Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 14, 2003)
Unlike The Simpsons, Futurama garnered its own identity pretty quickly. The series didn’t experience too many growing pains, as it seemed fairly accomplished during its initial season.
Not that room to grow didn’t exist. I enjoyed most of the shows for the series’ first set of DVDs, but they weren’t quite as good as I recalled. Will things look up during Volume 2? Let’s see! I’ll examine each of these programs in the way presented on the DVDs, which also corresponds to their production numbers but not airdates. The synopses come from an excellent site called “Can't Get Enough Futurama“ (http://www.gotfuturama.com/Information/EpisodeGuide/Season2) - thanks to them for their permission to use the recaps.
I Second That Emotion (aired 11/21/99): Professor Farnsworth (Billy West) installs an empathy chip in Bender (John Di Maggio), forcing him to feel human emotion. After Bender flushes Nibbler -- Leela's (Katey Sagal) beloved pet -- down the toilet, while showing no sign of remorse, the insensitive robot is programmed to receive Leela's emotional frequency. Overcome by sadness, Bender sets out on a mission to find Nibbler and save him from the dangerous depths of the sewers, where mysterious inhabitants lurk.
“Emotion” launches Volume 2 with a serious bang. What a great episode! I admit I felt a little disappointed at times as I watched Volume 1; the shows mostly seemed good, but they didn’t impress me as much as I anticipated.
Will the rest of Volume 2 live up to my prior expectations? That remains to be seen, but “Emotion” offers a genuinely great episode. The story itself seems clever and lively, and the show’s chock full of great lines and moments. Some nutty but hilarious stuff pops up, like when Fry blurts, “Bender, where’s my sombrero?” out of nowhere. (It’s funnier if you actually see the show.) “Emotion” is a real blast.
Brannigan, Begin Again (aired 11/28/99): Womanizing Starship Captain Zapp Brannigan (West) is court-martialed after he accidentally blows up the DOOP (Democratic Order of Planets) Headquarters and is stripped of his rank. When Professor Farnsworth shows pity and hires the down-and-out Brannigan as the newest member of his crew, Zapp leads a mutiny to overthrow Leela.
While a good program as a whole, “Begin” falls short of the greatness seen in “Emotion”. Part of the problem stems from the focus on Zapp. I must admit I’m not much of a fan of the egotistical captain, and his fairly one-note presence makes this show a little spotty at times. Still, it provides elements like a fun Midnight Cowboy spoof, and it generally works well.
A Head In the Polls (aired 12/12/99): It's nearing Election Day on Earth and citizens are given a choice between two clones: John Jackson and Jack Johnson (DiMaggio and DiMaggio). When a mine disaster traps 200 robots and the universe's supply of Titanium, the necessary ingredient to manufacture robots, the precious element increases astronomically in value. Bender sells his body to a pawnshop when the value of titanium soars. While Bender's head hangs out with Claudia Schiffer's at the "Hall of Heads", Richard Nixon's head (West) joins the race for President of the World using Bender's body.
You gotta like a show that features the head of Nixon attached to Bender’s body and then has him dance the jig. Otherwise, “Polls” seems good but not great. After “Emotion”, it seems a little soon to focus so strongly on Bender and his selfish nature, so “Polls” suffers slightly because of that. The program tosses out some good gags but doesn’t seem like a genuinely stellar episode.
Xmas Story (aired 12/19/99): Fry (West) learns just how much Christmas has changed in the year 3000. Santa Claus is now an eight-foot robot who terrorizes people foolish enough to be out on the streets on Christmas Eve.
While some of the holiday episodes of The Simpsons could become a little sappy, happily “Xmas” mostly avoids those traps. It finds Fry in the Xmas spirit, but Bender remains as selfish as always, and any shows with a murderous robotic Santa can’t turn too sentimental. I’d like this show for nothing other than the declaration of “trees down” on the ski slopes (another bit that’s not funny unless you hear it), but “Xmas” gives us a lot more than that.
Guest star alert: most of the time, Futurama features cameos from folks who play themselves as disembodied heads. “Xmas” goes that route as well with a spot from Conan O’Brien. However, it also offers Volume 2’s first appearance from an actor who doesn’t just play himself. Here we get John Goodman as the psychotic robot Santa.
Why Must I Be a Crustacean In Love? (aired 2/6/00): Dr. Zoidberg (West again!) undergoes some dramatic changes when his species enters its mating season. But, when the crew travels to his home planet, the doctor discovers he needs to learn a great deal about love and women.
As a character, Zoidberg always sounded better on paper than on the show. “Crustacean” doesn’t overcome the limitations of his personality, but it gives us a pretty funny exploration of dating rituals. Nothing tremendously original pops up from the show’s insights, though their transformation to Zoidberg’s wacky world makes them more interesting. “Crustacean” provides a moderately entertaining episode.
The Lesser of Two Evils (aired 2/20/00): The Professor hires Flexo -- a new robot who, despite a goatee, is an exact duplicate of Bender -- as extra security when the crew is asked to take a valuable jeweled tiara to the Miss Universe Contest. When the tiara turns up missing, Fry suspects Flexo and starts a cat-and-mouse chase throughout the pageant with Bob Barker guest starring as himself.
If one Bender’s good, then two should be great, right? Well, maybe not great, but as depicted in “Evils”, the second Bender offers some fun. A loose parody of a Star Trek episode called “Mirror, Mirror”, “Evils” treads some territory already explored during Season Two of South Park, but it doesn’t really rehash all that much. A fun cameo from Bob Barker helps make this a fun program.
Put Your Head On My Shoulder (aired 2/13/00): Fry finds his flirtation with Amy (Lauren Tom) heating up, until Amy becomes too serious about the relationship. Fry attempts to break things off just before Valentine's Day, but he's interrupted when the car he, Amy and Dr Zoidberg are in crashes. As a result, Fry's head becomes separated from the rest of his body. But thanks to Dr. Zoidberg's quick thinking, Fry's life is saved when his head is grafted onto Amy's body, forcing them to spend Valentine's Day together whether they want to or not.
Some of this show’s humor seems predictable, especially as it explores dating conventions. Nonetheless, it offers a lot of good gags, particularly when Bender explores ways to capitalize on human desires. It gets a little sappy at the end, but it remains an amusing program.
Raging Bender (aired 2/27/00): When Bender goes to the movies, he ends up wrestling around to get a better view. While brawling, he gets discovered and signs on as the featured attraction in the brutal Ultimate Robot Fighting League -- with some knock-out results.
Though “Raging” has its moments, too much of the time it feels like it covers old territory. Pro wrestling is such a self-parody that it seems almost pointless to make fun of it here. A few funny moments pop up, but “Raging” falls a little flat as a whole.
A Bicyclops Built For Two (aired 3/19/00): When Leela discovers that she is not the last cyclops in the Universe, she makes plans to meet with Alkazar (Dave Herman), a male cyclops who tells Leela how she became the last female of their race. When Leela accepts Alkazar's marriage proposal, Fry tries to convince her that Alkazar is all wrong for her and Fry and Bender set out to gather evidence before Leela walks down the aisle.
Unlike something such as Friends, Futurama never really maintained any overriding soap opera elements. However, Leela’s quest to discover her heritage provided some occasional moves in that direction, and that makes “Two” a little more substantial than most episodes. I don’t regard that as a real positive, though. For live-action series, some character depth is good, but it’s not particularly useful for this kind of show. Despite a fun poke at Katey Segal’s televised past on Married With Children, “Two” provides an abnormally low level of humor and feels like a below average program.
A Clone of My Own (aired 4/9/00): While at his 150th birthday surprise party, Professor Farnsworth is surprised by his age and that it's time for retirement. Questioning his accomplishments and seeking more in life, he revives his clone, Cubert (Kath Soucie), a 12-year-old boy. But the forlorn Farnsworth realizes that Cubert is just another failed experiment, and decides to accept his fate.
After the somewhat sentimental “Two”, we don’t need another moderately sappy episode. Unfortunately, “Clone” falls into that category. As the Professor deals with his life’s failures, we get a couple of good gags – especially when we discover Farnsworth’s first big invention – but “Clone” seems too dull and drippy to actively maintain our attention.
How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back (aired 4/2/00): Hermes (Phil LaMarr), the bureaucrat assigned to the Planet Express, is on the fast track to promotion until he starts to crack under pressure and is sent away in vacation. In his place, Morgan Proctor (Nora Dunn), an attractive woman and orderly bureaucrat arrives and immediately becomes romantically entangled with Fry. When Bender discovers their secret and threatens to tell their co-workers, Morgan panics and disables his memory disk.
You gotta love a show that references a source as obscure as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Despite its title, “Groove” doesn’t focus all that much on Hermes; the subplot with Fry and the new bureaucrat takes precedence. The way “Groove” mocks bureaucracy doesn’t seem as rich as in Gilliam’s opus, but it adds a nice level of humor to this very good episode.
The Deep South (aired 4/16/00): A day off from work, the crew aboard the Planet Express Spaceship goes fishing. When Bender fashions a gigantic hook catching a gigantic fish, he causes the ship to sink. Once submerged, the crew finds an ancient sunken city inhabited by mermaids and mermen. Fry is the first to contact them - and one of them in a romantic way.
“South” takes a while to get where it wants to go, and even when it arrives, it doesn’t seem terribly satisfying. The show tosses out some decent laughs, but the lack of a good theme and plot weaken it. A surprisingly weak guest vocal appearance from Parker Posey doesn’t help. When compared to this set’s other programs, “South” seems like a moderate disappointment.
Bender Gets Made (aired 4/30/00): When Bender cannot pay the bill after an extremely expensive meal, he offers to work it off in the kitchen. While he's working he is introduced to the secret robot mafia who cooks up a plan for Bender to participate in a Zuban Cigar heist. Bender is dished a deal that hits closer to home.
Mafia spoofs aren’t exactly original, and Futurama has gone down this “robot take on human customs” path in the past; for example, Season One’s “Hell Is Other Robots” depicted android religion. Despite the potential for clichés, “Bender” remains a funny show. It tends toward some easy jokes, but at least they’re good ones.
Mother’s Day (aired 5/14/00): It's Mother's Day in the year 3000 and the robots celebrate the occasion by lavishing presents on Mom (Tress MacNeille), who happens to be the beloved founder of Mom's Friendly Robot Company. When Mom enlists the robots in a revolution to take over the world and make her Queen for Mother's Day, she instructs the robots to turn against their human masters. Realizing that Mom seeks world domination, Professor Farnsworth's seductive moves are made to save the humans.
Though a little less predictable than the prior show, “Day” also seems less entertaining. Mom remains something of a one-joke character, and this show doesn’t expand her personality much. The robot-oriented scenes offer some fun, but “Day” feels average as a whole.
The Problem With Popplers (aired 5/7/00): When the Planet Express crew lands on a previously undiscovered plant, they find that it is covered in a new and delicious animal life form which they call "popplers". These edible and highly addictive "popplers" soon become a new business venture for the crew as Earthlings just can't seem to get enough of these delicacies. The dreaded Omnicrons reveal just what these "popplers" actually are, and seek restitution for Earth's "poppler" consumption.
Popplers starts with a clever concept and consummates in a pretty fun episode. It occasionally sags, but it mostly mines the material for some good comedy. “Popplers” doesn’t land among the series’ absolute best shows, but it’s a solid one.
Anthology of Interest I (aired 5/21/00): When Professor Farnsworth invents a "what if" machine, each member of the gang poses a question to this new machine to receive video-simulated answer. What if Bender was 500 feet tall, Leela was more impulsive and Fry never woke up in Y3K? In three separate stories, Bender, Leela and Fry each find out what would happen if their lives were different, and Vice President Al Gore, physicist Stephen Hawking and actress Nichelle Nichols join forces to help Fry.
The Simpsons have the Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” series to develop fantasy premises, and “Anthology” feels like a rip-off of that premise. The gags are hit and miss, with most of them falling in the latter category. As with virtually every episode in this set, the show offers a few funny scenes, but “Anthology” fails to live up to expectations. At least Al Gore establishes that he could pursue a career as a voiceover artist; his performance here seems surprisingly impressive.
War Is the H-Word (aired 11/26/00): Bender and Fry volunteer for military duty to enjoy the benefits of the soldiers' discount. When war breaks out later that same day, Leela too decides to join the all-male ranks, under the guise of Lee Lemon, and creates quite a stir for her leader, Zapp Brannigan.
“H-Word” sends our characters to battle under the flimsiest of premises, which is kind of cool. Generally a parody of Starship Troopers and M*A*S*H, “H-Word” hits some moderately obvious marks. It still musters up more than a few good gags and remains pretty amusing.
The Honking (aired 11/5/00): The intergalactic adventures begin with the third season premiere episode when Bender's uncle, The Archduke of Thermostadt, dies. He leaves his gothic castle to Bender... on one condition -- Bender must spend a full night there. In an homage to classic horror movies, Bender becomes cursed and transforms every night, threatening the entire Planet Express gang.
Disc Four finds this set in a minor slump. As with the wrestling episode, this one mostly takes elements and parodies them in a robot setting. On its own, that doesn’t translate into humor, and much of “Honking” feels like easy material. The show comes across as mediocre Futurama.
The Cryonic Woman (aired 12/3/00): When Leela accidentally leaves the keys in the ignition of the Planet Express, Fry and Bender decide that it's the perfect opportunity to go joy riding. This decision unfortunately costs the entire crew their jobs -- and Fry and Bender lay blame on Leela. She decides to return to her former job at the cryonic lab, but before doing so accidentally implants her job chip into Fry and his chip into her. Now Fry is in charge of assigning jobs to the recently thawed and Leela is one of the best-looking pizza delivery girls in New New York. Fry's first assignment on the job brings him a big surprise -- he unthaws Michelle (Sarah Silverman), his former girlfriend from 1999, who voluntarily froze herself after Fry's disappearance.
The set ends with another decent but unspectacular episode. “Cryonic” features a rare guest spot from someone who doesn’t play himself or herself, and it does rebound somewhat from the lackluster “Honking”. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem like anything great, as it musters some laughs but not a ton.
Though this final set of episodes demonstrated a moderate drop-off in quality, overall I thought Futurama Volume 2 provided an improvement over Volume 1. This batch offers some genuinely terrific programs, and even the weakest ones give us occasional bouts of hilarity. Every one got me to laugh out loud at least once, and most of them provoked that emotion repeatedly. Overall, I felt pretty pleased with Volume 2.