The resurrection of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy from cancellation due to high DVD sales was an unprecedented event in television history. It virtually mandated that media companies could never ignore TV on DVD again, and raised hope among consumers that a TV show suffering in the ratings could get a new lease on life from DVD sales. However, Family Guy quickly prove the exception to the rule that cancellation is a one-way street, as numerous other TV shows garnered critical acclaim, small but dedicated fanbases, and quick cancellation notices when the ratings didn’t come.
So, it’s a pretty big deal that Futurama has just become the second show to defy the law of cancellation gravity, with strong DVD sales leading to four direct-to-video movies (which formed a fifth “season”) and now a new season premiering on Comedy Central. The good news (and not the kind that Professor Farnsworth is prone to hand out) is that Futurama is back in all its hilarious, irreverent glory, just as though it had never left. The bad news is … well, there is no bad news. Futurama‘s back, and that much more is right with the world.
The lead of the show is Philip J. Fry, a dimwitted pizza delivery man cryogenically frozen in 1999 and thawed out a thousand years later, finding himself surrounded by aliens, rocketships, and filthy-minded robots. He soon falls in with his great-great-great-&c grand nephew Hubert J. Farnsworth, assisting in the operations of the Planet Express delivery service with Leela, a hot-tempered one-eyed alien, and Bender, the aforementioned filthy-minded robot.
Even though the series picks up immediately where the last DTV movie left off, there are enough asides and hints dropped throught the first episode, “Rebirth,” to bring any newcomers up to speed quickly. In fact, the dissatisfaction I expressed at the cheap-o ending of the last DTV movie Into the Wild Green Yonder is happily addressed in this episode, which starts off explaining how the crew of the Planet Express escaped from their last grand mess and continues with a plot that hinges on Fry’s love for Leela. What follows is another fine, hilarious mess as Fry, believing Leela to be dead, builds a robot double of her. The robotic doppelganger soon becomes indistinguishable from the real thing when she’s given a personality implant by the Planet Express’ security camera system, and then more complications ensue that I won’t dare spoil. It’s all riotously ridiculous fun, even if Bender does end up losing an eye. It’s truly back to business as usual in the second episode (“In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela,” according to the IMDb), when a killer satellite begins homing in on Earth. It’s up to Leela and Zapp Brannigan to save the day again, although when things go wrong, it looks like it may be up to them to repopulate the human race. It’s another winner of an episode, and could easily have been dropped in anywhere during the original four-season run of the show.
Futurama is the kind of show that TV Tropes exists to catalog, with an incredibly broad array of humor that spans from the broadest slapstick to the subtlest in-joke that flashes on screen for mere milliseconds, sometimes in an alien language. These two premiere episodes of Futurama make it clear that the cast and crew has lost none of their edge in the time they were gone. The show is as funny as ever, from the sight gags to the hilarious line readings to the theater of the absurd. The only barely discernible difference is that they seem a bit more willing to take advantage of their later timeslot to push the boundaries of PG-13 humor, going even further than the DTV movies. It’s still nowhere near the kind of gross-out levels of shows like South Park or Drawn Together, but longtime fans may be surprised by where the show seems willing to go now.
Watching these two episodes now also confirms my suspicion that my increasingly negative reaction to the DTV movies was partially due to misplaced expectations. Futurama is really at its best in 20-minute, episodic doses that don’t have to add up to much. Bender’s Big Score was a very successful longer-form Futurama story, but it also set a precedent that the rest of the DTV movies weren’t able to match. More importantly, Bender’s Big Score also created expectations that the DTVs would add up to something more, setting themselves up for disappointment as it became increasingly evident that they wouldn’t. Lowered expectations may have contributed to my positive reaction to the premiere episodes, but these episodes also don’t look like they’re trying to reach quite as far as the DTVs. As a result, it’s a lot easier to kick back and enjoy these new episodes for just being smart, witty, and bust-a-gut funny 30-minute standalones, which was always Futurama‘s strength.
So, in short, Futurama‘s back, and I’m more than happy to eat my earlier words when I said the last movie left me hoping they could leave on a relatively high note. Futurama has beaten the odds again, roaring on all cylinders out of the black hole of cancellation. Leave it to the nerds to show how to defy gravity.
Futurama premieres on Comedy Central tonight, Thursday, June 24, at 10:00 PM (Eastern presumed). Check out Toonzone’s earlier coverage of the premiere here, our interview with actor Phil LaMarr on Futurama‘s return, and our earlier reviews of the Futurama DTV movies: