Friday, December 7, 2007

Futurama Review

Futurama is Back
The seminal science fiction cartoon returns on DVD
Hartford Advocate Dec. 07, 2007
Futurama returning in any form is great, but a direct-to-DVD version is nearly perfect. The animated show's creators, including Simpsons progenitor Matt Groening, invented a multi-layered television comedy show that looked both backwards and forwards. Steeped in science fiction minutia, the show portrayed a future where every conceivable science fiction scenario had come true, where the incredible is mundane and where everything is possible, but nothing seems to work.

Bender's Big Score
, the first of four DVD exclusive Futurama films — they're going to be split up and broadcast as 16 half-hour episodes on Comedy Central in 2008 — is both innovative and antiquated. The format allows them to bypass broadcast television, and include a wealth of special features that reward the obsession the show inspires in its fans (including a full episode of Everyone Loves Hypnotoad, and an equally inscrutably hypnotic Futurama-focused higher math lecture). But considering Blu-ray, Bit Torrent, video iPods and such, DVDs frankly seem like a dying technology. Which is perfect for Futurama.

Even Futurama's biggest fans should acknowledge why the show had limited success in its 72 episode run (seven episodes fewer than the original Star Trek. Or was it? Have at it, nerds.). Certainly it was mishandled by the Fox Network, who shuffled its time slot and ultimately canceled it, but the show had a fundamentally narrow appeal.

It rewarded science fiction literacy, referencing pure mind sugar for geeks like the 1939 World's Fair, Invasion of the Saucer Men and the Grandfather Paradox, but presented them with twitchy, irreverent humor. America just doesn't have the hipster nerd resources to sustain such a project.

There's also a matter of tone. Where the show's most immediate ancestor, The Simpsons, centered on a family and occasionally broke up its nihilism with sentimental warmth, the only mainstream concession Futurama made was the broad humor of an alcoholic misfit robot with criminal tendencies. It might as well have "cult hit" written in binary and Klingon in the opening credits.

Freed from the constraints of pretending to have mass appeal, the Futurama team mine the show's mythology and history for Bender's Big Score, packing the screen with obscure references to past Futurama episodes, and meta-references to the Family Guy (another show retired, then revived by Fox) and South Park. The plot, a giddy mix of Primer-style time-travel anomalies, alien con men and a surprisingly affecting romance, would have been pretty much impossible with broadcast television's constraints on time and ambition.

A lot of it's very funny — I mentioned the alcoholic misfit robot, right? — but more importantly, it's viciously smart. The speculative ideas are precise and fully realized. As the creators explain in the commentary track, every complicated time leap was fully sketched out, and scrutinized for logic and clarity. Time travel paradoxes aren't just acknowledged, they're exploited for punch lines.

If after watching Signs you angrily questioned why an alien race allergic to water would invade a planet with water covering two thirds of its surface, Bender's Big Score will be extremely satisfying. If you never considered that, well, maybe Futurama isn't for you. On the bright side, re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond are on TV, like, all the time now!