Futurama celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. As one of the smartest, funniest, and most well-written series, and not just within animation ever produced, Matt Groening’s follow-up to The SImpsons had a major impact on my life as well as many others. The episodes could vary in tone, often transitioning from absurdism to heartfelt stories, but they all had heart and made you emotionally invested in the characters and their world. Futurama is an example on how to elevate animation, at once considered just for children, on the same level as dramatic programs that are considered high television art.
For those not in the know about Futurama, it follows the misadventures of a delivery boy name Phillip Fry, often joined by his close friend Bender the robot and his girlfriend Leela, a one-eyed mutant. On New Years Eve in 1999, Fry’s girlfriend leaves him for a richer, more handsome guy and he is left to continue his lame pizza delivery job alone as the world celebrated the coming of the new millennium. When Fry delivers a pizza to a cryogenic lab called in by a prankster, he accidentally finds himself frozen for a thousand years. On New Years Eve in 2999, Fry adjusts to this new world filled with robots, aliens, and all kinds of crazy stuff. Eventually, he is hired a very distant nephew, the elderly scientist Dr. Farnsworth, and the series then progresses chronicling Fry’s adventures in future and struggles that come with leaving everything you once knew behind.
Despite being a stellar program, Futurama did not receive adequate support from the executives at Fox. Initially, the show ran at 8:30 PM on Sunday after The Simpsons. The show would then shift in the programming block before ultimately residing at 7 PM where it was often delayed because of football games. This led to an erratic schedule that impacted viewership. Fox never officially cancelled the show, but ceased production of it prior to the 2003 fall primetime schedule.
In 2008, four straight-to-DVD films were released. Eventually, the films were edited into four episodes each, resulting in a 16-episode fifth season for the show’s later syndication. These DVDs were designed to continue the story of Futurama as it navigated the changing television landscape, at a time when streaming media was in its infancy but would soon disrupt traditional television viewership.
However, there was also an unintended result of the success of these DVDs. It proved that Futurama still had a fanbase that could translate into profitable viewership. And, in 2009, Comedy Central picked the series up. From 2010 through 2010, Comedy Central produced and aired the sixth and, ultimately final, seventh season of the series as well as syndicated episodes from the days when Fox owned it.
Comedy Central would ultimately cancel the show and with enough time to create an official series ending, after three previous false series finales. However, the series ended with the possibility that it could return in the future. And since the airing of that final episode in 2013, Futurama has existed in other forms including comic books, video games, and even a podcast serial. However, none of those match the tone, humor, and personal appeal of the television series.
There is so much to love about Futurama. Its brilliance comes from its heart, emotion, and relatability. Even though this a bizarre world set a thousand years in the future, the audience sees themselves in the stories alongside the characters. Very few shows have allowed me to experience a whole range of emotions. I laughed, and I have cried. And to allow you to feel a range of complex feelings and leave you feeling better as a result, that is something so precious and difficult to achieve.
One of the cooler aspects of Futurama is the show’s use of music. It is a really smart, pop culture savvy show. Often, famous songs are parodied to reflect a particular situation, or even a musician will guest star and perform something new for the show. However, some of the best moments come from using existing songs to drive the narrative of a particular scene.
Scott Walker passed away a few weeks ago. A brilliant singer-songwriter, Walker’s “30th Century Man” was covered by The Jigsaw Seen for “Bender’s Big Score,” the first of the four DVDs released after Fox ceased production of the show. The plot involves aliens stealing precious artifacts in Earth’s past and ultimately results in a somewhat chaotic and hectic time-travelling story. While Walker’s original is far superior, it is the cover from The Jigsaw Seen’s 2002 studio album Songs Mama Used to Sing that made it in the episode and heightened the emotional heft of the story. Because Fry, though unwittingly, is a 30 century man.
I don’t watch much television, but I feel compelled to pick up Futurama again this year and really take my time with the series. Catch the entire series a little bit here and there. I know I’ll be just as amazed as I was when I saw it the first time 20 years ago.