Joy from Air

Futurama is not Simpsons II

by C.K. Sample III

Most die-hard fans of Matt Groening’s flagship show, The Simpsons, were most likely glued to their television screens at 7:29PM Central Standard Time on March 28, 1999, eagerly awaiting Fox’s premiere of Groening’s latest brain-child: Futurama. By 7:35PM, most of these fans were probably somewhat disappointed. However, by 8PM, the majority of viewers were probably content with what they had seen. The premiere far surpassed the first two morally-laden seasons of the Simpsons, yet didn't quite reach the spectacular heights of the best Simpsons episodes, the extremely postmodern self-aware episodes that made fun of themselves along with everything else in reality.

Futurama is not Simpsons II, and this is a decidedly good thing. Many bearded old gruffs, who are set in their ways, will compare the two and find Futurama lacking, but they shouldn't. They are two entirely different creatures. The Simpsons, as the longest running prime-time animated show, holds a certain spot that no show should try to contend with. Some who see The Simpsons as the 90's reincarnation of The Flintstones, the original long-running prime-time cartoon, will mistake Futurama for a bastard late 90's Jetsons. But as the Flinstones was the Honeymooners animated and set in the Stone Age, the Jetsons was a poor, third generation photocopy of the Honeymooners set in the future and "modernized." In creating Futurama, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen and 30th Century Fox (as they credit themselves at the end of the show) have developed something new that manages to poke fun at the large amount of pop culture mythology about the land of the future that has existed for the past 50 years. My personal favorite of these instances is in the title shot when under the large letters of the title, very small and without too much flare, the words "IN COLOR" pop up.

And this is the beauty of this show, and where it has its similarity with the Simpsons. A good half of the humor is very subtle, while the other half is in your face bumbling, awkward human nature. The main character, Fry, is a prime example of this bumbling. He is a young pizza delivery boy who feels as if life has passed him by somewhere. Luckily, he gets frozen and wakes 1000 years in the future. Ironically, life has passed him by literally now, but given him the opportunity to do what he wants to do. Unfortunately, the land of the future is much less democratic than the late 20th century, relying on a device called the probulator to determine one's purpose in life. The motto for this future: "You gotta do what you gotta do." Totalitarian determinism come everyday vernacular.

A real live robot
©1999, all rights reserved.
The show’s weak link, at least in this early episode, is Lela, the one-eyed alien Fate Assignment Officer who is given the task of probulating Fry. Her voice is much too clearly that of Married with Children mom, Peggy Bundy--recycled Fox at its worst. Most of her jokes revolve around her cyclopean nature, and her sudden change of heart about Fry is either too predictable or too sudden, so that it seems somewhat false when it occurs.

The show's best character is Bender, a "real live robot" whose job is to bend things, and whose first line in the show is "Bite my shiny metal ass!" In Bender, Groening has created a suicidal robot a la Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series' robot, but Bender does not act super-depressed, just super-drunk. Next to Bender, the show's most interesting aspect is the animation. Apropos of the future/past confusion of the show itself (the name FUTURAMA reminds me of the City of the Future films from the 50s that have been featured on television and at the World's Fair for years), the animation is traditional 2D drawing on top of 3D computer animation that maintain a 2D quality. It makes for a unique look that is sometimes visually disturbing.

The show ends with Fry, Bender, and Lela all abandoning the "You gotta do what you gotta do" motto of the future to help pilot the spaceship of Fry's decrepit, old great-to-the-32nd nephew. Fry's job on the spaceship is (wah wah wah) delivery boy. But this time he's excited! The show ends in a somewhat formulaically predictable fashion, but all in all, I look forward to the Futurama episodes of the future.