Can a show that’s hung around for 14 years – during which it’s been nominated for the animated-program Emmy seven times and won twice – be underappreciated? Did you know that “Futurama” started its last batch of episodes Wednesday night? Case closed.
Matt Groening’s blackhearted but good-spirited science-fiction spoof, created in 1999 to capitalize on the success of “The Simpsons,” started strong – 19 million viewers! Then it faded as Groening and Fox feuded over content, and the show was taken from the Sunday animation block and sent to Tuesdays. Fox dropped it after four seasons, but its popularity in reruns and on DVD led to its revival in 2008 by Comedy Central. Now canceled again, it will spool out its last 13 episodes this summer, leading to an assuredly nonsentimental finale on Sept. 4.
It isn’t fair that “Futurama,” which follows the misadventures of the hapless multispecies crew at the 31st-century delivery outfit Planet Express, gets less attention than any number of inferior animated series or live-action sitcoms, and the show’s treatment by Fox is partly to blame. But some of its problems have been self-generated.
For one thing, it’s been both ahead of and behind its times. In 1999 it was prescient, an early adopter and parodist of the geek sensibility, its combination of science-fiction high jinks and rapid-fire pop-culture references foreshadowing 21st-century TV comedy. As the 2000s progressed, and sitcoms descended into easy snarkiness, however, “Futurama” began to look old-fashioned with its complete stories and clear, comprehensible jokes.
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Complex and beautiful animation
It also suffered from being the younger brother of “The Simpsons,” and sharing similar styles of writing, character drawing and voice acting. That’s an awfully long shadow to be caught in, though the overall animation of “Futurama,” featuring a multitude of interstellar landscapes and copious space opera action, has been among the most complex and beautiful on television.
But it’s not the fault of Groening or his partner in the development of “Futurama,” David X. Cohen, that they had already set the bar high or that gag-and-plot-based comedies have fallen out of fashion. The fact remains that few shows have been as steadily funny or as relentlessly inventive, imagining a future in which a buff, one-eyed alien heartthrob can find love with a doltish reanimated pizza delivery boy, and where the planet can be ruled by the cryonically preserved head of Richard M. Nixon.
And, again like “The Simpsons,“ “Futurama” has featured a tremendous and surprisingly devoted voice cast, which has stuck with the show throughout its travails. The best-known member is Katey Sagal of “Married … With Children” and “Sons of Anarchy,” who brings to life the seductive, monocular spaceship captain, Leela. But the indispensable one is Billy West, who voices the simpleton Philip J. Fry and his elderly descendant Professor Farnsworth (cryogenics, remember), as well as the sociopathic lobster-clawed alien Zoidberg.
“Futurama” depends most on the maintenance of its distinctive tone – gee-whiz yet genuinely bleak – and the quality of its jokes. The two episodes that begin its stretch run reflect a slight flattening out that’s been evident in recent seasons: both depend to some extent on movie parodies, and in both the gags are a little less pointed than in the early seasons.
But they’re still pretty good. Farnsworth, having stumbled into a friendship with a street-racing gang, sizes up their “Fast & Furious” existence: “Amazing! You multicultural punks just race and tinker all day long?” A shiftless former boyfriend tells Leela about his life: “After that, my music career really started taking off. I recorded a demo and shot a video. But then I lost my phone.”
Life in a 2-D world
When half of the Planet Express crew appear to have been killed in a head-on spaceship collision, the morbid Hermes (Phil LaMarr) offers reassurance: “No, no. I choose to believe they’re alive in some other dimension. (Pause.) Screaming in agony.”
It turns out that they are in another dimension – trapped in a 2-D world in a delightful sequence that imagines what it would really be like to live on a flat surface like a comic-book page or an arcade-game screen. An antiheroic rescue ensues, followed by a line that sums up the witty, straightforward charms of “Futurama”: “It’s been an emotional five minutes. But I guess everything worked out in the end.”