Welcome to our newest bi-weekly column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd. To read past installments, go here.
Futurama begins with a simple premise: Fry, a young man in his twenties, on the eve of the second millennium, delivers a pizza to an address that turns out to be a fake, and as the countdown to the new year begins, he falls into a cryogenic chamber only to awaken one thousand years in the future. That’s how the show begins. However, the story of Futurama actually begins in mid-nineties; The Simpsons by this point is a television juggernaut, and its creator Matt Groening, at the peak of his creative talent, is both influential and unyielding enough to browbeat Fox executives into not only accepting a concept for his new show, but to let Groening have full creative control of it—note how Futurama is darker, more profane and cruder than The Simpsons. With the help of Groening’s right-hand man, David X. Cohen, Futurama has become a classic, not only in comedy, but in science fiction, a genre which always looked to the future as a means to better understanding the present.
Fry, in his own right, never cared too much about understanding the present, a time where he was just as much a fish-out-of-water as he was a thousand years in the future. His best friends include an avaricious, philanthropist robot, Bender—a cigar smoking, booze hounding replication of blue-collar stereotypes. The other is a good-natured, headstrong purple-haired cyclops named Leela. The three meet-up in the pilot episode (“Space Pilot 3000”), where Fry goes on the run in fear of being repositioned as a delivery boy yet again. Fry’s big letdown in the pilot episode is how little the future has come in defining humanity’s great purpose—now, instead of allowing us to find our own purpose in society, we have become no more than cogs regulated to specific tasks. It’s no surprise that Fry finds a kindred spirit in Bender, a robot who exists solely to serve the needs of humans.
With all that said, yes, we’re still talking about a comedy here, and a hilarious one at that. More than that, Futurama is ridiculously smart, smart enough to understand that society has grown so technologically advanced that we humans—relying more and more on technology—are at risk of becoming less human ourselves. A funny subsidiary on this idea is Bender, whose sophisticated programming makes him so human that his seamless integration with us makes our existence look a cosmological farce (full of human simulations, augmented reality and other imitations of life). With Futurama, we’re not only talking about a genre of escapist nonsense or high concept spectacle but a comedy of perpetual human error, one that persists well beyond the 21st century and into the 31st.
The idea that Fry represents the 21st century is laughable. Putting it nicely, he’s an uneducated simpleton whose only life experience was working at a dead-end job at a pizza shop, and that’s only after five years of collecting unemployment and watching television all day. More or less, this concept is really just an inflated joke lasting seven seasons and three decades, yet still manages to work. Fry may represent the worst of our society, but not for a second does the show devalue his humanity, or that of Leela or Bender for that matter. Looking past his inadequacies, we can still feel Fry’s disappointment when he finds out that the moon—a symbol of humanity’s progression into space—has become nothing more than an amusement park (Season 1, Episode 2 “The Series Has Landed”).
One big misconception about Futurama is that it’s a show about the future. It isn’t really. It’s about the factors, both past and present, that have connected us as a people and the ones that have divided us. Sitting here, writing this, I can only imagine how little in common I would have with a 15th century penal worker, regaled by tales that a man has discovered a “New World”. Fry spends the entire time on the moon trying to convince Leela how amazing the moon landing was, a sentiment that she never really understands, and for good reason. She does come from a society who has mastered the process of interstellar travel. What she does see is the spark in Fry’s eyes, whenever he passionately recounts memories. It’s a mutual sentiment that transcends time and space.
We often take for granted the intelligent bits social commentary that animated television give us. While something like South Park finds its footing through hyperbole and mockery, Futurama approached social commentary in a way I could only describe as the 31st century holding up a funhouse mirror to all the problems of the 21st century. Take a look at the last two episodes of the first season (“When Aliens Attack” and “Fry and the Slurm Factory”). One is a flat-out allegory on television and its demanding audiences and the other is a cautionary tale on the consumption of soft drinks. The latter episode simply asks the old question, would we still drink the stuff knowing how it’s made? Every episode in Futurama is a reminder of the things the 21st century left behind and an amusing speculation on what society might have replaced them with.
Perhaps a defining triumph for Futurama is its explorations into the fundamentals that make us human, approaching them with a surprising amount of maturity and retrospective foresight. No better episode embodies such innovative tenor than “Parasites Lost”(season 3, episode 20) and “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” (season 4, episode 18). Both share a similar storyline, involving Fry using 31st century tools to try to win Leela’s heart. They’re unusually clever in how even when Fry fails to woo Leela by the end, he never actually loses, because through missteps and revelations he discovered something truer about himself, and hopefully something true about most of us. “Parasites Lost”, a subversion on the male power fantasy, ended with Fry outright refusing his body’s improvements as a way to win Leela’s heart.
“The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” was penned by Fox as Futurama’s final episode, something that thankfully proved untrue with a glorious return in 2008 with “The Beast with a Billion Backs”. The episode, however, made a powerful example of two moments. The first was an illusion, Fry with the devil’s hands, creates a powerful piece that ultimately wins Leela’s admiration. The second was purely authentic: Fry, with only his personal drive, composes a smaller, less-than-remarkable piece that ultimately wins Leela’s heart.
Some things are timeless. Science fiction is grounded in the reality that as we progress into the future, so does all aspects of society. Futurama, despite taking place one thousand years in the future, relates to the idea that some aspects in society will never change; it’s a reality that allows casual relationships to develop, like one between a 21st century slacker and a robotic 31st century booze hound. You’d never guess the two existed a millennium apart. I haven’t even begun scratching the surface of Futurama’s best episodes, just watch “Godfellas” (season 3, episode 20) and The Late Philip J. Fry (season 6, episode 7), most of which exhibit the existential foresight of great science fiction authors and the satirical genius of a Douglas Adams novel. You’d think Futurama sought to use Fry, the only 21st century character in the series, to retroactively mock the audience, but that wasn’t the case. Science fiction is created not only upon an envisioned future, but a true understanding of the present—an understanding that wouldn’t exist in the show without its displaced 20th century protagonist.