignant as it is silly. It doesn’t really matter how high or low the stakes are, and it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong or deserved or undeserved – an unfulfilled need is an unfulfilled need.
Title Card: For proper viewing, take red pill now.
Cartoon Billboard: “It’s The Cats”, 1926
Jeff Cesario appears doing an impression of sports commentator Marv Albert. I’ll admit, that title card with this topic was a real ‘oof’ moment. Obviously this was years before the phrase was co-opted by the Men’s Rights Movement, but still. I want to make clear that this is also a great episode because it’s funny as hell. “That explains these boat eggs” is the cherry on some top tier Fry stupidity, and there’s some really great comic timing (“Aren’t those the particles that destroyed an entire ci–” / “GOOD NEWS, everybody!”). This gives us a rare insight into Leela’s perspective on Fry – the things that are good about him are also the things that are bad about him.
“Sorry, you must have been boring me.”
The title is a reference to the Steve Miller song “Fly Like An Eagle”. The majority of the plot is a reference to the movie Space Jam. The music that plays when the Harlem Globetrotters first land is based on Wendy Carlos’s music for A Clockwork Orange, and the saucer is a reference to the one in The Day The Earth Stood Still. The cover of Wendy’s album is a reference to Britney Spears’s … Baby One More Time. Farnsworth throwing the chair is a reference to an incident in which Indiana University basketball coach did the same thing.
Iconic Moments: “Sweet Clyde, laugh derisively at him!” | “I don’t know how this was supposed to work!” | “You don’t wanna end up old and lonely like ZOIDBERG!!!” | “Even in these formal shorts, I feel like a failure.” | “You lost the woman of your dreams, but you still have Zoidberg. You <i>all</i> still have Zoidberg!”
Next Week: “I Dated A Robot”. “I’ll never forget you, Fry! MEMORY DELETED.”