Let me preface this article by stating two things: first of all, I am going to be discussing something which I see as a worrisome problem with recent Futurama episodes, related to my spin of the above picture which hilariously kicked off The Bots and the Bees, the first episode of Futurama‘s season 7 on Wednesday, June 20th – and second of all, this is coming from a major Futurama fan and current host of the You Guessed It! You Can’t Unguess It! Futurama Trivia night at the Gladstone Hotel, so it should be viewed as constructive criticism. Also, it helps if you’ve seen The Matrix trilogy.
The opening gag above is clever because the Futurama creators are net-savvy enough to pick up on their own memes, this one following the dialogue, “Not sure if ____________ or _____________” while showing Fry squinting in confusion. It also raises the idea of Futurama episodes blending together and the extent to which one must go for this to possibly occur to your average viewer (aka, a bender). In my opinion, Futurama has been falling into an old Hollywood trap that has afflicted many franchises over the years – one that has to do with creating new episodes based off, or in an attempt to differentiate from, old episodes. In other words: how writers incorporate their show’s canon into creating the latest season.
When creating a new season or movie sequel, show runners ask what do people want? and even more often what did people like? A show wants to know what kept it on the air. A movie wants to know what to put in the sequel so their box office results merit a third installment. But here’s the kicker: this is really dangerous. If it is too similar, fans get bored. If it is too different, fans get irritated. But unfortunately for Hollywood, making it just like what everyone wants the most is also doomed to get you in a different, more confusing kind of trouble.
Futurama has a spectacular writing staff that does a great job of incorporating many things into a single episode. Firstly, there is the general story of an episode, no small feat in and of itself, but standard fare for a Hollywood writer. Secondly, there is the incorporation of jokes throughout at rapid-speed. Thirdly, each episode must/should, as much as possible, include science fiction concepts and genre-bending satire. Finally, writers must ensure that some episodes show story arc and progression across a season or show. In the case of Futurama this is done principally in Fry and Leela’s relationship (or lack thereof) which has always been the beating heart of the show. In season six Fry and Leela’s relationship skipped into a dating phase of burgeoning awkwardness from the “I’ve got a baggy full of massage oil” phase of abject rejection.
Considering this: these writers often know best how to proceed,but they are also swayed by the public or by their own consideration of the opinion of the public. Why write episodes similar to That’s Lobstertainment! or The Cryonic Woman when you could write episodes similar to Parasites Lost or Amazon Women in the Mood? (these episodes represent the general opinion of worst/best among many Futurama faithful; I do not necessarily agree.) In other words, why write a storyline that has been shown to disappoint audiences? You should write storylines akin to the successful episodes. This is a completely natural thought process. Mirror success for greater than or equal success.
Now, anyone who dislikes the Matrix sequels can see the problem, because to them the Wachowskis fell right into it. People don’t even really know what they liked. It’s hard for fans to identify. Making Matrix: Reloaded you can imagine the board room of executives with a list of ‘things people liked from the first one’ including: CGI effects, action, PVC, Lawrence Fishburne, and philosophy. Indeed, those were many of the high points of the first movie. Noticeably absent are story development, pacing and motivation, and this is telling because they are likely what that same audience who loved Matrix for the merits listed above took issue with in Reloaded where such elements were missing. The audience did not recognize the real reasons they enjoyed the first movie. You cannot simply take the parts that make the biggest splash, use them exclusively and expect results. Too much of “what people liked best” suffers the same fate as a popular song played ad nauseum on the radio until everyone hates it.
This is Futurama with its emotional episodes. There, I said it. Both of Wednesday’s season seven premiere episodes finished on swells of sap, with numerous episodes from season six also having followed this formula. They are based off the success of Luck of the Fryrish and Jurassic Bark, episodes from season 3 and 4 of the show that were exceptional in their execution. They did the impossible: cartoon + humour + a conclusion that could move you to tears. Fresh. Unique. Brilliant.
But now it happens too often to have the same effect. The Bots and the Bees ended by trying to tug those same heart strings, as did episode 702 A Farewell to Arms, but both would have been better served to just make us laugh. From the show’s perspective both endings make sense: the fanbase loved our emotional episodes so let’s make more of them. But like with the Matrix movies, there was an underlying reason why those worked: they were rare and the product of everything else Futurama had built itself up to be. They were unexpected and new. The viewer needed all those other episodes where Fry was an idiot to care about him enough to tear-up when he loses his old dog again. The viewer needed the episodes that were purely jokes to appreciate the impact of Fry’s graveyard epiphany: that his brother loved him all along. Creating more and more emotional episodes because they elicited joy from the fan base back then is like making hundreds of CGI Agent Smiths because people liked Hugo Weaving – but unfortunately it does not work a second time because of the ephemeral intangibles that were in place before. What is more, it shows an unfortunate contentedness not to branch out like those early episodes did into uncharted waters and find a completely new level at which to appeal to their audience.
Futurama assumes the audience knows best, but the more episodes that are created gunning for my tear ducts, the less episodes there are gunning for my funny bone, and this is critical to self-preservation of a show entering its seventh season because beneath it all Futurama is still a comedy. It is time to return to what can never be overdone and already has every Futurama fan’s support – funny adventures – and once more let the show surprise us when we least expect it.