Futurama, Season Five, Episode One, “Rebirth”

Written by: David X Cohen
Directed by: Frank Marino
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / Essential / ???

“Uh, this is a bit awkward. Or is it?”

I can’t honestly rank this episode. It’s a little bit because there are good things and bad things about it, but it’s even more because this has set itself such a weird goal that I feel neither my initial confused, vaguely disappointed reaction on original airing nor my much more enthusiastic embrace of it now are entirely fair. This truly is a rebirth for the show, telling us exactly what’s coming back (literally having the characters line up to tell us their jokes) and laying down a new set of rules that come with shifting from being a cult network show to beloved cable sitcom. I wasn’t sure how to react at the time because things that are unexpected make me feel scared, but now I’m coming back to it after seeing where these new rules have taken us. Sometimes they’ve taken us somewhere stupid or annoying, but they’ve also taken us somewhere hilarious or sweet.

What makes “Rebirth” in particular so difficult to grapple with is that it has the incredibly annoying goal of trying to walk back the climax of Into The Wild Green Yonder without really walking back the climax of Into The Wild Green Yonder. Matt Groening wanted to jump right back into the show’s status quo without explanation, and it was only David X Cohen’s interest in exploring the consequences of the movie that pulled him back from one of the most bafflingly dumb ideas Groening has ever had since his outrage at “A Star Is Burns”. I remember being incredibly annoyed that the wild ambition and sense of possibility implied by the wormhole – would the show become more like Lost In Space, with the characters travelling from world to world trying to get home? –  was dumped about two and a half minutes in so we could get back to normal. Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep, asshole! Theoretically, trying to compromise between people who want something new and people who want things the old way ought to make something that offends everyone equally.

“Are they dead?”
“No no no. Much worse.”

But in this case, I actually like this specific mush they end up delivering. “Rebirth” feels much more freewheelin’ than anything we’ve seen Futurama do before; my assumption is that Comedy Central deliberately gave the crew a more free hand with content and they chose to play with the structure and tone a bit more too. I’ve seen that contemporary reviews found it too overstuffed and weirdly paced, which I would agree with; the effect is like they enthusiastically embraced whatever idea came to them as they plotted through and they didn’t work too hard to make it all fit together (did they write the first scene first and later realise they could make it make sense? It feels that way). But I like the weird feeling to it a lot – it’s as if being a network sitcom put a leash around its neck and we’re seeing the show unrestrained and gleefully embracing whatever weird impulse it has in the moment.

This doesn’t always pay off comedically; there are a few character beats that feel cheap and lazy (particularly Leela’s outrage at her robot copy wearing a tank top at her funeral). But it does pay off emotionally in that I find the awkward, bumpy emotional arc of Fry and Leela’s relationship very compelling. It actually feels like a realistic will-they-won’t-they – Fry and Leela have finally given into their primitive biological urges, and the writers come up with something that could convincingly have Leela decide she’s not in the right headspace for a relationship and Fry to also find it too weird to jump right into. On original airing, I was confused and slightly annoyed that the whole thing seemed to be reset – not because I was really clamouring for Fry and Leela to bone, but because I prefer a story to not walk back decisions it makes. But the CC seasons ultimately make Fry and Leela’s relationship genuinely one that goes one step forward and one step back, until they naturally evolve into a full couple – indeed, some of my favourite episodes of the CC run will revolve around Fry and Leela’s romance. This is the beginning of a genuine, messy journey.

“Bender, stop shutting the hell up!”

The other thing that makes me inclined to like this episode is how the show’s ability to break sentences has only improved. That freewheelin’ energy is best expressed in the way they slam through lines like “In your time, yes, but nowadays, shut up!”, just barely giving a crap about comprehensibility in the name of powering through absurd situations. This particular episode doesn’t have as many big laughs as a typical episode, but it does have a lot of great lines that make me laugh; indeed, I was surprised how many iconic lines this script had. 

Title Card: REBIRTH
Cartoon Billboard: “Silvery Moon”, 1933

On original airing, this opened with Bender using Hypnotoad to hypnotise the audience into forgetting the show was ever cancelled by big idiots and then revived by even bigger idiots; reruns, DVDs, and Disney+ replace this with Bender explaining you’ve been watching a test of the Emergency Hypnotoad system that, if it had been real, would have you watching whatever crap is on next (“Comin’ up next: Futurama!”). This has an absolutely gorgeous feel to the animation without sacrificing the wacky sensibility of the show. The designs all feel simple and elegant. Lauren Tom and Phil LaMarr are officially upgraded to the regular cast.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I was already here.”

Build-A-Bot Workshop is a reference to Build-A-Bear Workshop. Farnsworth compares Leela in her grief to Blade Runner. Studio 1²2¹3³ is a reference to Studio 54. Bender dresses like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Robot Fry and Leela talk like Arnold Schrawzenegger in The Terminator. In the introductions, Fry refers to a group of the regulars as “And the rest!”, in reference to the original theme song to Gilligan’s Island. Bender riffs on the title line to “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. The film That Darn Cyclops! is a reference to the film That Darn Cat! The use of security footage to recreate cast members is a reference to a similar process in the show Caprica. The cyclophage resembles Mother Brain from the Metroid series.

Iconic Moments: “Why is… those things?” | “In your time, yes, but nowadays, shut up!” | “She’s not responding to my poking stick!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week:  “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”. “Oh come on. I’ve gotta do laundry.”