WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Futurama

One of the best things about animation is that it’s flexible. Whereas characters are typically bounded by actors’ bodies, an animated creation can bend, blur, and break, so long as they’re still recognizable to the viewer, something that allows for a remarkable degree of leeway in the name of expressiveness and control. More than that, animation allows the writers to create the rules of a world as they go along and have the viewer simply accept them in a way that rivals the ability of the written word.

That elasticity is what makes Futurama, which rarely makes an effort to even appear bounded by a semblance of reality, so special. Where that other show by co-creator Matt Groening radiates outward from its focal family, Futurama (also created by David X. Cohen) is, at least in the beginning, about a universe—the New New York of the future. The show’s world frequently gives off the appearance of being unfeeling and cold, forcing the characters and the viewers who follow them to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of warmth. But really, it’s a playground for the inquisitive, nerdy, and surprisingly empathetic writers, who infuse the show with all of their obsessions, from theology to Star Trek to Richard Nixon.

Futurama also gives off the mistaken impression of cynicism in part because its setting is meant to be de-familiarizing. Frozen for a thousand years in cryogenic sleep, pizza delivery boy Philip J. Fry (Billy West) awakens in the brave new world of the year 3000 (well, technically New Year’s Eve 2999) before falling in with his closest living relative—the borderline senile, borderline psychotic Professor Hubert Farnsworth (also Billy West). Farnsworth runs the dysfunctional interstellar delivery service Planet Express, the home of the rest of the main cast, especially Fry’s best friend, the childlike criminal robot Bender (John DiMaggio) and his love interest, the hyper-competent, hyper-violent cyclops Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal).

In one of the first high-profile instances of the now-common practice of televised voodoo, Futurama was canceled by Fox after a few seasons, then resurrected by Comedy Central—first as a series of films, then for another run of episodes. The first few seasons are excellent, but the hit-miss ratio became a little sketchier as the show aged. Still, Futurama, in contrast to many other sitcoms, never quite wore out its welcome, and even at its worst the show’s vision of the future is always a fun place to spend half an hour. Escape to the next millennium with WIRED’s binge-watching guide for Futurama.

Futurama

Number of Seasons: 10 (140 episodes, give or take. The cancellation, initial airing schedule that contradicts the production order, and the season that’s just composed of the movies, make it difficult to pin down exactly which episodes are included in which season, but Netflix is the prime purveyor of Futurama, so their system it is.)

Time Requirements: Watching at a perfectly reasonable three episodes a day should get you through the show in just under seven weeks, a perfect summer project. But let’s be honest—once you’re under Futurama’s Hypnotoad-infused spell, you won’t be able to go through it that slowly.

Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes

Best Character to Follow: It makes the most sense for first-time viewers to keep a close eye on Fry, one of the best-executed instances of the cliché of the seemingly normal, doofy character who turns out to be of cosmic importance. Much of the groundwork for Fry’s eventual destiny is laid early in the series (look for Easter eggs on your second, third, or seventh time through the series), but the true genius of Futurama’s treatment of Fry lies in the way that he becomes a figure of prophecy by being, at all times, a kind idiot. He makes bad decisions that allow him to save the world, but he also grows over the course of the series to the point of reasonable competence. One of the treats of the last few seasons is watching him struggle with learning how to be in a relationship with Leela, an adult emotional problem that isn’t handled half as well by most “serious” treatments.

Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:

Look—there are a lot of great episodes in the Comedy Central seasons, but there are also far more unnecessary ones. As it aged, Futurama became more topical in ways that never really produced biting satire and felt dated quickly. It’s a bit of a cliché that all science fiction is really about the present, but Futurama made this increasingly literal as the seasons progressed. Many of the early episodes use the year 3000 to imaginatively play with present-day familiar faces and question the costs of our choices, but by the time the show got around to episodes about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the ubiquity of iPhones, it had ceased to be particularly novel.

Most of these episodes are still pleasant to watch if you’ve made it that far in the show—you’ll already be at a point where, like most older sitcoms, you’re happy to just hang out with the characters for half an hour. But there are a few that are particularly rancid, and best avoided until you reach more advanced levels of Futurama obsession.

Season 7: Episode 3, “Attack of the Killer App” An uninteresting, crusty jab at Apple and the supposed inanity of those darned kids and their modern technology, this is the point at which Futurama most closely resembles a later season of South Park—with all the attendant flimsiness. Unnecessary viewing.

Season 9: Episode 11, “31st Century Fox” Though it touches on some of the writers’ long-running environmental themes in its treatment of animal rights, this episode, which features Bender trying to protect robot foxes from British hunters, never escapes the thought that it was written solely for the title.

Season 10: Episode 6, “Saturday Morning Fun Pit” The absolute worst episode of Futurama ever, this one is an attempt at a series of stories based on Saturday morning cartoons. Though the anthology format worked well in other episodes, this one is a bunch of thinly-drawn, lazy Family Guy-style reference gags that don’t have anything to them other than “Hey, remember when this was a thing?”

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:

Pretty much all of the first five seasons (the Fox years) are excellent—some are just decently funny, but all of them have at least one effective character moment or clever reversal that adds to the overall sense of Futurama’s brilliance. Over the course of these episodes, and the rest of the series, Futurama settled into a few different distinct episode types—including the madcap sci-fi adventure, the spot-on genre parody, and the sad episode where a character reckons with their past—each of which has several installments. Here are the best representatives of several of the types of Futurama episodes, with a few more classics thrown in for good measure.

Season 1: Episode 9, “Hell Is Other Robots” The first truly great episode of the show is also the first episode to fully capture the genius of Bender, a character often pegged as a violent, evil criminal but who is generally more reminiscent of a curious, alcoholic baby. That’s exemplified by how easily Bender is ruled by his appetites in this episode, getting addicted to electricity before falling into the religion of Robotology—putting him within the dastardly musical clutches of the Robot Devil (Dan Castellaneta) and laying the groundwork for several other classic installments.

Season 2: Episode 9, “Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?” Doctor John Zoidberg (also Billy West) gets his first great showcase in this episode, which has some of Futurama’s sitcom-lite gender politics (Fry plays Cyrano, tricking the object of Zoidberg’s affection into loving him with just a few non-idiotic words) but all of its weird heart. And it ends with one of the most potent questions ever posed by a sitcom—if your species died in the process of having sex, would you still do it?

Season 3: Episode 8, “The Luck of the Fryish” Fry’s attempt to find his lucky seven-leaf clover and reconcile his relationship with his long-dead brother provides the model for the kind of sentimental Futurama—complete with the standard-issue “twist” emotional ending—that was eventually used for the infamous and heartbreaking “Jurassic Bark” (with his dog) and “Game of Tones” (with his mother).

Season 3: Episode 12, “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” Futurama’s “mythology” could become a little irritating as the show went on and began to wear its heart more directly on its sleeve, but the introduction of Fry’s greatest enemies—naturally, an army of giant brains—is classic, perfecting the series’ balancing act between empathizing with its gross protagonists and the razor-sharp, over-educated minds of its writers.

Season 3: Episode 15, “Time Keeps on Slipping” Maybe the best episode of the entire series, this one is neatly divided into a few parts. First, there’s a silly story about the alien Harlem Globetrotters challenging Earth to a basketball game. Then there’s Professor Farnsworth creating an army of Space Jam-like basketball monsters to accept that challenge. Then there’s the part where Farnsworth’s meddling causes time to begin to skip forward, with no memory of the interludes. And all of that is followed by an excellent, nuanced Fry-Leela love story. It’s basically one great bit after another, condensed into just a few minutes.

Season 4: Episode 5, “Godfellas” Theologically dense and hilarious in equal measure, it’s hard to beat “Godfellas” for sheer cerebral intensity. The script doesn’t just ask “What if you were God?” but instead asks “What if Bender were God?” It turns out that he’d make a few mistakes but eventually get on the right track, with an assist from the genuine article (maybe).

Season 5: Episode 9, “Sting” Leela’s biggest spotlight outside the episodes that focus on her mutant heritage, “Sting” is also one of the most surreal Futurama episodes, paying off a line from the pilot to delirious, moving effect.

Season 5: Episode 16, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” The last episode to air on Fox, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is both a perfect episode of the show, and a perfect potential finale. Every ending the show tried is excellent, including the last shot of Into the Wild Green Yonder and the eventual last episode, “Meanwhile,” but “The Devil’s Hands” is still the pinnacle of goodbyes. It includes an extended musical sequence, cameos from many beloved recurring characters, and manages to substantively move the Fry-Leela relationship in a way that still somehow doesn’t feel cloying. (All while finessing a runner on the meaning of the word “irony.”)

Season 7: Episode 7, “The Late Philip J. Fry” The story of Fry trying to make it to Leela’s birthday dinner on time after being trapped in a forwards-only time machine justifies the existence of the rest of the Comedy Central seasons on its own. Taking the premise to its logical conclusion, “The Late Philip J. Fry” marks Futurama as maybe the only television show in history to gleefully depict the heat death of the universe.

Season 8: Episode 13, “Reincarnation” An effective, smart split anthology episode, “Reincarnation” accomplishes everything “Saturday Morning Fun Pit” doesn’t. Each of the vaguely related segments pays homage to a certain style of animation (black-and-white early Disney cartoons, 8-bit videogames, and low-budget anime) by using its formal restrictions to depict something that can’t be seen. Somehow, Futurama was the rare show that could often make telling funnier than showing.

Why You Should Binge:
Futurama is a lot of things to a lot of people—reference-laden comedy, slightly disappointing Simpsons relative, the only show to ever have a character sleep with his own grandmother—but what makes it so special is that can be all of these things at the same time, within one episode (and sometimes one scene). That the series had so many diverse threads and interests and managed to maintain its specificity and voice while pursuing all of them is nothing short of a miracle. And it somehow managed to do the impossible—make science boring, in the most interesting way possible.

Space travel, teleportation, and cryogenic freezing is just run-of-the-mill technology in Futurama’s world, which means everyone just has more time to focus on watching TV or the silly social minutiae that would have fit better in an episode of Seinfeld. Sharing that general penchant for the oddities of small, casual human interaction in conjunction with a desire to explore the cosmos is a powerful combination—for anyone who vibes at the same wavelength as Cohen and the rest of the Futurama team, there’s really nothing quite like it.

Best Scene—’The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings’ Musical Sequence

The extended musical sequence in “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” features commentary on good (and bad) writing for TV, a discussion of the meaning of irony, catchy music, and solid characters beats, all within the span of a couple of minutes. Dizzying.

The Takeaway:
Smart, funny, emotional, and caustic in equal measure, but also weird and specific, too—what more could you want?

If You Liked Futurama You’ll Love:
Futurama is flexible enough that it has several possible spiritual descendants, but the closest thing on the air is likely The Venture Bros., which has a similarly chilly, nerdy exterior hiding a heart of gold. Adventure Time has a similarly deep bench of animated oddballs. And, uh, you could maybe check out this other little show called The Simpsons or something.

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