Review: This Time Around, ‘Futurama’ May Have Come Back One Time Too Many
The history of pop culture is littered with sci-fi properties that — much like Frankenstein’s creature, an early anti-hero of the genre — had a second life after death. Star Trek, famously, was reborn into a film franchise and more than a dozen TV spin-offs. Firefly only lasted a single season but also got a film sequel. Netflix rescued Lucifer and Manifest from cancellations at Fox and NBC, respectively. Prime Video took over The Expanse after Syfy ditched it. But no single sci-fi show has gotten more chances than Futurama, the show that started at Fox; got revived as a series of straight-to-home video movies; then got revived again for 52 episodes at Comedy Central. Now, in its latest revival at Hulu, it’s the shadow of a shadow of a shadow of its former self that it quite literally is.
The last time Futurama ended was in 2013, with an episode called “Meanwhile.” Though this attempt was well-regarded — Scott Meslow at The Week placed it in the top 50 percent of Futurama series finales; Nerdstalgic ranked it the best overall — Jason Hughes at HuffPo commented that “the show may have finally run its course.” Once we knew, last year, that Futurama would be back yet again at Hulu, Screen Rant’s Owen Danoff noted how well “Meanwhile” serves as both an ending and a potential new beginning, which, sure: When you’re on your fourth run at a series finale, you’ve certainly had enough practice to get it right, and might as well assume yours won’t actually be the final finale. Hulu’s execubots didn’t try to fight their predecessors. This premiere picks up where Comedy Central’s left off. So once viewers have been assured that there is continuity between eras, the question becomes, why does this new season exist?
The practical reason is, of course, the show still does numbers. The four films came about because Futurama reruns were so popular on Adult Swim; the Comedy Central seasons were greenlit because, presumably, Futurama reruns also performed well there. As the streaming home of Futurama since 2017, Hulu could, and surely did, base the decision to revive the show yet again on granular data gleaned from its users, including that it was worth the expense of creating new episodes to keep them engaged instead of counting on them to keep watching and re-watching the 140 episodes that already exist instead of looking around for something new.
The first six episodes provided to critics attempt to make a case for the show’s revival on artistic grounds — or, if “artistic” sounds too highbrow, comedic ones. In its original run, the show spoofed timely targets (Starship Troopers, Titanic), and ones that would attract a broad swath of sci-fi fans (the original Star Trek series, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). In Season 11, Futurama has assembled a new list of satirical targets that will resonate with contemporary nerds.
The first episode is packed with jokes about its many iterations (“Did someone switch the universe off and on?” asks Lauren Tom’s Amy. Replies Hermes, voiced by Phil LaMarr: “It feels like we got rebooted!”) and gently roasts its new network. Fry (voice of Billy West) decides to try to watch every TV show ever made, which he thinks will be possible “with the world’s fourth most popular streaming service,” Fulu. Something goes wrong with the “still suit” Fry wears to supply and service all his physical needs, and his friends have to work with Fulu to hastily produce new episodes of his show of choice, All My Circuits, to spare Fry’s sanity. Once he’s back to normal, Fry testifies at a presidential summit on the dangers of streaming television, warning, “Don’t reboot a show if the quality isn’t going to be there.”
Futurama wouldn’t be Futurama if it wasn’t making self-deprecating jokes about its own ever-changing fortunes — “It’s a true honor to announce the triumphant return of Futurama one more time before we get canceled abruptly again” was co-creator Matt Groening’s comment in the press release about Hulu’s series pickup — but this episode otherwise shamelessly steals from its own archives. In the Season Two episode “When Aliens Attack,” the crew has to slap together a pivotal episode of Single Female Lawyer to pacify the residents of Omicron Persei 8, whose satellite signal was lost when Fry wandered into the wrong control room back in 1999. The next season, “That’s Lobstertainment” found Zoidberg (West again) tricking acting robot Calculon (Maurice LaMarche) into appearing in a shambolic movie production, as happens here with the urgent All My Circuits revival.
The sense that the show’s writers are cannibalizing themselves hangs over the season’s other explicitly topical episodes, too. In “Related To Items You’ve Viewed,” Planet Express is threatened by the monopolistic Momazon. This isn’t the first or even second time we’ve seen the crew face off against Momcorp — it’s happened in “Mother’s Day” (Season 2) and “Future Stock” (Season 4), to name just a couple. “How The West Was 1010001” follows the crew west to mine for bitcoin, grafting “new gold rush” gags onto Old West tropes, but we already saw the show’s take on a western in Season 4’s “Where The Buggalo Roam.”
Worse than the repetition is the fact that these episodes seem like they’re pulling their punches on very worthy satirical targets. In the Momazon episode, spying A.I. “assistants” network together to keep the warehouse — in which robots are forced to work 24 hours a day fulfilling orders — growing to (no spoilers) catastrophic, life-altering dimensions. But afterwards, everyone basically just shrugs and moves on. (“Everything will be exactly as bad as it’s ever been,” says Professor Farnsworth, also voiced by West.) And I guess 31st century bitcoin miners have solved the issue of its environmental impact, because it never comes up in the episode.
The less-topical episodes offer fan service. “Children of A Lesser Bog” checks back in on the tadpoles that Kif (LaMarche) and Amy left in a swamp on his home world in “Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch.” The parents were told the babies wouldn’t mature and crawl back out for 20 years, and wouldn’t you know it, “Knocked Up” aired in 2003. (Fans who know the original five seasons very well may be annoyed that Leela has forgotten she was the one who fertilized Kif and is, therefore, the babies’ biological mother.) There’s a lot of sincerity and heart in the episode’s portrayal of Amy being overwhelmed as a new mother, and her jealousy when it seems like the kids are bonding more closely with Leela. And if sincerity and heart are what you come to Futurama for, as opposed to hard laughs, this is the episode for you (and not for me). Again, no spoilers, but past antagonists return in “Parasites Regained” and “I Know What You Did Next Xmas.”
It’s understandable that these writers — some of whom have been working on Futurama since the 20th century — would reach back into its history to give fan-favorite characters another airing. But Season 11 is already a nostalgia play. It’s nice, in theory, to have more of a thing you like; in practice, the “more” might just be diminishing returns. Futurama’s original run was bold and weird, like nothing else on TV — not even like The Simpsons, with which it shares so much DNA. Hulu’s new episodes — so far, at least — feel like a distant echo of what made the first five seasons so special.