Instead of catering to a lower common denominator for a wider audience, Futurama is getting even stranger, brainier, and, in some cases, more disgusting.
“Sweet Clyde, characterize your inversion theory.”
-- Ethan "Bubblegum" Tate
Futurama's return to television has been a slow, strange process. Unlike Family Guy -- which was cancelled and then returned to its original form, network, and night -- Futurama had to spend some time in a return-to-TV-halfway-house. Comedy Central revived the series as four direct-to-DVD films which, after their debut, where chopped up into half-hour segments and aired in reruns as individual episodes.
Though the creators performed admirably within those limitations, it was not the most natural structure for a television show. Each movie had to have its own narrative arc, with a setup and a payoff befitting a feature-length film. Then, within each story, beats had to be doled out in half-hour increments so that, in reruns, the stories would make sense and feel satisfying as individual episodes. Finally, after the success of the DVD-to-TV experiment, Futurama was allowed to start making new episodes without any of those limitations, with the first of the new batch premiering on Comedy Central on 2010-06-24.
To the show's credit, the audience doesn't often feel the behind-the-scenes machinations -- the time restrictions, the unsteady sense of not knowing if the plug will be pulled again -- in episodes themselves. "You guys have gotten really good at writing episodes where you don't know if it's the last one or not," creator Matt Groening tells his crew during the commentary for "Rebirth", the most recent season premiere. And it's true: The Futurama writers have mastered the art of finagling a satisfying conclusion with just the right amount of open-endedness.
Thankfully, Futurama Volume 5 -- which contains the first 13 episodes of the most recent, TV-only season -- doesn't have to concern itself with endings. The series picks up immediately after the last film, Into the Wild Green Yonder. The writing, gorgeous 3D animation, and vocal performances pick up just as quickly, as if the series never had to experience the interlude of cancellation and direct-to-DVD movies.
With the freedom to explore extremely varied ideas and emotional tones without having to connected them into larger feature films, the show's ambitions are to be more Futurama-ish than ever before. It's not dumbing itself down, trying to appeal to a wider audience to avoid yet-another cancellation. Instead of catering to a lower common denominator, it's getting even stranger, brainier, and, in some cases, more disgusting, as the episodes in this collection can attest.
Take, for instance, the joke that opens "The Prisoner of Benda", one of the strongest episodes of the season: "What happens in Cygnus 1-X, stays in Cygnus 1-X." (Cygnus 1-X, apparently, is a black hole.) No, the show is not going after the Family Guy audience. In fact, for that episode, writer Ken Keeler had to create a mathematical proof to figure out how to untangle the Gordian knot of its body-switching plot. (The proof appears on a blackboard in background, if a math-nerd wants to fact-check it.) Other episodes in this run stay true to its sci-fi roots by exploring time-travel machines that can only go forward in time, Blade Runner-style robots who are unaware that they're not actually humans, and a planet where a race of robots have evolved like humans.
It's not all cold, hard sci-fi, either. Many of the episodes have emotional scenes through its central relationship between Fry (Billy West) and Leela (Katy Segal). Throughout the show's many seasons, the writers have perfected the distance that has to be maintained between them for maximum heartwarming.
This is all -- as Professor Farnsworth often says -- good news for Futurama fans. One strange turn the show has taken, though, is to satirize more recent events and phenomena -- one episode parodies The Da Vinci Code, for example, while another is a take on Proposition 8 (only, since it's Futurama, it's Proposition Infinity). This type of commentary is not the show's strength. The series is supposed to take place a thousand years in the future, so it seems strange to see the characters still wrestling with 21st-century problems, like getting new "eyePhones". (The show premiered before iPhones existed, but was supposed to take place nearly a century after their invention.) Such problems as they exist, though, are small compared to the craft, humor, and all-out nerdiness of all of the episodes.
Futurama DVD collections, however, feel as haphazard as the show's airing schedule. The episodes collected on this set are from what is ostensibly the show's sixth season (if you count the episodes that resulted from the direct-to-DVD films as a fifth season). Yet there are four full-season collections before this, plus four separate direct-to-DVD movies – and even then, this collection only contains half of the episodes of the sixth season. (The rest have yet to air, and probably will over the summer in the United States.) If a full-sixth-season set comes out after the end of this run, this collection will be useless (although there are no announcements either way to that effect).
The DVD is not without its charms, though. As usual, each episode comes with a commentary track that explains all of the nerdy jokes that goes over the audiences' heads (like the aforementioned Cygnus 1-X reference). There are no sublime math lectures, but there are amusing diversions, such as a video comic book, "The Adventures of Delivery-Boy Man", and a clip real titled "Bend It Like Bender", which just splices together scenes of Bender dancing (which is more fun than it sounds like). The sense you get from listening to the commentaries and watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes is that the creators feel, like we do, that it's good to have Futurama back.