I may be showing my age, but I’m pretty excited for Disenchantment, the new Netflix series created by Matt Groening (with an assortment of writers, animators, and voice actors from his previous shows). I was around for the glorious peak years of both The Simpsons (1991 through 1997ish I guess, don’t @ me) and Futurama (late 1999 through 2003), so the promise of a new Groening TV show rates very high on my personal hopes/expectations chart. It’s also why I’m unfazed by mixed reviews of the early episodes, as both of those previous shows offer a template for how this show might develop. With any luck, we’ll get something like this: a formative early period, with some good jokes and sturdy-but-broad character templates, that develop into a sustained run of fantastic episodes/seasons and, eventually, a decline into a wildly uneven, somewhat legacy-damaging episodes that contain enough highlights to keep die-hards on the hook and enough clunkers to make the rest of the fanbase angry. And yes, you may have noticed that my wishlist included the mixed-bag later years of the shows that many fans would prefer hadn’t happened (are still happening, in the case of The Simpsons!), but that’s because even the worst seasons of Groening’s previous shows have contained episodes worth watching. There have been plenty of folks who have written up lists of which episodes to check out in post-peak Simpsons (some good picks here, though I don’t agree with all of their police work), but it seems like there’s been less attention paid to the highlights of the Futurama revival seasons, especially since the show’s Comedy Central run petered out five years ago.
Futurama debuted in 1999 in a world where a new Matt Groening show was expected to be an event, the big follow up to the insanely popular and consistently excellent The Simpsons, but its initial critical reception was actually not too dissimilar to Disenchantment‘s. Namely, the most positive attention was paid to the designs and animation, while the characters and writing got more mixed notices. Due to some wonky scheduling, the show didn’t retain the level of attention its premiere had received, but it developed a small but fervent fanbase as it quickly developed into a really special blend of biting comedy, loveable characters, and genuinely inventive and clever science fiction storytelling (for my money, Futurama actually hit the ground running faster than The Simpsons and was the show fans grew to love pretty much from the jump and sustained that through its entire original run). It ended its (often preempted by football) original run on Fox in 2003 after airing four production seasons. That might have been it for the show but, thanks to the passionate fanbase and committed creators, it earned a series revival in a time before such things were as common as they are now. It first returned in 2008 in a strange hybrid form, as a series of four direct-to-DVD movies that were explicitly designed with a structure that included act breaks that allowed them each to be divided into four episodes that could be aired on television, effectively creating a mini-season of sixteen episodes. The fourth DVD movie, Into the Wild Green Yonder, was followed by a proper revival on Comedy Central in 2010 that brought along the entire cast and many of the original creative team. They created two additional seasons of 26 episodes each that aired over four years. That means that the revival run, including the DVD movies, effectively doubled the number of episodes of the show. But between its first cancellation and its revival, it also picked up some bad habits that it didn’t have in the original run (some of which it shared with late-period Simpsons). The revival seasons tended to try and cram more story and sci-fi concepts into each episode, which made the pacing more frantic and left less time to exploit the comedic and storytelling potential of any individual idea. This was coupled with an upsetting of the balance the show’s comedy writing had managed during the Fox years, between an anything-for-a-joke approach and a rigor in its world-building that nerdier fans could appreciate (and was reminiscent of the grounding provided by the early years of The Simpsons). This found expression in a variety of ways, from the way casual dismemberments and character deaths increased in the revival to the way anachronisms crept into the show beyond Fry’s personal 80s & 90s frame of reference (Nixon is impressed by the existence of Tivo, Zapp Brannigan watches CSI: Miami). It became more of a strain to believe in the characters as people as the relationships they had developed during the series were treated cavalierly for the sake of finding new story ideas (Kif and Amy actually got married and then broke up for a single episode for the sake of a story where Amy and Bender fall in love and get married). Sure, even episodes that didn’t hang together as a satisfying experience could still feature a brilliant joke or delightful sci-fi concept or dazzling new visual idea. But the show lost a step in its revival and the ratio of good Futurama to bad Futurama got progressively worse as it continued. The show’s last cancellation was not met with anything approaching the fan outcry it had gotten before and, while it is certainly remembered fondly, its reputation seems to have cooled off in the last few years.
Still, if the arrival of Disenchantment has you looking back at Groening’s other shows, here’s a list of the absolute best, worthy of the pantheon, post-revival episodes of Futurama that absolutely deserve to get included when you do your big rewatch of the original series. Without further ado…
The 10 Best Revival Episodes of Futurama
Murder on the Planet Express (Season 7, Episode 24)
One of the last episodes produced, this riff on The Thing and Alien is very funny AND has an involving story, full of real twists and turns. The bones of the story are built around character relationships in a way that might surprise you with some emotional moments, but for the most part it’s just a fiendish little contraption that manages to even be genuinely unsettling.
All the Presidents’ Heads (Season 6, Episode 23)
Matt Groening and showrunner David X. Cohen have talked about their early decision that Futurama would not feature time travel stories. They resisted the urge until late in the third season of the original run, finally using it for the classic “Roswell That Ends Well.” They’d return to it a few times in the revival years to emotional effect, but this episode, using probably the strangest time travel mechanism I’ve ever seen, is played strictly for laughs. And the laughs are plentiful. And weird.
Lethal Inspection (Season 6, Episode 6)
The show made a number of attempts in the revival to pull off the mix of comedy and sneaky emotion they’d perfected with episodes like “They Why of Fry” or “Jurassic Bark.” The episodes focused on Fry were something of a mixed bag (“Cold Warriors” works, “Game of Tones” stumbles, and both suffer in comparison to those two earlier highlights) and the ones focused on Farnsworth and Zoidberg were relatively worthwhile, but the surprising highlight turned out to be this episode, focused on Bender and Hermes. It definitely follows the playbook of those earlier episodes, and to say more might dull some of its impact, but check this one out.
A Clockwork Origin (Season 6, Episode 9)
A very cool science fiction premise with room for all kinds of grace notes both silly (Dr. Banjo!) and cool (robot dinosaurs!). It doesn’t quite reach the profundity of something like “Godfellas,” but it is a satisfying little exercise. It also features the moment I’ve thought of more than any other from the show’s run in the last two years.
Fry and Leela’s Big Fling (Season 7, Episode 17)
A very welcome return to the Fry and Leela relationship after a long while ignoring the progress that had seemingly been made at various points during the original run and the DVD movies, this episode also features some very fun twists on some common sci-fi tropes, the return of a memorable guest character from the original run of the show (and the on-screen introduction of another we’d only heard about). Plus, more Dr. Banjo!
Reincarnation (Season 6, Episode 26)
The original run of the show had featured two extremely popular “Anthology of Interest” episodes. Basically Futurama‘s version of The Simpsons‘s “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, these shows used a framing device of characters asking the Professor’s “What If?” machine to show them scenarios where the normal rules of continuity and (relative) realism didn’t have to apply. The revival run never did an “Anthology of Interest,” but each season included two episodes that were clearly meant to serve the same purpose. These triptych episodes were of varying quality, but this one is not only the best of the bunch but a highlight of the series as a whole. The jokes are funny but, above all else, the varied animation styles used in the episode are delightful (and are utilized to create a fiendish running gag about the limitations of each of the styles used).
The Prisoner of Benda (Season 6, Episode 10)
Probably pound-for-pound the funniest and most intricate episode of the revival run, this is the episode that writer Ken Keeler actually wrote and proved a mathematical theorem for to solve a particular plot problem. It’s a body-swapping story that makes brilliant use of the entire ensemble and deserves a spot on any list of the best Futurama episodes full stop.
Bender’s Big Score (Season 5, Movie 1)
The Late Philip J. Fry (Season 6, Episode 7)
Meanwhile (Season 7, Episode 26)
Individually, these episodes are all worth seeing. Bender’s Big Score, the first of the DVD movies, may suffer slightly from the wonky structure that was enforced for the movies, but it also is positively brimming with the excitement everyone involved had to be returning to the show, using new technical tools, and telling stories in a longer format. The movies have a mixed reputation, and a case could certainly be made that Beast With a Billion Backs, the second of the films, is more ambitious and daring conceptually (while the time travel mechanics of Big Score might feel a little muddled). But when everything clicks into place at the end of the story, it satisfies in a way that none of the other films attempt. “The Late Philip J. Fry,” on the other hand, is fairly unanimously held to be the crown jewel of the revival seasons and something of a Top Ten of All Time episode. Another time travel episode, this one manages to tell a touching emotional story about Fry and Leela at the same time that it tells truly bonkers and hilarious story. It’s Futurama firing on all cylinders. And as the fourth time that Ken Keeler wrote a series finale for Futurama, “Meanwhile” still finds new ways to be funny (and gory) with these characters one last time before a beautiful and moving final act.
SPOILERS! SERIOUSLY, GO WATCH THESE EPISODES BEFORE I SPOIL THEIR TWISTS AND ENDINGS
This trio of stories, spanning the entire range of the revival and highlights all, are also linked by the way they use the passage of time to examine the relationship between Fry and Leela. In Bender’s Big Score, Fry is stranded in the past, where he resumes the life he left when he was frozen. He spends time with his family and his dog, and it’s lovely and moving, but it isn’t complete. Even as the years pass and his crows feet get deeper, he longs for Leela, finally crossing the millenia to find her again. Then, in “The Late Philip J. Fry,” it is Leela who spends a lifetime alone (after Fry goes hurtling through time on the Professor’s one-way time machine). Naturally, she leads Planet Express to great success and has a seemingly good life, but she also never stops missing Fry, leaving a love note for Fry on a cave wall that he discovers many thousands of years later. After watching each of the two lovers live out a whole life without the other and seeing the whole left by the absence, it was all the sweeter to get to the second half of “Meanwhile,” where we get to see the two of them live out a whole lifetime together. While there are doubtless many other stories to be told about these characters and that world, there’s something lovely and romantic that the final word on that relationship for now is their agreement, after all of those lifetimes, to “go around again.”