The world of touring music offers a balance between artists on the road promoting new material and legacy artists, still packing venues by playing from a much-loved catalog. I doubt any act craves the “legacy artist” tag, but that doesn’t mean that legacy artists aren’t out there making good music. They simply know what the fans want and supply it.
The first six episodes of the new Futurama season find the adored animated comedy in “legacy artist” form. And who can blame it for that? If ever a show owed its core audience some measure of fan service, it would be a series that was canceled by Fox in 2003, only to be resurrected first in a set of feature-length installments and then for a regular Comedy Central run that concluded in 2013.
The Bottom Line
An acceptably amusing return.
But even then, dead didn’t actually mean “dead” and clamoring from devotees led to Hulu reviving the series once again. And would Hulu have actually made new episodes without the full roster of vocal talent? Probably not, but deafening online outrage at stalled contract talks probably played at least a small role in making sure that all the stars were brought back into the fold for this latest revival.
So if there’s a “We’re here to play the hits!” feeling to the start of this Futurama season, it doesn’t make the episodes bad, nor does it mean that later episodes — Hulu has ordered 20 so far — won’t eventually carve out fresh terrain. It just shows respectful awareness that without the fans, the series would have been in mothballs for 20 years. If repayment for that enthusiasm is a healthy dose of pandering, where’s the harm?
It’s a minor impediment to the return of Futurama that, intentionally or not, the Comedy Central run wrapped with a very strong episode. Fry (Billy West) and Leela (Katey Sagal) got to experience a lifetime of solitary marital bliss thanks to a defective time-altering button and then, when the Professor (West, again) fixed the button, they were able to go back and live their lives again, surrounded by the people they loved. It wasn’t the funniest Futurama episode — though variations on a time loop causing Fry to get repeatedly squished into goo were pretty great — but it was very sweet and romantic and it underlined many of the points the show had made repeatedly about the possibilities of and limitations to time travel. Emotionally, it was exactly the right place to leave Futurama… and now it has to be undone.
The new season — I absolutely refuse to try calculating what season number this is, since various truncated seasons and movies have rendered a traditional count meaningless — returns with what has now become an industry-standard format. “The Impossible Stream,” written by series veteran Patric M. Verrone, is a “We were canceled and now we were rebooted so we’re gonna make jokes about it!” episode. Will & Grace did one. Tiny Tunes did one. Party Down did one. The winking and nudging is cute, but it’s hard to remember the last time one of these episodes actually felt fresh. I might need to go back all the way to the Family Guy gag when, after the show’s first episode back, Peter Griffin listed every other series that failed on Fox between its cancelation and its resurrection. That’s the final time I’m going to say anything nice about Family Guy in this review or potentially elsewhere.
The premiere shifts from reboot commentary into a commentary about the streaming universe as Fry announces his decision to give his life purpose and, much to everybody’s horror, that purpose is to watch every available episode of television ever made, starting with a subscription to Fulu, “the world’s fourth most popular streaming service.” See what they did there? The resulting episode is full of hilarious and not-so-hilarious puns and references for which TV critics are the target audience, yet the resulting comedy is genial and soft. I thought it was better at being an inadvertent critique on the two current labor strikes — one of Fry’s last shows to make it through is a sitcom starring easily replaced robots — than anything related to the streaming universe.
Subsequent episodes, which backtrack the Fry/Leela serialization so that they can move in together for the first time and experience other romantic growing pains that the earlier finale progressed far beyond, give the feeling of being outlined according to what fans would be eager to see. This would be in contrast to building episodes around trippy and outlandish pieces of forward-looking conceptualization.
Instead, it’s more like: You think Nibbler is cute? Here’s a Nibbler episode! You remember Robot Santa? Here’s a Robot Santa episode!
The number of callbacks and recurring characters is a good way to bring viewers back into the fold, and it isn’t necessarily a sign of creative laziness. The season’s second installment — “Remember Kif? Here’s a Kif episode!” — is a direct callback to “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch,” which ended with Kif telling Amy (Lauren Tom) that their weird-ass tadpole babies weren’t going to be able to live out of the water for 20 years. I can only imagine the excitement when the writers realized they could actually follow up that punchline 20 years later. That clear and contagious joy permeates what is probably my favorite from this initial batch.
It also isn’t that the show has run out of things the writers want to say. They just don’t seem to have a lot to say about those things. There’s a BitCoin parody episode that envisions the run on cryptocurrency like an extension of the 19th-century Gold Rush. That’s all there is to it. Then there’s an episode about Mom’s — “Remember Mom? Here’s a Mom episode!” — burgeoning online business. It’s called Momazon and their warehouses exploit robot workers. That’s about all there is to it.
There isn’t a conspicuous dud episode in the bunch, and every episode made me smile and laugh. At the same time, in this batch of six episodes, there isn’t a single memorable new character, inspired episodic structure or mind-warping piece of futuristic whimsy. You could have told me these were episodes from either of the original runs of the series and I wouldn’t have been surprised. That’s both totally acceptable and a little disappointing.