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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Re-Animated #8: Futurama

I once read a biography of St. Francis of Assisi that tried to place the reader in the right context.  "St. Francis," it said (or words to this effect), "Lived a thousand years ago in medieval Europe, which seems to us like he was closer to the time of Christ.  But bear in mind that the church was already a thousand years old by then.  As old as medieval Europe seems to us is as old as the time of Christ must have seemed to Francis."

That always struck me because we do tend to think of things as either "old" or "recent" rather than really contextualizing them.  It is perhaps why we find historical fiction so perpetually fascinating: the constant push-pull of "look how much they're just like us" vs. "look how much they're totally different from us."

Consider now, if you will, the context of the world in the long, long ago of 1999.  "The Simpsons" was already ten years old - far older than any other adult cartoon.  It must have seemed at the time as though "The Simpsons" had been on forever.  Now, of course, we're even further from "The Simpsons" of 1999 than 1999 was from 1989.

And Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons," it seemed, was restless.  Or, at least, wanted more.   He went to his Fox overlords with an idea for a new show, a funny little sci-fi focused show taking place a thousand years into the future.  Millennium fever was in full swing, no one quite knew if the Y2K bug was going to destroy us all, and at a minimum the year 2000 sounded amazeballs.  Taking a look at a perceived year 3000 was a brilliant way to send up all the millennial hysteria.

And Fox naturally said, "Yes, of course" to their golden goose.  With conditions. 

Ten years had gone by since "The Simpsons" had put Fox on the map.  And the scrappy young network of the '80s had evolved into a corporatocracy.  Creators didn't get to just put shows on the air.  Executive oversight was de rigeur

"This is how we do things now," Fox said.

"Oh," Groening replied, "Well, the old way is the only way I make cartoons."

And Groening packed up his pitch and left.  Which left the executives fumbling.  "The Simpsons" was still a hit.  "King of the Hill" was doing surprisingly well.  Sunday night seemed to be turning into a place where adult animation could not only survive, but thrive (more on that in future installments, my dear friends.)  Groening's proposal - which you've probably guessed by now is what would turn into "Futurama" - was probably going to succeed on the strength of his reputation alone.

So, the Fox executives recanted and allowed Groening to do things his way.  Which turned out to be one of the wackiest, nerdiest, weirdest blends of highly sophisticated math/science and lowbrow slapstick imaginable.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Deliberately, aggressively nerdy, "Futurama" was never going to be for everyone.  The viewer surrogate ( a certain extent) and point of entry is everyman Phillip J. Fry, a down-on-his-luck pizza delivery boy who finds himself single, underemployed, unloved, and with nothing going for him on the dawn of the new millennium. 

Adding insult to injury, a prank call finds him celebrating the new year in an empty cryogenics lab with a pizza he'll have to pay for.  Bob's your uncle, and a thousand years later he wakes up, the last relic of the Stupid Ages.  After Fry meets his new robot best friend, Bender Bending Rodriguez, and on-again/off-again cycloptic love interest Turanga Leela, he ends up working for his dottering old great-great-grand nephew Professor Farnsworth and his delivery crew: Amy Wong (the richest girl on Mars), Dr. John Zoidberg (a squid-like alien with a questionable knowledge of human anatomy), and Hermes Conrad (a Rastafarian accountant.)

One of the earliest criticisms leveled against "Futurama" was that it lacked heart.  Essentially a workplace comedy about robots and aliens, with only one (relatively) grounded character it played more as a pastiche of "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Logan's Run" and any other number of sci-fi forebears.  Without the family that formed the core of "The Simpsons" what was there to love?

"Futurama" quickly and ruthlessly eviscerated those critics with a handful of intensely emotional episodes, including one where Leela discovers the truth about her parents and all-time series standout "Jurassic Bark" about Fry's relationship with a stray dog.  "Jurassic Bark" has the power, nearly 15 years later, to still reduce my wife and I to quivering tears - and we're not dog people.

In its years on the air, Futurama had peaks and valleys, some execrable (or, perhaps worse, forgettable) but for my money there is perhaps no better single half hour of television than "Roswell That Ends Well."  What "The Simpsons" accomplished with "Last Exit To Springfield" - a seemingly flawless episode where every single joke landed and the story was still second-to-none - "Futurama" achieved with "Roswell."

I could go on and on about the vagaries of "Futurama's" quality, but it's worth noting that much of that is due to its many, many incarnations.  "Futurama" originally aired on Fox from 1999 to 2003, alongside "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," and its forebear "The Simpsons."  Then, like "Family Guy," it found new life on adult swim.

As we discussed last week, "Family Guy," via the vehicle of adult swim, opened the door for the resurrection of beloved series which had found new life (and new advertising revenue) on cable.  And "Futurama" followed in "Family Guy's" to speak.

Rather than a full resurrection, "Futurama" was granted new life as a series of four direct-to-DVD movies in 2008 and on.  Changing the format from a half-hour series to a full-length movie came with mixed results.  Sometimes what was a tolerable level of silliness for a half hour became unbearable for two.  Sometimes the chance to tell a longer story, with more time for characterization and foreshadowing, paid off.
Whatever the case, Comedy Central decided when adult swim's contract with "Futurama" was up to pick up all of the old Fox episodes plus the movies - which would then be sliced and diced into half-hour segments for air.  Then, in 2010, Comedy Central began airing new seasons of "Futurama" as a television show - effectively resurrecting it a second time - before cancelling it again in 2013 (for good?)

Oh, and then in 2014 "The Simpsons" aired "Simpsorama," a "Futurama"/"Simpsons" crossover.

Perhaps befitting a show so focused on time travel, "Futurama" has had effectively six (if not more) series finales.  "Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV" was the original proposed series finale for Fox, which posited a meta-story where Bender gets a television show and then is cancelled for being inappropriate.  The story was considered too acerbic for a series finale, so "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings," a sweeter, more open-ended story was used as the original finale instead.

During its first resurrection as a series of movies ("Season 5") "Into the Wild Green Yonder" was meant to serve as a finale, where the entire crew escapes to some far off universe, allowing for possible future adventures but also to serve as an ending.  Then, when resurrected a second time, "Overclockwise" was originally intended to be the finale, but, again, was considered unsuitable, and "Meanwhile" served as the show's least, until "Simpsorama."

I doubt I'll believe that "Futurama" is over until everyone who worked on it is dead and buried.  But, then again, Channukah Zombie has been known to work miracles...

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