Futurama, Season Four, Episode Fourteen, “Obsoletely Fabulous”

Written by: Dan Vebber
Directed by: Dwayne Carrey-Hill
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

Within a string of magnificent feats of creativity and one absolute tire fire, we have this okay little number. It’s reminiscent of “Godfellas” both in that it separates Bender from the rest of the cast (including an even longer sequence in which he’s completely alone) and in that it throws Bender into a heady philosophical situation; in fact, it arguably throws him into two. The problem is that it never fully sparks into something interesting, let alone as profound as him playing God. The major theme of the episode is the concept of becoming obsolete; beloved commentor Raven Wilder has observed that the show has a recurring gag of putting robots through a metaphor for human things (like racism) only to comically reveal the metaphor doesn’t track at all, and this feels like a reverse of that – taking a fairly banal aspect of real robots and forces a robot with personhood through it. Replacing Bender every five years is significantly more emotionally brutal than replacing your cellphone-telephone, which fits right into the hilariously brutal humour of Futurama.

This leads into a fairly plausible Bender arc – he easily becomes jealous of the superior robot and acts like the older brother with a new younger sibling, up to and including running away. The problem is that it’s too plausible, or I should rather say that it’s predictable. The only really surprising-yet-logical part of the plot is Bender choosing to run away because he can’t bear the shame of facing his friends without the upgrade; everything else is pretty much what you’d expect based on the premise. That’s not a terrible thing any more than it’s terrible that a Law & Order episode isn’t a David Lynch movie, but coming in the midst of an incredible run, it feels like a missed opportunity. There is a lot of interest in how the ideas are expressed as gags however; Bender creating a bold out of a ‘boating prohibited’ sign feels like peak Futurama creativity, and the various obsolete robots are brilliant in how they riff on old technology – I particularly like the way the water-wheel robot screams in terror every time she runs out of water only to immediately return to normal, and the tape-based robot speaks for himself. This episode must have been brought into existence purely on the basis of the image of wooden Bender, an entirely justified decision.

The other heady idea this episode plays with is ‘reality is what you make of it’, and it doesn’t deliver on that at all. You can compare it with “The Sting”, which made a profound emotional arc that is capped off by a punchline. The ‘dream’ is necessary to get an otherwise very practical character to turn inward and look at how she feels. It works on a craft level because the crew are both escalating the dreamlike nature of the main narrative and seeding in clues as to what is ‘really’ happening in the story’s highest level of reality. “Obsoletely Fabulous” lacks either of those things, and the punchline comes off more like a blunt storytelling device to get us back to the status quo; admittedly, one that’s funny and honest and funny because of its honesty (“Is it possible – nay, probable – that my whole life is just the product of my or someone else’s imagination?” / “No. Get out.”). 

Title Card: You can’t prove it won’t happen
Cartoon Billboard: “Much Ado About Mutton”, 1947

Bender on the scratching post is hilariously adorable (“The secret was scratching really really hard!”). I do enjoy the opening act for its satirical take on technology rollouts that has only become more resonant in the two decades since the episode originally aired (“For the seventeenth year in a row, the future of robotics has arrived!”). There’s a great shot of Fry sitting backwards in a chair. This has some great classic crustiness from the Professor (“Yes, for god’s sakes, yes!”). You think those ducks all got tangled at once, or did one of them get caught and then slowly accrue more?

“I need technology. Especially email and snowmobiles.”

The title is a reference to the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. The premise is a reference to An Occurrence At Owl Creek. R2-D2 of Star Wars makes a cameo in the background. Sinclair is a reference to Sinclair computers. Wernstrom’s killbot has Lotus Notes on it. Bender and friends swinging on vines through the city is a reference to Spider-Man. Bender dances to “I’m Alright” by Kenny Loggins. 

Iconic Moments: “I get it!” / “Oh, now I get it!” | “If you want something to do, stop making out and give us a hand!” | “CURSE YOU, MERCIFUL POSEIDON!” | “I say the whole world must learn of our peaceful ways… by force!” | “Save my friends! And Zoidberg!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “The Farnsworth Parabox”. “Well, that was pointless.”