Futurama, Season Four, Episode Six, “Bender Should Not Be Allowed On Television”

Written by: Lewis Morton
Directed by: Brian Sheesely
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

When I wrote about “Godfellas”, I remarked that it was a great example of that typical Futurama thinking-out-loud vibe leading to somewhere really profound. This episode, conversely, is an example of that thinking-out-loud vibe going absolutely nowhere, but getting away with it because a) the question is a complex one that can’t be solved in twenty-two minutes and b) it’s really funny. This is an example of what the kids call ‘meta’ writing, in that it grapples with the notion of Bender being a terrible role model for kids watching by having him become a TV star who influences kids to do bad things. It’s fascinating how the discussion of good role models on television has changed since this aired because the people asking the question have changed; Futurama is responding to conservative criticism in this episode, coming from parents concerned about children learning bad behaviour and destabilising the social order. Conversely, much discussion about bad behaviour in media now is coming from leftists – as well as discussion of representation of marginalised groups, there’s discussion of how racist, sexist, and other antisocial behaviour is repeated by real people. 

Through its dialogue, the episode hems and haws about the nature of the Bad Role Model; this is perhaps best shown by Bender’s spectacular climactic speech, in which he switches from one direction to another with jarring, delirious speed. The Professor’s true Full House speech at the end is cynically undermined by all the characters diving into television right at the end. Someone looking for a conclusive solution to the problem of bad TV role models will find this episode wanting. Of course, another way of looking at it is it’s saying that the only conclusion is that there is no solution. A fundamental part of the morality of Groening shows (going back a very long time) is that human beings, as a whole, will take the shortest path to the cheapest feel-good sensation. In fact, comparing this episode to “Homer vs Lisa And The 8th Commandment” feels like looking at mirror images; “Homer vs Lisa etc” says that we can live up to our own principles, whereas “Bender Should Not etc” says that other people can’t be made to live up to ours.

One of the major differences between The Simpsons and Futurama is that the former creates humour by creating a strong sense of empathy with its characters while the latter deliberately keeps a certain distance from them. Principal Skinner feels like a complete person, with feelings and motivations that are absurd but comprehensible; Professor Farnsworth is a collection of behaviours that absolutely do not coalesce into a person. We are the characters of The Simpsons; we look upon the characters of Futurama. My point being that The Simpsons shows different principles on how to live with yourself, while Futurama shows everyone else you have to live with. There’s a belief prevalent on the left (and probably in other places) that all you have to do to affect someone’s behaviour is properly explain your perspective; the climax of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is perhaps the most beautiful expression of this belief, in which Lex Luthor finally sees things from Superman’s perspective and changes his whole motivation. Futurama doesn’t hold to this belief.

As long as we’re alive, we’ll have to deal with the Benders of this world, who don’t care about anything but themselves but care about themselves with an insatiable passion. For as long as we have media, people will use it to indulge their most violent, criminal, and selfish behaviours; for as long as we have people, they’ll imitate that behaviour no matter how it’s contextualised. That behaviour can be curtailed, punished, and otherwise made more difficult to do, but never eradicated. One of the positive aspects of the apathy of Futurama is acceptance that the world is not perfect nor can it ever be (neither can we, being part of the world). It’s odd to think of this wacky-assed show as stoic but that is essentially what it is. The funniest turn in this plot is when Bender immediately and unhesitatingly joins Fathers Against Rude Television as soon as the kids steal something from him; as indifferent to the hypocrisy or obvious self-preservation as a shark chasing prey would be. If he can’t be reasoned out of it by Leela, what makes you think a television show will make any difference?

Title Card: Controlling you through a chip in your butt since 1999
Cartoon Billboard: “Much Ado About Mutton”, 1947

The opening has the theme song remixed by John DiMaggio beatboxing and Billy West riffing with Zoidberg’s voice. This episode contains a lot of typically Futurama riffs on language; my favourite is “Wait, I thought of a way! The way I just said.” Cubert and Dwight becoming friends with Tinny Tim is one of those useful lazy-creative solutions to a problem (expand the cast of kids) that also happens to be hilarious. Also hilarious: Calculon naively believing every single childishly stupid attempt to make Bender look better. The alarm that goes off when the Execu-bots approach is lifted from Star Trek

“This show’s been going downhill since season three!”

“TV Party” by Black Flag appears twice in this episode, with the lyrics sung by the characters in the second appearance; it’s oddly sentimental. The child robot actors are references to Mommie Dearest and actor Macaulay Culkin. 

Iconic Moments: “You raised my hopes and dashed them quite expertly, sir. Bravo!” | “That was so terrible, I think you gave me cancer!” | “I’m not familiar with the type of thing I’m seeing.” | “You’re watching Futurama, the show that does not advocate the cool crime of robbery!”
Biggest Laugh: “Calculon! But I thought you were–” / “EGYPTIAN?!”

Next Week: “Jurassic Bark”. “Professor! Lava! Hot!

– image: “Try this, kids at home!”