Friday, 9 September 2011

A Thousand Times Blorg: Futurama review


FUTURAMA: 'Reincarnation'

Futurama's sixth season ended on a high note with 'Reincarnation', a return to the anthology-style episodes that haven't been seen since the second season, before the programme was revived on Comedy Central, despite having previously produced some of its most memorable work. As with 'Anthology of Interest' Pts I and II, 'Reincarnation' was divided into three very loosely related segments, this time tied together by the recurring motif of a diamond comet. Either this episode was produced very late - possible, given how last week's 'Overclocked' was written to be a season finale in case of cancellation - or the writers just struck incredibly lucky, as a planet believed to be made of diamonds was discovered only two weeks ago.

Instead focusing on telling individual stories, as per previous Anthology episodes, 'Reincarnation' instead presented three different styles of animation: the first reminiscent of Fleischer Bros rotoscoping, the second in the style of 8-bit videogames, and the third a parody of bad Japanese anime. Story-wise, a lot of it didn't make an ounce of sense, but where a lot of this Futurama season has been marred by what has felt like narrative difficulties driven by a lack of inspiration, 'Reincarnation' seemed to have the programme's creative team correctly realising that enjoying themselves with the animation would produce much greater results than trying to shoehorn in some sort of story as well.
Back in June, when I reviewed the first episodes of the second half of the sixth season, I decided against continuing to cover the season on the basis that those episodes showed a programme in what appeared to be rapid creative decline. Even though I have been watching every subsequent episode, being a sucker for televised masochism (even though my Doctor Who review tomorrow will have to be delayed until Sunday, I may have time to do a quick write-up on my thoughts on the latest season of Torchwood, 'Miracle Day', which ends in the US tonight), my feeling is that, for the most part, those fears were born out. There's no doubt that there have been some fun episodes - 'Möbius Dick' and 'Law And Oracle' have been my highlights - but the majority have coasted on old affection for these characters, in their own right rarely rising above mediocrity.

'Reincarnation', on one hand, was guilty of everything I usually criticise the modern version of the programme for (random storytelling, needless callbacks - see the return of the 'Godfellas' nebula), but the difference was the presence of a tangible creative energy for the first time since 'The Late Philip J. Fry', or 'The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings' if going back to the last genuine classic. At its best, Futurama's form of pop culture referencing hasn't been to just recycle a familiar image or line and call it a joke, but naturally integrating the reference into the episode with a new spin, allowing it to reveal and mock its own inherent silliness.

The segment which did this the most naturally - the second (8-bit animation), for me - was also the most enjoyable, even though all three offered a great deal to enjoy. The Fleischer Bros and anime segments felt slightly too exaggerated in their parodies, where the 8-bit segment got a great deal of laughs out of the authentically choppy animation and strange movement of its style. Perhaps it is because I'm more familiar with videogames from that era than I am with rotoscoped animation or anime. If you want to read a fantastic article on different styles of animation, incidentally, check out Jenika Katz' piece over at Flixist.

It's quite likely that many jokes went over my head in those segments, though I also laughed a great deal. The Fleischer Bros style is inherently charming and funny - and I liked how the episode didn't ignore the previous episodes' developments in the Fry/Leela relationship - and the bad translations of the anime segment were frequently hilarious in their clunky over-dramatisation. The only reason I enjoyed them less than I did the 8-bit segment was because they felt more like parodies of the stereotypical view of the genres/styles, rather than what the characteristics of those styles really were.

Regardless, that's some pretty heavy nit-picking. I've had my hopes dashed too many times by modern Futurama to proclaim 'Reincarnation' as any sort of return to the heady days of yore - I saw the first season episode 'I, Roomnate' recently and it's amazing how much more effortless and honest the humour felt back even when the programme was only three weeks old - but it was a pleasure to see a spark of the old inspiration return alongside a readiness to just have fun and try new things. Tighter budgets and new writing staff have obviously taken their toll, but at least this season went on a high note that proves there may still be some life left in the series when it returns for its seventh season next year.


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