The SmarK DVD Rant for Futurama Season One.
“Forget you guys! We’ll build our own theme park, with blackjack and hookers! In fact, forget the theme park!”
As a card-carrying Gen-Xer, I am of course a viewer of the Simpsons since day one (and even before then on the Tracy Ullman Show, back when the Fox Network was basically just that and “star vehicles” for Alison LaPlaca disguised as sitcoms about real estate), so Matt Groening’s sense of humor was always right on the same wavelength as mine. Of course, from time to time I’d think “You know, what we need is another prime-time cartoon spoofing sci-fi in the same vein as the Simpsons spoofs pop culture.”
Okay, I wasn’t really thinking that, but sometimes you take the segues you’re given.
As noted, Futurama is basically a 22-minute spoof of whatever Star Trek/Star Wars clichÃ©s they can think of. Long neglected and recently cancelled by the network (pre-emptions basically meant that the first season was a paltry 10 episodes, despite strong ratings), Futurama isn’t the sure-fire comedy genius that the first few seasons of the Simpsons are. In fact, it’s VERY hit-or-miss much of the time and I’m honestly not as big of a fan of the early run of this show as I became of other hit-or-miss comedies like Family Guy, or the far superior King of the Hill. However, for those with degrees in the sciences or people who howl with laugher with one robot looks at a blank chess board and says “Mate in 143 moves” to another robot, this stuff is geek heaven. For general viewers, it’s pretty uneven. That’s not a knock on the show by any means â€” it’s generally VERY funny, but those expecting a home run like Red Dwarf may be disappointed.
The plot of the show is pretty much swiped from other past sci-fi spoofs like Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” â€” Phillip J. Fry, 25 year old slacker delivery boy from 1999 (“Don’t tip the delivery boy!” the pizza boxes cheerfully declare) is sent on a prank run to a Cryogenics lab, where he accidentally falls into a stasis tube and is frozen for 1000 years. He awakens in the year 3000, with a world that has been destroyed and rebuilt on the ruins of the one he once knew.
The show’s original 13 episodes are presented in original broadcast order over 3 discs, as follows
– Space Pilot 3000. As you can tell, this is the pilot, which introduces Fry and a host of sight gags, as well as his new best friend, the alcoholic chain-smoking misogynist robot Bender, and his great great great great great great great great nephew, Professor Hubert Farnsworth. The plot here centers on Fry escaping destiny in the form of a career chip, as government drone Leela chases him down to implant a “delivery boy” chip and thus brand his job for life. However, he convinces her to rebel against her own demeaning job, and soon they take up work with Farnworth’s galactic delivery company. Fry of course fails to realize the irony, although he’s not nearly as stupid as he would become in later seasons. Not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff, but a funny opener, especially with ideas like the Suicide Booth.
– The Series Has Landed. The episode from which I pulled the quote at the beginning of the review, as the new space delivery crew brings an important crate of stuffed animals to the theme park on the moon. Fry is of course mortified at how commercial the moon has become in the last 1000 years (and the animatronic gophers aren’t even that funny!). Meanwhile, Bender gets kicked out for stealing and runs afoul of a moon farmer and his three lovely robot daughters. I mean, who COULDN’T resist the charms of the Crushinator? This one was more like what was to come later, with Bender’s anti-social tendencies stretched to the max right away and Fry being a complete moron.
– I, Roommate. Fry gets kicked out of the Planet Express offices, and is forced to find his own apartment. With nothing else available, he decides to room with Bender, in a spacious 2 metre by 2 metre robot bachelor pad. Bender can’t understand what Fry’s complaints are about, but goes along with him when he takes a rent-controlled (and much bigger) place instead. Unfortunately, Bender’s antenna interferes with the reception of the satellite dish, leaving the entire floor without “All My Circuits” during the big robot wedding. Bender is so heart-broken at leaving that he falls into the pits of sobriety! Fry is forced to choose between his bachelor pad and his friendship with Bender, and his choice leads to one of the funniest closing gags in the show’s run. This was more of an Odd Couple spoof than a sci-fi spoof, but it still worked.
– Love’s Labours Lost in Space. The one that makes me sad every time, because it introduces Zap Brannigan, the role Phil Hartman was born to play (and originally DID play until his death forced Billy West to voice it instead). Zap is the universe’s greatest space captain (in his own mind) and lover (in his own mind), and sets his sights on Leela, who may require his help to save a collapsing planet. She makes an unfortunate choice in the process that haunts her to this very day, and disturbs everyone else. Zap’s JFK-ish portrait of himself in his boudoir is brilliant stuff, to be sure, as are his over-the-top Shatner-ish theatrics (“The Kill-O-Bots had a preset killing limit on them, so I just sent wave after wave of my own men against them!” he brags at one point with pride in his voice.) As an episode, it was nothing great, but it does introduce Zap and his passive-aggressive assistant Kif, two of the best characters in the show.
– Fear of a Bot Planet. Silly robot jokes abound as the crew has to deliver a package to a world inhabited by homicidal robots, where of course Bender fits in just fine. Will he choose celebrity and robot porn by the barrel, or return with Leela and Fry? And that’s about it, really.
– A Fishful of Dollars. The power of compound interest is revealed, as Fry’s 93 cent bank balance in 1999 is worth 4.3 billion in the year 3000. Sadly, however, he can’t have his one wish â€” an anchovy pizza â€” because the fish are extinct in that time. So he spends 50 million on the last remaining can of them, incurring the wrath of the most evil tyrant to rule the corporate world of the future with an iron fist â€” Mom’s Friendly Robots. Again, doesn’t really go anywhere as an episode, but the introduction of Mom was necessary and Pamela Anderson’s cameo in a badly-acted scheme by the villains (which of course could only fool Fry) is funny stuff, to be sure.
– My Three Suns. The weakness continues, as Fry delivers a package to a desert planet under three suns, which happens to be inhabited by water creatures. Of course, he doesn’t realize this until AFTER he drinks the emperor and becomes the new monarch himself. It quickly becomes apparent that he’s the target of a massive assassination-by-drinking-straw conspiracy against him, however. The concept’s not really that funny to begin with.
– A Big Piece of Garbage. Here’s where the brilliance of the show really starts, as they start to cut loose and ignore stuff like plot cohesion. This one introduces Farnsworth’s slightly-less-senile nemesis Wurnstrom (brilliantly voiced by David Herman), as they battle for inventor superiority at their yearly convention. Desperate for an idea to replace the Death Clock that loses every year, Farnsworth invents the Smelloscope on the spot (although it turns out he invented it before and just forgot), and promptly discovers a giant ball of garbage from the 20th century headed back to the Earth. Fry’s elegantly moronic solution is pretty sly social commentary, too.
– Hell is Other Robots. One of the funniest eps of the first season sees Bender getting hooked on the evils of “jacking in” with electricity after a Beastie Boys concert. He degenerates into a pathetic addict until finding the Temple of Robotology (“10 Sin, 20 GOTO Hell”) and redeeming himself. However, a sober, law-abiding, socially redeemed Bender is boring as hell, and when his friends decide it’s time for him to start acting normal again, he’s banished to Robot Hell (located in Jersey, of course) for a big musical number with the Robot Satan. Really, the show makes no sense, but it’s just laugh after laugh, all of them horribly inappropriate if you have the least bit of moral standards. I don’t, so I thought it was howlingly funny stuff.
– A Flight to Remember. Yes, it’s the very topical Titanic send-up, with a whole bunch of stories running concurrently as the crew vacations on the newly launched Titanic cruise spaceship. Of course, with Zap Brannigan as the honorary captain, you have to think that the ride won’t be as smooth as you’d want. Not terribly funny outside of the limbo-flashbacks of Hermes, but historic for introducing the romance of Kif and Amy in what was supposed to be a one-shot joke.
– Mars University. Back to firing on all cylinders, as they hit every college movie possible when Fry decides to drop out of university all over again. His roommate is a super-intelligent monkey who finds he’s torn between mental superiority and bananas. After Fry manages to fail a course on 20th century history, things move into the jungles for one of the most stupidly hilarious gags in the first season, involving tranquilized animals falling out of a tree. The “Bender as Belushi” subplot (spoofing spoofs of Animal House in a weird bit of comedy introspection) is also great stuff.
– When Aliens Attack. It’s Matt Groening v. bad summer blockbusters, as Fry accidentally interrupts the season finale of Single Female Lawyer in 1999, thus pissing off aliens from a distant galaxy who don’t get the broadcast until 1000 years later (2000 years on the West Coast). They invade and destroy historic Monument Beach, and there’s only one man who can stop them â€” Zap Brannigan. Or at least he thinks so.
– Fry & The Slurm Factory. An absolute classic closes out the first season, as Fry and Bender win a trip to the birthplace of Slurm, the most addictive (and delicious) soft drink in the universe, and get a chance to party with Slurms MacKenzie, the partyingest slug in the galaxy. A vicious parody of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory results, until Fry discovers what the REAL secret ingredient in his favorite drink is. (Hint: It’s made by slugs) Prepare to be grossed out. Several times.
The show didn’t really hit its stride until the second season, but this one has all the tools there for the better days that would follow once the running gags and character nuances were established. Still, Bender is friggin’ hilarious and gets away with stuff that NO other character on primetime TV could get away with (smoking, drinking, general debauchery, cutting Fry’s throat with a jagged bottle ) and is well worth checking out for that reason alone.
Good news everyone! The show, presented in the original full-frame ratio, has never looked better, even in original broadcast form. Colors are INSANELY bright and there’s no flaws in the video I can see. Even the subtle nuances like a sick Bender going from slightly-pink to cold metallic blue are easily handled by the DVD transfer. Animation is usually the bane of the format due to poor compression, but with plenty of space per disc and the time taken by FOX, this is a pristine transfer, indeed.
Your basic Dolby surround, available in English, French or Spanish. Same as you’d hear on TV, and that’s fine.
Much like the Simpsons discs, this is where Futurama really shines â€” the COMMENTARIES. Each episode has an audio commentary by Matt Groening, David Cohen, John DiMaggio (Bender) and a host of others who pop in depending on the episode. Listening to them dissect the jokes and mock the internet is absolutely hilarious, and the process behind creating the show is revealing in pretty impressive detail in them. You can tell this show was a labor of love for Matt, and all of the tracks are tons of fun and well worth going out of your way to listen to.
You also get deleted scenes for “My Three Suns”, “Hell is Other Robots”, “When Aliens Attack”, “The Series Has Landed”, “I Roommate” and “Love’s Labours Lost in Space”. All of these are basically just alternate takes on existing jokes.
Also, you get the original animatic for the pilot, which is basically a primitive sketch animation for the show. Some of the jokes are different, but the heart of it is there. Along with that, you get the original script (with notes from David Cohen scribbled in the margin) and the storyboards.
Finally, you get a short featurette produced in 1999 to hype the then-upcoming show, and a still gallery of early prototypes for the characters.
Each disc also features easily-found Easter eggs, with futuristic movie posters as your reward. All in all, well beyond the usual NOTHING that TV season sets are dishing out for the most part, and thus a welcome addition to a set I would have bought anyway.
The Film: ***1/2
The Video: *****
The Audio: ***
The Extras: ****