It saddened me deeply when Fox cancelled Futurama. It made me incredibly happy when Cartoon Network started showing reruns, but then it saddened me deeply when I realized I don’t have cable. But then it made me incredibly happy when Fox released Futurama on DVD.
On December 31st, 1999, the world waited with bated breath (which smells like cabbage, or so I’ve heard) to see if we’d all be able to wake up for January 1st, 2000. Fortunately, not very much happened, other than a few hangovers and the occasional unplanned pregnancy.
That is, that’s what happened for most of the world. For one Phillip J. Fry of New York City, December 31st, 1999 found him working the only job the universe felt fit to give him — delivering pizza. With midnight fast approaching, he delivered a pizza to an abandoned cryogenics lab, only to discover that it was a crank call. Despondent, he sat down to eat the pizza and imbibe the beers meant for one “I.C. Weiner.” At the stroke of midnight, he managed to topple over in his chair and land in a fully functional (not to mention, apparently fully self-contained) cryogenics tube, which sealed his fate for 1000 years.
On December 31st, 2999, Fry awoke to a very different world. His family, his friends, his girlfriend, they were all gone…and he couldn’t have been happier. The universe had given him a fresh start, even if it still thought he was destined to be a delivery boy. Earth was a decidedly different place. There were one-eyed mutants…err, I mean, aliens (I forgot, this is still just the first season), flying cars, talking alcoholic robots, and rockets that could fly to the moon in less time than it took 20th century astronauts to count from ten to one. Fry liked this world very much.
The Simpsons is a great show, don’t get me wrong. It has served us well for many years, if by “us” you mean the fun-loving and mirthful among us who bask in its satiric wit on a weekly — nay, nightly, if you count the incessant syndicated reruns — basis. Matt Groening’s flagship show is the third-longest running comedy in the history of television, animated or otherwise. (It falls behind Saturday Night Live, which can only be killed by sunlight, beheading, or a stake through the heart, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and I’m sure there’s a moral there somewhere.) It revels in both the absurd and the mundane, skewering every part of American suburban life. It’s endlessly amusing and eminently quotable. But on March 28th, 1999, when Futurama first aired, a great deal of my love for The Simpsons transferred to Groening’s latest work.
Futurama never really caught on the way I thought it should. The reasons are more or less self-evident. One, the Fox network never really believed in the show. They premiered it after The Simpsons on a Sunday night, moved it to Tuesdays, then later moved it back to Sunday nights but stuck it in the 7:00-8:00 hour against CBS’s behemoth 60 Minutes, which while that didn’t necessarily mean that its primary demographic was off watching Morley Safer’s hair not move, it did mean that it was going to appear to perform poorly in the Nielsen ratings, which is all advertisers and network suits care about. Two, it has a decidedly geeky tone to its humor, which I’ll talk about more in a minute. Three, it was too smart for the average audience, which ties into number two, and like I said, I’ll get to that in a minute. Four…well, there doesn’t really need to be a four here. Those two were enough to sound its death knell. Sure, you can still catch new episodes, if you’re paying attention. Fox still doesn’t promote the show very highly, preferring instead to trumpet its latest forays in lowering America’s standards for television quality (though I gotta admit, Oliver Beene is pretty funny). While new episodes are no longer in production, there’s nearly an entire season of the show sitting in the Fox vaults waiting to be broadcast, and I’m sure they’ll show three or four episodes a year until they’re used up.
You really have to wonder how a show with humor this esoteric, this geeky, made it to the air at all. I suppose Futurama was hitting the air around the time the Internet exploded into the public consciousness. This was 1999, the heyday for the dot-com IPO, the days when those l33t enough to know 20-year-old programming languages were going to save us from the dreaded Y2K meltdown. I’m a geek by trade (technical manager of an ISP, plus I do things like DVD Verdict just for fun), and it adds a level of enjoyment for me to get jokes like “Olde Fortran” beer, or Gary Gygax being part of a group of super-nerds who save the world (but that was from season two, not this set), or robots who pray in binary, or the Temple of Robotology’s Ten Commandments:
20 goto hell
(For you non-geeks, Fortran is an “ancient” programming language, Gary Gygax created the Dungeons and Dragons game, all computers “speak” in a language made up of zeros and ones referred to a binary, and those commandments are an example of the Basic programming language, and will seem familiar to anyone who ever used a Commodore 64 beyond LOAD “*,”8,1. But I digress.)
The thirteen episodes you get in this DVD set represent the first production season of Futurama. I say “production” season because four of the episodes didn’t air until the second broadcast season. There’s very little thematic cohesion, but what do you expect from an animated series? The first episode, “Space Pilot 3000,” is perhaps the weakest of the lot, but I don’t expect much else from a pilot since it has to introduce the concept of the show (delivery boy sleeps 1000 years, wakes up in future) and the major characters (though we don’t get most of them until the second episode), all in one short half-hour. The second episode, “The Series Has Landed,” doesn’t fare much better. It tries very hard to demonstrate that the future is just like the present, only in space. Things start heating up with the third and four episodes, “I, Roommate” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost in Space.” The former involves Fry and Bender, the alcoholic robot, becoming roommates. It actually manages to make an Odd Couple joke funny long after Odd Couple jokes became inert and lifeless, and its denouement is priceless — after trying to find an apartment the two can share, they end up back in Bender’s three-foot square closet-sized apartment, only to find out that his “closet” is the size of a prized Soho loft. “Love’s Labor’s Lost in Space” introduces the series’ most annoying recurring character, the “hunky” starship captain Zap Brannigan. If you can imagine every cliché of hunky space captains — Flash Gordon, James Kirk, Han Solo, Buck Rogers — all rolled into one, that would be Zap Brannigan. What makes him even more priceless is his alien “sidekick,” Kif, who puts up with more from this pompous oaf than one could deem imaginable.
Those episodes comprise the first disc of the set. Disc two contains five episodes: “Fear of a Bot Planet,” “A Fishful of Dollars,” “My Three Suns,” “A Big Piece of Garbage,” and “Hell is Other Robots.” “Fear of a Bot Planet” harkens back to episodes from the original Star Trek series where the crew must contend with a planet that’s inhabited by one particular idiom of people. In this case, the people are robots who hate humans. It’s perhaps one of the funniest episodes of the set, full of gags that I could never possibly make sound as funny as they are (“Do you realize that you’re leaking coolant at an alarming rate?”). “A Fishful of Dollars” introduces Mom, the harsh matriarch industrialist. It manages to skewer 20th/21st century technology, have a nearly environmental message, and utilize nearly the best celebrity cameo of the season (though not to the dizzying heights of the Gore/Nichols/Gygax triad of season two), all in one potent episode. All you other brothers can’t deny it points for incorporating “Baby Got Back.” “My Three Suns” is a fairly unmemorable episode having to do with Fry drinking the Emperor of a planet. “A Big Piece of Garbage” is a delightful send-up of Armageddon, which gets bonus points for shamelessly name-dropping AOL in an unflattering way, although its best moment is when small pieces of garbage wreak havoc in New New York, not unlike the mini-asteroids in Armageddon. There’s nothing quite like seeing a hamburger destroy half a building. “Hell is Other Robots” is a great send-up of religion in general, and features an unforgettable trip through Robot Hell, which is of course located in New Jersey. Dan Castellaneta, best known as the voice of Homer Simpson, provides the voice for the Robot Devil.
Onward to disc three! “A Flight to Remember” features the return of Zap Brannigan, now the captain of the universe’s best space cruiser, the Titanic. Stop me if you know where this is going. “Mars University” is also a bit forgettable, though you can almost never go wrong with super-intelligent monkeys. Never. “When Aliens Attack” introduces perhaps the greatest aliens of the series, the delightful creatures from Omicron Persei 8. They’re hooked on an Earth television series from the 20th century (they live 1000 lightyears away, see, so they’re only just now watching it, but naturally it goes unexplained how they reach Earth in only a couple days) called “Single Female Lawyer.” Fry had interrupted the broadcast of its final episode in the 20th century, and the aliens invade Earth to find out how the series ended. Hilarity ensues. The final episode, “Fry and The Slurm Factory,” is mostly a parody of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and it reaches moments of sheer sublimity with its phat parodying skills. Word.
Fox gives Futurama fans a DVD package as satisfying as the last can of anchovies on Earth. The three discs arrive in slim profile keep cases nestled inside a cardboard sleeve — nice touch, and much more durable than the cardboard/plastic flip-out packaging of Fox’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Simpsons sets. The episodes are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. The image is sharp and clear, with no visible digital or print defects. Colors are bright and vibrant, befitting a Groening animated series. This is definitely better than the image I get from analog cable, though you rich schmoes with digital satellite or cable service may be unimpressed. Fox eschewed the 5.1 remixes given to The Simpsons; instead, you get the original broadcast 2.0 surround mixes, and they are perfectly fine. For a 2.0 mix, it sounds rich and full, using the rear channel from time to time and sounding as clean as the Manhattan streets of the 31st century.
And what of the extras? How about commentaries on all 13 episodes? The participants vary from episode to episode, and feature Matt Groening, co-creator David X. Cohen, John Di Maggio (the voice of Bender et al), Billy West (the voice of Fry et al) assorted writers, and more. You get a mix of production details and jokes, and the tracks are uniformly fun to listen to. Other features include a handful of deleted scenes, a featurette on the show’s production, and art galleries. Like most TV show packages, the extras are light, but at least they’re tasty.
You get 13 episodes of a hilarious show and great production values…what more do you want? The eps pre-ripped in DivX format suitable for sharing on Kazaa? Get out of my courtroom!