Futurama, Season Three, Episode Twenty, “Godfellas”

Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed by: Susie Dietter
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

Futurama is a series that thinks out loud. Its power comes from the fact that some thought was put into it before it was started – an overall meta-plot, some character stuff, a decision to make the future neither a complete utopia nor a complete dystopia – but even more of its power comes from the fact that it’s willing and eager to throw words together not because they mean something true but because they sound funny. One advantage of this is the breezy free-spirited apathy I’ve frequently identified as something that attracts me to this show. Another is that, precisely because the show isn’t trying to make a specific point, it can wander its way into a profound point by virtue of exploring an idea and seeing its different permutations. “Godfellas” is as brilliant an expression of this second advantage as “Roswell That Ends Well” is of the first. It’s often cited as people’s favourite for its philosophical tone, even when they don’t care about philosophy – beloved commentor Mrs Queequeg remarked as such last week.

The episode’s first stroke of brilliance is making Bender the one going through this plot. I’ve talked before about the show making great episodes by putting its heroes into a plot that plays directly off their weaknesses; one of my favourites for Leela is “The Problem With Popplers”, one of my favourites for Fry is “The Day The Earth Turned Stupid”, and my all-time favourite for Bender is this. There’s the obvious comedic potential they draw on in having Bender initially floating alone through the vacuum of space; it’s widely understood that the best way to reveal an individual character’s individuality is to shove them in a small room they can’t get out of. Plays have been written around this concept (including Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, or everything Harold Pinter ever wrote), and TV writers have called this concept the “bottle episode” for years. It’s hilarious that, Futurama being what it is and Bender being what he is, “Godfellas” has to put its protagonist in the entire universe to achieve the same effect. Bender’s one man show is so hilarious and memorable that I was shocked to realise it barely clocks two minutes of screentime; as a character, he is so dependent on a constant flow of new information (to counter his terrible attention span) and other people (to give him attention) that watching him just flow is hilarious.

It also makes him uniquely suited to playing God. It’s not that Fry or Leela couldn’t go through a plot like this – although it would be harder work to get them there, seeing as they’re not robots – it’s that it would mean something very different, and I would argue would be less likely to reach as profound a conclusion. When it comes to being God, Leela would probably do quite well at handling omnipotence and Fry could handle being all-loving; by comparison, as someone selfish and impulsive, Bender is a true underdog for this situation. Even moreso, it makes his journey feel meaningful; his first act as God is to ask for a can of beer, and his last act is weep over the ashes of his people, and every step in the way inbetween gets us from one to the other. Fry and Leela could have gotten to the same end point, but it would have been either less surprising or less logical. Because Bender is so much more extreme in his selfishness, it makes his journey to caring so hard about someone else more powerful. This is also true of his attempt to understand moral philosophy; he so rarely considers right and wrong that to see him pushed to it makes him agonisingly sympathetic. It’s something that makes the episode comprehensible and appealing outside of the God stuff. I can recognise the awesome and terrifying responsibility of being active within the universe, trying to muddle through the best you can only to see your good intentions blow up in your face. 

So what does this have to say about being God? It says it itself: when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all. It’s an elegant explanation for why bad things happen to good people – a viewpoint that encompasses both free will and a God that acts in the universe. It presents a God who sets things in motion and watches people find their own way from there. To put it another way: a Creator. I don’t think I believe in all that, but it makes sense and is interesting. Following in the spirit of the show, do you suppose it works the other way? Should we operate under the same premise as moral actors – when you do the right thing, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all? That doesn’t sound right. The implication of the episode is that it’s our job to be the moral actors. It does sound right when applied to being a teacher or a parent – do too much for a child, and they can’t thrive on their own. Do too little, and they have nothing to work with. Perhaps it’s the rule you should follow specifically in the course of creating. To breathe enough life into your creation that it can follow its own path. Perhaps.

Title Card: Please turn off all cell phones and tricorders
Cartoon Billboard: “Censored”, 1944

I skated right over Fry’s wonderful plot even though it ties in so well with the overall thoughts about God and junk. When Fry says “You can’t give up hope just because it’s hopeless!”, which is played for laughs but also feels oddly, poignantly like the point. It’s often hard to explain why something is the right thing even when it’s seemingly irrational. If Bender is a god, Fry is someone with faith. Actually come to think of it, he’s as perfectly suited to his plot as Bender is to his, though in a vastly different way – his biggest strength is his heart, and in this case his heart is set unwaveringly in one direction. His task is monumentally difficult, but it’s one that’s immediately comprehensible to him in a way that being God is not for Bender. His plot is about him finding the most effective way to get to where he’s trying to go, using whatever tool is within his grasp. And hey, he succeeds! Even the fact that he needed Leela’s help doesn’t undermine his success – she never would have gone at all if he hadn’t planned on going no matter what she said. Perhaps it is true for man and God alike – I don’t know if he did anything at all, so he did something right.

“Make Bender take a nap in a tube,” is one of those Futurama lines that I never quote but has warped how I structure sentences, as well as my tone of voice. I also love the scifi aspects of Fry’s half of the plot. God’s refusal to commit to any specific explanation is hilarious (“Then I don’t know that.”). The individual line I think about the most is “You were doing well until everyone died,” because while in Bender’s specific case he was often doing badly, it humbles me to think of when I’m doing well and cheers me up when I finish up something by badly botching it. The fact that Billy West delivers it with impassive sympathy is a big part of my emotional reaction.

“You see, the telescope is also an amplifying transmitter.”
“Sort of like a giant karaoke machine?”
“Not really. Would you like to see our giant karaoke machine?”
“Not really.”

The title is a reference to the movie Goodfellas. Fry shoots at the pirate ship with a version of the game Quickdraw. The observatory cult is based on the Arthur C Clarke short story “The Nine Billion Names Of God”. Billy West based God’s voice on the narrator of The Outer Limits. Bender drops a reference to the John Donne poem “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. The sherpa’s name is a reference to Tenzing Norgay, one of the first to climb Mount Everest. The music playing as Bender floats through space is “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II, both of which are a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bender attempts to play Chopin’s “Polonaise In C Minor”. Much of the plot riffs on Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Microcosmic God”, the Alan Dean Foster short story “Gift Of A Useless Man”, and the Twilight Zone episode “The Little People”. God strongly resembles the God Entity in Stanislaw Lem’s screenplay Voyages Of Professor Tarantoga. It also riffs heavily on both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The picture Bender carves into himself is based on the Pioneer plaque. The Shrimpkins brew Bender a beer based on Budweiser. 

Iconic Moments: “Ask not for whom the bones bones, it bones for thee.” | “Hooray, people are paying attention to me!” | “Wait a minute, Bender’s name isn’t Bonder, it’s Bender!” | “None of that ‘huddled over for warmth’ crap!” | “Look, you want false hope or not?” / “Only if you don’t have any real hope!” | “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “Future Stock”. “Suddenly I have an opinion on the capital gains tax!”