Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Five Worst Episodes of Futurama

I love TV, but I'm not a big fan of ranking shows. I know what I like, but trying to establish some kind of hierarchy is a foolhardy attempt to bring objectivity to an inherently subjective area. So as much as I might love, say, The West Wing, I'll try to avoid saying something like "The West Wing is the greatest hour long drama in television history."

That said, any list of the greatest animated series in television history has to include Futurama. Created by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Futurama managed to transcend the cartoon comedy genre and mine genuine emotional depths. But it never fell into melodrama and never took itself too seriously; Futurama was wickedly funny throughout its entire four season run.

Still, I'm a believer in a thorough and honest evaluation of those things we take seriously in life, so what follows is a list of the five worst Futurama episodes. This is a labor of love; by acknowledging the flaws in the show, it will only serve to make Futurama's (many) brilliant moments even better.

Honorable Mention: Bender's Big Score: If you divided this two hour, stand-alone movie into four 30 minute episodes, any one of them would easily be the worst episode in the show's run. BBS featured a bizarre and incomprehensible time travel plot that was clearly crafted to show off the writers' science credentials. (Many have degrees in math or science from MIT or other august institutions.) The jokes fell flat, especially an elaborate "Screw you" bit of catharsis aimed at the FOX execs who canceled the show. A couple musical numbers failed miserably. Even the animation seemed...off, somehow. The high point of the movie was the voice work of Al Gore, which should tell you all you need to know.

#5: Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch, Season Four: Weak largely because of the episode's intense focus on Amy and Kif. Amy's just an annoyance and better left in a slapstick role where she can klutz it up and get some cheap laughs. Kif's more lovable, but is better utilized as a supporting character put-upon by the idiocy of Zapp Brannigan. They can't carry an entire episode, which is what they're asked to do in this episode, where a bizarre space station accident results in Leela accidentally impregnating Kif. (I know) Amy has to come to grips with the way this will change her life; see, in Kif's culture, she will be the true mother of Kif's children. She does eventually accept responsibility...only to have the episode end in such a way as to guarantee the birth won't actually affect anyone. Weak.

#4: Mars University, Season Two: Another early episode, and one of the first instances of the writers falling into a trap that would become familiar to fans: Bender's "B" plot, largely an excuse to focus on him committing various felonies and outrages, overshadows the "A" plot of Fry and Leela. In this episode, an Animal House parody, Bender takes over a lame robot fraternity and tries to make them cool. Meanwhile, Fry competes in various Mars University classes with a monkey made intelligent by a computerized hat. A lot of the show's premises are silly, but that's pretty bad. (Note: this episode is included in the first season DVD collection, but the online episode guide I'm using puts it in the second season)

#3: Obsoletely Fabulous, Season Four: This is really a tie between several Bender-centric episodes, namely "The 30 Percent Iron Chef," "Love and Rocket" and "The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz." Bender was a character who got a lot of funny lines from the writing staff, gained popularity and sort of took over the show at certain points. Bender's nature made him immensely fun as a supporting player who chimed in from time-to-time with a hilariously cruel joke. But when entire episodes were written around him, as they were in the shows I've named, his act began to wear a little thin. I can only get put up with so much cruelty before Bender starts to lose my sympathy. "Obsoletely Fabulous" was just the worst case of this.

#2: The Cryonic Woman, Season Three: The problem here can be summed up in two words: Sarah Silverman. I'll readily admit to a pre-existing bias; I don't like Silverman and I think the hype surrounding her has less to do with the actual quality of her jokes and more to do with the fact that she's a good-looking woman who tells sex and fart jokes. But even though I'm not fond of her, I'll acknowledge she has legitimate talent and a distinctive voice. Theoretically, that makes her perfect for a role like this. But she completely botches the role of Michelle, Fry's girlfriend from the 20th century who froze herself and woke up in Fry's new time. Her tone and emphasis are all wrong in this episode, most glaringly when she uttered the line, "He went to a law school so prestigious the basketball team was coached by Ruth Bader Ginsburg." A mediocre voice acting performance is not a big deal, but Silverman was distractingly awful in this episode. "The Cryonic Woman" did, however, feature one of the show's funnier lines, when Fry tells Michelle, "I want you to know I don't regret this. But I both rue and lament it."

#1: The Series Has Landed, Season One: This was the second episode of the series, and things were still a bit raw. The voice work was not refined to the level it eventually reached; there are subtle but noticeable differences in the way Fry, Leela, Bender and Professor Farnsworth sounded here than they did later in the show's run. The weak plot centers on an expedition to the Moon; it's a simple matter for the rest of the cast, but the temporally displaced Fry considers it a significant adventure. There are a couple of nice setpieces, including a lovely shot of Earth taken from the Moon's surface, but there aren't enough to salvage a forgettable episode.


Anonymous said...

"Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch" contains real holographic simulated Evil Lincoln, who single-handedly justifies FOX's entire existence (no mean feat).

I don't have any real problems with the Bender-centric episodes... They're not great or anything, but they're not actively objectionable. "Obsoletely Fabulous" has some great lines, especially the all-just-a-dream bit towards the end.

Agreed with the other three, though. I've never really thought about Futurama's low points before... most episodes have at least some redeeming features.


Andrew said...

Which was pretty much the point of the exercise: recognize the flaws in the things you love.

And I should say that everyone of these episodes can be watched with little trauma. The worst of them is only mediocre and contains a couple glorious lines.