Futurama, Season Seven, Episode Five, “The Tip Of The Zoidberg”

Written by: Ken Keeler
Directed by: Raymie Muzquiz
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

“Ah, Zoidberg. We’ve known each other for so long. I don’t think we even need words to understand each other.”
What?!

My take on this episode is going to be controversial, I think (“Controversial? / “Oh my, no.”). I like this controversial episode a lot, which is strange because it contains almost every element that bothers me about the lesser episodes of CC-era Futurama and which I know bothers the rest of you. It continues the trend of the writers looking backwards and rewriting the past of the show; it uses the same structure as “Luck Of The Fryrish”, alternating between the past and the present to build up to a stunning final revelation that’s been driving both halves of the timeline. More importantly, it’s been using retconning to sentimentalise the characters and their relationships, something that actively fights against what we (or at least I) get out of this show. I love the half-assed apathy that leads to mean dismissal of the characters – I consider myself a reflexively empathetic person who genuinely considers the feelings of others, even when those feelings either come from or go to a place that is difficult to sympathise with, so I dearly treasure the few works of comedy that successfully convince me to put that aside. I don’t feel bad watching Futurama bully Dr Zoidberg the way I’m repulsed by how Family Guy treats people. 

Zoidberg in particular got the most of the recalibrated emotion in the CC era, and I think I get why Futurama started walking back its treatment of him, even if I disagree with that as a creative direction. He’s one of the most beloved of the whole cast and perhaps the one most memed for his personality, and the original run painted a (relatively) complex picture of a child-like crab-man who desperately wanted to be respected and was too revolting and socially awkward to be loved and too weak to be feared. It’s easy to identify with him and it’s easy to pity him, and I think a lot of people find him endearing because of that. On top of that, I think people – and unfortunately this includes the writers – simply ended up conflating their amusement with the character for liking him as a person and wanting to see him do well.

(To be fair to Futurama, a lot of long-running comedies end up doing this. Scrubs had the strangest example, trying to redeem Dr Kelso for bullying his sad-sack underling lawyer Ted for half a decade as well as making Ted less of a sad-sack towards the end. One way of looking at one of my personal favourite comedies of all time, Shortpacked!, is that it’s an experiment in gradually pushing comedy characters to their most redeemed and authentic selves without being any less funny. Offhand, the two long-running comedies I can think of that successfully kept their characters unredeemed and unchanged were Seinfeld, 8 Bit Theater, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The latter there even has the interesting anti-Shortpacked! experiment in that it shows a show evolving but the characters not.)

“I consider myself a reasonable man. Quick with a joke, slow to anger. But Bender can’t go on long car trips anymore and I say Zoidberg must die!”

So why does this episode’s sentimentality not bother me? Part of it, admittedly, is that the episode is very funny (I get a real kick out of Zoidberg casually referring to Mom as Carol – “Beautiful kids, you must be very proud.”). But a big part is that this doesn’t feel like much of a retcon. One criticism I’ve seen of this episode (and I’m sorry that I can’t remember who exactly said this) is that it doesn’t make any sense that the Professor always loved Zoidberg after years of heaping abuse on him (“With my last breath, I curse Zoidberg!”). I’ve seen other people trying to justify the contradiction with things like “oh, he’s cursing him out for not killing him in time”, but I see it more emotionally – I’ve never taken the casual bullying any more seriously than I took the idea that scientists changed the speed of light. It’s actually pretty strange that there’s a kind of oil-and-water quality to the show’s plot and comedy, where the latter is simultaneously ornamental and the entire reason we’re here, whilst the former is carefully worked out and almost superfluous (I think of Inazo Nitobe’s advice that things of great importance must be treated lightly whilst things of little important must be treated with great care).

(In terms of practical explanations, I would also like to point out the far more convincing argument that the Professor is senile and forgets things all the time (“Professor! Don’t you remember what I told you?” / “NO!?!?!”).)

I think the main reason I like this episode is because it does get at what I like about Zoidberg outside of the fact that they make him say things what are funny. He’s actually more loyal to the concept of friendship than he is to the people he’s ostensibly friends with, which is partly what makes him come off as childlike but is also what people can sympathise with, I think. Certainly I can understand the appeal of both having and being a Friend, particularly when you’re defined by loneliness and romanticise the notion of someone being loyal to you. I know that when the Professor and Zoidberg sandcrab away together, I’m moved.

Title Card: It’s tentacular!
Cartoon Billboard: N/A

“Those poor, doomed bastards!”

I will admit the medical malpractice section is hard to watch, as someone with a fear of surgery. The doctor being horrified that these people were actually treated by Zoidberg slays me, as does Zoidberg inexplicably making Bender incontinent.

“Nobody ever wants to see you again!”
“Dr Zoidberg, I want to see you right now.”

When sick. Fry develops symptoms that make him resemble Simpsons characters, Garfield, Kermit The Frog, and Smurfs. In the past, Farnsworth drops a lyric from “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry. Zoidberg drops a reference to a commercial for Doritos. The Chet Atkins version of “Mr Sandman” plays over the murder montage. The Tritonian Yeti is drawn to resemble Mugato from Star Trek. Zoidberg combines the catchphrase of Perry White from Superman comics with the Little Caeser’s pizza chain. Mom compares her sons to the Three Stooges. Fry riffs on the name of the Incredible Hulk.

Iconic Moments: N/A
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “Ghost In The Machines”. “As you can see, since Bender’s death, requests to bite one’s shiny metal ass are down 98%.”