Futurama, Season Four, Episode Fifteen, “The Farnsworth Parabox”

Written by: Bill Odenkirk
Directed by: Ron Hughart
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

It’s funny that this has always been one of my favourites for its wildly creative energy, and yet when I sit down to analyse it, I see how many cliche elements it’s made of. The fundamental premise of characters visiting a parallel universe is about as stock as scifi elements get, and even the theme of ‘there but for the flip of a coin go we’ is the standard emotional undercurrent to these kind of episodes. There are two things that make this work. Firstly, both of these things are really cool, and Futurama understands why they are cool and plays right into them. Alternate universes are generally cool because it’s human nature to wonder how things might have been different if you’d made a different choice; this mainly hinges that on one of the central choices of Futurama, the non-relationship between Fry and Leela. Alternate universes are also cool because having a character interact with themselves is reliable comic gold (the Stargate TV franchise only got funnier and funnier with its riffs on this concept over fifteen years). My favourite pairing this episode is the two Zoidbergs, where they unexpectedly manage to bring out their resentment and pettiness (“The box says no.”). Secondly, it uses it as a jumping off point for wildly original dialogue that’s perfectly based in who these characters are. The Professor is the MVP of the episode, getting full expression of his cranky old man crankiness (“You hurt my collator!” / “I don’t care.”).

I suppose you could use this to explain the way the show is creative. Its characters and concepts are stock, but the expressions of them are so vividly weird. My favourite of the various universes is the needlessly ominous universe where none of the characters have eyes; just a delightfully stupid joke. The dialogue tries so hard to be combinations of words you’ve never heard before, with my favourite of these being “One year later, I gave Leela a diamond scrunchy and we were married.” / “One year later, I got beat up at a Neil Diamond concert by a guy named Scrunchy!”. The Simpsons is more creative in the vivid, blazingly original characters it presents; even when it’s someone you’ve met in life before, like Principal Skinner, it’s because he’s so specific that your mind jumps to someone very very much like him. Futurama is more concerned with trying to get somewhere alien and weird with its sentences; this is creativity based on playing with how words, animation, genre tropes, science, and even comic timing* all function. It’s like a child playing with bricks, and it’s very easy to get swept up in. It’s visible even in the first act, when the crew manage to spin an incredible amount of great dialogue and visual jokes out of the Planet Express crew wanting to know what’s inside a cardboard box.

(*Hermes taking a bizarrely long time to decide not to chuck the box into space is what I’m thinking of here. It’s the absolute dumbest joke you could possibly think of, and they stretch it out exactly as far as it can go)

Where it wobbles is in the thematics, although I don’t think it topples over. I quickly realised this is actually another Fry/Leela episode that technically shows it from her perspective; a large part of the point is that Leela is afraid to take a risk whereas Fry is more open to the possibilities. Unfortunately, this opens with Fry at his absolute whiniest about it, with even the frame of their first shot together making Fry look even more like he’s pestering her (although “I HAVE SWEATY BOOT RASH!” and Amy’s followup is funny enough to justify this to me). The thing is, I can relate to Leela’s problem here enough to recognise that it is a problem and how Fry is right in principle about being willing to follow intuition to find something new and exciting. It’s just expressing that by having a loser guy pester a woman into dating him isn’t the most sympathetic of portrayals (in a way, he’s trying to reason Leela into a relationship with him). What’s even worse is that the show had managed to spin a really good expression of the idea in less time!

Title Card: Beats a hard kick in the face
Cartoon Billboard: “The Queen Was In The Parlor”, 1932

Leela’s solution to stopping the guys from looking in the box is hilarious, and the fact that she’s the one to look in the box is obvious for her but also would be obviously wrong not to do. ‘Baldercrap’ probably isn’t iconic but it has worked its way into my vocabulary. Fighting over who gets to be Universe A is hilariously petty. There’s something genuinely profound in the characters indeed treating the box as preciously as they treasure every moment of their lives. This has the smallest cast of any episode – five cast members. It’s also the only one to contain only the core seven characters, depending on how you count duplicates or the narrator that pops up. 

“Here Leela. Take this and use it to shoot those guys.”
“Right. If they look in the box.”

Universe 1729 is a reference to the Hardy-Ramanujan number.

Iconic Moments: “Oh, I’ve been as dumb as Fry!” / “Am not!” | “Now, now, perfectly symmetrical violence never solved anything.” | “You people and your slight differences disgust me!” | “Yes, it’s the apocalypse alright. I always thought I’d have a hand in it.” | “All that is and ever shall be is in that box. And the box itself is probably worth something too.”
Biggest Laugh

Next Week: “Three Hundred Big Boys”. “If you hate whales, why did you become a whale biologist?” / “I don’t know you well enough to get into that.”