On January 1, 2000, pizza delivery man Philip J. Fry accidentally got frozen in a cryogenics lab and woke up a thousand years later. His fans – who watched his adventures for four seasons on Fox around the turn of the 21st century – have had shorter waits. Fox canceled “Futurama” in 2003, but the series was resurrected five years later as a quartet of straight-to-DVD films, which were in turn re-edited into a 16-episode season that Comedy Central aired in 2008 and 2009. And tomorrow night at 10 on Comedy Central, “Futurama” is back as an honest-to-goodness ongoing series.
As “Family Guy” did when Fox resurrected it three years after canceling that show (Fox canceled a lot of comedies in the early ’00s that the network would probably like back now), we open with a few jokes about the long time off and the new regular home on cable. (After a trip through a well-traveled wormhole causes Professor Farnsworth to laugh, he says, “It’s sort of a comedy central channel.”) There are probably too many of those jokes, especially since the movies (the last of which ended on a cliffhanger that tomorrow’s first episode resolves) means it hasn’t been that long since Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katey Sagal), Bender (John DiMaggio) and company have been featured in original adventures on television, and on this channel in particular.
In-jokes aside, “Futurama” in 2010 is basically the same show that it was in 2003, for good and for ill.
I always admired “Futurama” more than I loved it. The animation, while using character templates similar to the ones on sister series “The Simpsons,” was bolder and more filled with detail, and I respected the show’s clever mix of classic science fiction tropes (robots, aliens, time travel paradoxes, etc.) with social satire and broader comedy. But I only sometimes found it laugh-out-loud funny, and didn’t find Fry to be the most interesting comedy protagonist. With Fry and robot pal Bender, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen essentially split Homer Simpson in two, assigning his sweet and ignorant traits to Fry and his more obnoxious and violent ones to Bender. Watching a lot of TV science fiction has taught me that when you split a man (say, Captain James T. Kirk, whose “Futurama” analogue Zapp Brannigan is prominent in tomorrow’s second episode) in two, the sum of the parts winds up less than the whole. “Futurama” tended to click for me most when Fry was given a bit more depth, like in the original series finale (where he swapped hands with the Robot Devil so he could compose a symphony about his feelings for Leela) or the first of the movies (in which a series of time travel paradoxes created multiple Frys, one of whom died saving Fry and Leela).
Tomorrow’s first episode also deals with alternate versions of characters, as Farnsworth has to resort to extreme mad scientific measures after the events of the final movie, at one point bathing a number of characters in a vat of stem cells.
“Aren’t those controversial?” asks Fry.
“In your time, perhaps,” Farnsworth attempts to explain, “but today… shut up!”
Because I’d seen the films so recently, the new episodes didn’t fill me with as much nostalgia as they might have with a true seven-year gap, but it was still nice to be back in the company of marginal characters like Zapp and the incompetent alien crustacean Dr. Zoidberg (both voiced, as is Farnsworth, by West). When Farnsworth asks Zoidberg if he can declare time of death for someone, Zoidberg lights up and says, “Can I? That’s my specialty!”
The second episode – with Earth under attack from another threat with ties back to our contemporary life – is the stronger of the two, but neither is “Futurama” operating at peak capacity. For more devout fans of the series, simply having it back as an ongoing concern will be enough. As for me, I’m satisfied having seen a couple of episodes, and will now return to my TV critic cryo-sleep and awake to check back in on the series at a later date.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org