'Benderama', the second of Futurama's two-episode summer premiere, functioned as an accidental analogy for where the programme seems to be heading. As with Bender last night, the show started out as something great, but gets lesser and lesser, lazier and lazier, each time a new version is created. Its first run, on Fox, ended on an all-time high with the glorious opera 'The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings', which was as silly as it was tightly written and surprising. When the programme caught a reprieve and returned with four mini-movies, their quality was noticeably weaker than that which everyone so fondly remembered. The full season subsequently commissioned by Comedy Central started last year with thirteen episodes that had their high points - 'The Late Philip J. Fry' was a cracker - but mostly came out flat, doing far too much recycling for its own good. That's a trend which last night's episodes showed no signs of halting.
Matt Groening's shows have long employed lazy humour ironically, expecting its audience to laugh at how tired the jokes are rather than the jokes themselves, but there's a point at which you have to wonder whether the writers are even sure which parts they want you to laugh at anymore. The Simpsons at its lowest was a particularly depressing example of this (having since levelled out at just 'underwhelming'), and 'Neutopia''s use of gender humour last night, an obvious attempt to recapture the spirit of 'Amazon Women In The Mood', was not quite that painful but toed the line at times.
Of the two episodes, 'Neutopia' was the weakest because it introduced a range of ideas and failed to develop a single one into anything substantial. We got Planet Express defaulting on its mortgage, which resulted in the company transforming itself into an airline, which then crashed into a planet where the crew and passengers were split up by gender and forced to perform tests by an asexual rock alien, who then swapped their genders, before turning them back to normal again. In the meantime, there were calendar photoshoots for both the female members of the Planet Express crew and the male members once they had been turned female.
As should be clear from that short description, there wasn't so much a plot as a series of loosely-related events. There was nothing at stake - the test of crossing a mercury river to a safe cave came across as more of a joke than serious danger, recalling 'Where No Fan Has Gone Before' without the focus of being a parody - and everything rolled on as though setting up some greater point, but without ever reaching it. I suppose the gender cancelling/swapping was supposed to be the key idea, but the writers didn't take it any further than any of the others. The crew changed sexes, there were a handful of half-hearted gags (no-one feels aroused without genitalia! The male employees are demeaned after their gender swap in the same way as the females earlier in the episode!) and then everything went back to normal, courtesy of the intervention of an alien who seemed to be channelling Colonel Sanders for whatever reason.
I suppose you could point to many previously examples of the programme not bothering much with careful plotting and still producing terrific results, but the difference is that a lot of those older episodes were significantly more focused than this one - the basic structure of the aforementioned 'Where No Fan Has Gone Before' was by and large the same as 'Neutopia', but revolved around the core concept of being a parody of similar Star Trek episodes - and had gags strong enough, and naturally deriving from the area of focus, to match. The 'see what sticks' approach here didn't give its jokes a focal point, so ended up tossing out tired gender lines under the pretence of irony but without any satirical point (although Zoidberg accusing the women of messing with the thermostat was amusing) and seemingly crossing its fingers that something interesting might eventually develop. In the end, we didn't learn anything new about the characters, partly because their personalities changed in order to suit the episode's needs rather than vice-versa, and if there was a point being made about sexism, it certainly wasn't clear or fresh enough to be noticeable.
'Benderama' was slightly better because it was driven by a single idea, the reasonably compelling notion of a constantly self-replicating Bender. (This was taken from the apocalyptic concept of grey goo). The jokes didn't hit with much greater impact, but the plot at least had a semblance of purpose. I say semblance, because there were some pretty random developments thrown into the mix as it progressed - the nano-Benders transforming the world's water supply into alcohol, for example, resulting in the entire world getting hammered - which didn't seem to have anything to do with anything, but the episode produced some passable results when focusing on Bender and his increasing swarm, or whatever the proper collective noun is, of smaller replicas.
Although Bender has previously co-operated peacefully with his many clones (I'm excluding Flexo here, since he's another robot entirely), my feeling is that the episode would have been a lot more fun had it featured more in-fighting between him and his progeny. It's not as though the programme hasn't been willing to rewrite its characters to serve a plot before - bringing me back to 'Neutopia', but even the exacerbation of Bender's laziness here would be a perfectly good example - and there was a valid avenue for disagreement in that none of the replicas wanted to do the work that Bender created them for. The scenes when the many Benders were interacting, such as opening a mousehole bar in the Planet Express skirting boards and setting up a ball trick stand, were enjoyable enough thanks to the character's inherent comedic value, yet as the grey goo took over, Bender got sidelined (literally reduced to watching from the sofa as events unfurled) in an episode that was supposed to be all about him. This killed much of what was fun about the episode and resulted in a deus-ex machina conclusion that was rushed and made little sense. Where did Bender's sudden desire for philanthropy come from? The writers' notebook of convenient devices, that's where.
I'm going to wait until next week's episode to see if Futurama is worth continuing to cover. It's painful to write those words, because this used to be one of my favourite programmes, but especially with Archer raising the bar for what can be done with really tightly-written animated comedy, I don't have any greater enthusiasm for spending the next six weeks complaining about the slow death of something once great as I suspect fans have for reading it. Fingers crossed for some sign of improvement next time around then, because when you mess up an idea as easily hilarious as 'The Scary Door' (as well as doing a painfully unfunny rehash of Martin Prince's "Me fail English? That's unpossible" line), the omens are not promising.
Best Moments: "I don't know what you're doing in the galley, 'cause you got a first class seat." (Neutopia) ; Drunk Morbo (Benderama).
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