I wasn't planning on reviewing this season of Futurama, given how disappointing the series has been since its move to Comedy Central in 2010 (or 2008 if you count the movies), but while the first six episodes of this seventh season are still some way from the delightful insanity that marked the show's heyday, they have been consistently amusing and unexpectedly dark.
Case in point: 'The Six Million Dollar Mon', whose plot was almost certainly built out of an excuse to use that face-palm of a pun, centred around Hermes' desire to increase his bureaucratic efficiency by becoming a robot. Nothing particularly dark there, until jokes from the second act onwards start focusing on backstreet surgery, skin peeling, epidermicide (my new favourite crime) and the reconstruction of a human being from individual parts stored in a bloody paper bag. The show also appears to have killed off its second robotic supporting character in the space of under half a season (following the demise of Calculon in 'The Thief Of Baghead') in the shape of the stab-happy Roberto.
That willingness to casually dispose of the supporting cast shows an experimental streak which the previous season, a small number of exceptions apart, so tiresomely lacked. Last year, Futurama often felt like a programme struggling to remember what once made it special, resorting to half-hearted parodies of modern culture (the 'Eye-Phone' episode is a contender for the worst yet produced) or repeating previous plotlines ('Proposition Infinity' as a tepid rehash of 'I Dated A Robot'). Admittedly, the modern culture parodies haven't gone away and still feel out of place in a world a thousand years in the future, but episodes like 'Decision 3012' have at least mixed up an otherwise polemic-driven premise with a science fiction twist (the election candidate from the future disappears upon the completion of his task to change the past, thus undoing all his work) and a higher-than-before batting average for jokes, suggesting the newer writers have started becoming comfortable with the kind of humour that works in Futurama's setting.
Like 'Decision 3012', 'The Six Million Dollar Mon' isn't a particularly funny episode for the most part, but is somewhat redeemed a late-game twist and a healthy streak of black comedy that helps the jokes feel surprising, if never laugh-out-loud funny. Zoidberg-centric episodes have previously struggled to make the most of a character best used for one-off sight gags, but focusing the story on the one-sided relationship between him and Hermes works because the joke - Zoidberg loves Hermes, but Hermes hates Zoidberg - has never been officially acknowledged by the series before, despite having always been there. The callback to Zoidberg's dreams of becoming a stand-up comic was a nice touch, with the charmingly icky twist of having Hermes' reassembled flesh body used as a ventriloquist doll.
From a writing point of view, the episode was surprisingly well put together for any Futurama season, with few story elements going to waste. The 'twist', that the motherboard acquired for Hermes' robot brain previously belonged to executed psycho Roberto, was predictable from a long way off, but the way the writers brought in foreshadowed bits and pieces, like Roberto's sudden urge to eat human flesh, Hermes' body turned super-spicy after years of eating LaBarbara's goat curry, or the use of the Hermes doll to save the day in wonderfully nonsensical fashion was pretty neat. It also marks the second time this season's writers made a joke about their disinterest in logically tying up an episode's more outlandish plot permutations, as per the ending of last week's 'The Butterjunk Effect', but both times have been funny, so no complaints here. I also adore the line 'In the end, all his implants were no match for my wife's reckless seasoning' for some reason. No idea why, but it makes me laugh, so there. The 'Monster Mash' riff was fun, if a tad disappointing that Zoidberg didn't get an original song (to harmony with himself on), perhaps the one denied to him in 'How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back'.
Also worth noting is how competent this episode made Zoidberg look for a change: not only did his stand-up comedy seemingly improve once he started using the Hermes body-doll to remind himself of the abuse he used to so lovingly absorb, but the episode's conclusion hinged on him successfully physically rebuilding a working human body from a collection of dismembered parts. I doubt this sudden onset of surgical competence will last, because Zoidberg's hopelessness as a doctor is too valuable a source of humour to lose, but it was a neat change from the norm for the character to be able to work miracles in a time of need.
In terms of individual gags, Hermes' robo-replacement, the Mark 7-G, was amusing for its needlessly old-school design; Robo-Hermes' 'other' Cylon eye was in a classic vein of suggestive Futurama humour (recall Bender's 'Camera One! Camera Two! Camera Three!' zooming), as was Scruffy's choice in reading material and, less subtly, Leela and Amy in the shower, continuing another of this season's trends: making fun of people apparently finding the female characters sexy. 'The Six Million Dollar Mon' didn't have any big laughs, just a handful of amusing sight gags and strangely charming one-liners, but many of Futurama's most memorable jokes have come through that attention to detail, so even in muted form, it's welcome to have it back.
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