Tomorrow will mark the third series finale of Futurama, which started out as a beloved cult show that got screwed by the network, made a triumphant return… and then got unceremoniously canceled after another couple of seasons. And honestly, it may be time.
Futurama has always been an uneven show to some degree: You can fling that many jokes at the wall and expect all of them to stick. But the show has, over the last set of episodes, shown some tendencies that make its departure less than frustrating.
Lengthier, And Shallower, Pop Culture Parodies
While the show was always happy to send up cliches and TV staples, this season has essentially seen almost every episode built around an extended form of pop cultural parody. This is familiar territory for the show, but in previous seasons the pop culture reference is just a springboard, where this season far too often it’s been the whole joke. Probably the worst example of this was the anthology episode parodying Saturday morning cartoons; there was one joke apiece for each of the first two segments, and pointing out that Scooby-Doo was crap and ’80s cartoons were designed to sell ads is not exactly cutting-edge comedy.
Whenever the show has stepped away somewhat from the pop culture parodies, it’s turned out a good episode: “Fry And Leela’s Big Fling” was a hilarious riff on the issues surrounding zoos, for example. And when it really is the springboard, there’s a great episode to be had: “Game of Tones” manages to make its riff on Inception a genuinely heartfelt, and heart-breaking, episode. But by and large, the episodes have been playing it way too safe, aiming for being a generic show when it’s anything but.
Too Many In-Jokes
By the same token, though, the show’s tried to balance an effort to be more “accessible” with jokes only everybody who’s seen every episode would get. Again, callbacks are part of why the show works, but it’s getting to the point where each episode has one that’s shoved in there mostly to get a response from Tumblr. To be fair, it always works, but even so.
Too Little Science Fiction
Part of the reason Futurama was so beloved is the fact that it’s a genuine science fiction show, on top of everything else. It built entire episodes around deconstructing, or riffing on, science fiction tropes; “Roswell That Ends Well”, “The Late Phillip J. Fry”, “The Farnsworth Parabox”… there are a lot of examples. And the show has dipped into it; the opener, “2D Blacktop”, riffed on animation tropes and physics in a knowing, funny way that recalled the best of the show. And there hasn’t been enough of that.
And Not Enough Heart
Finally, there’s the reason the show was so beloved; it’s willing to give the characters some emotional stakes. When you have an episode like “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” or “Lethal Inspection”, one that gives us a little more insight into the characters, it often makes the show better… and funnier. And again, this season has kept shying away from that for reasons that don’t seem to make much sense.
To be fair, last week’s episode, “Stench and Stenchability”, was actually incredibly sweet: Zoidberg, after 139 episodes of abuse, finally wins one. And the aforementioned “Game of Tones” pays off Fry’s unfinished business with his family in a way that will make it dusty. But the show is at its best when it shows that underneath their stupidity, sociopathology, and general obliviousness, there are people who can come through.
“Meanwhile”, the third series finale, does look to address all of this. And of course this show is hard to kill. But if it does get picked up again, it needs to embrace what makes it great. Otherwise, it might be time to finally let the Planet Express crew get real jobs.