Thursday, 30 August 2012

Television - Futurama '31st Century Fox / Naturama' mid-season finale review


The strength of the first half of Futurama's seventh season (sorry, but that's the least convoluted phrasing I could come up with) has been consistency. Flashes of genuine inspiration have been in short supply, but the laughs have been coming at a steady enough rate to justify continued viewing. The writers evidently have evidently given up on devising coherent stories, but a few episodes have elevated themselves on the strength of individual gags. Fun On A Bun represents the high point for humour, while Near Death Wish showed the series still had some heart to accompany its increasingly cartoonish absurdism.

'31st Century Fox' and 'Naturama', unfortunately, bring the season to its midway break with not only its two worst episodes, but two of the worst the series has ever done. '31st Century Fox' scraped together a handful of chuckles, but its gags felt too forced to compensate for a meaningless, scattershot narrative which only seemed to exist to justify the lame 'joke' in the title. 'Naturama' took that same pointlessness and multiplied it while subtracting all the laughs.
 
In the first episode, Bender goes on a fox hunt after finding a uniform on a shopping trip with the Planet Express team. When he discovers both the fox and dogs are robots, he protests against the robot-on-robot violence, frees the fox and takes its place in order to deliver a predictable put-down (note: commenting on the obviousness of a joke does not make it any funnier) to the hunters, who decide to hunt him instead. The Planet Express crew welcome the robo-fox back home, only for it to tear up their stuff, whereupon they decide to rescue Bender. Bender, though, has already gained the upper hand over the hunt leader, and the episode ends.

I'm not usually a fan of doing straight recaps, but it's difficult to think of anything to say about '31st Century Fox', which was half-hearted even by this season's low standards of plotting. Patrick Stewart guest-starred as the hunt leader, and since he's known for holding anti-hunting views in real life, the minimum expectation might have been for the episode to justify itself through debating the ethics of the hunt, or those who protest against it. All that happened instead was a series of scenes threatening to tackle the issue but never actually doing so. Having the fox tear through the Planet Express building could have been an observation on how city-bound protestors often see foxes as sweet and cuddly and needing protection, when they're actually wild predators representing a serious danger to any unprotected farmyard animals. When the hunters decided to chase Bender in lieu of the fox, it could have served as commentary on how what is supposed to be an exercise in controlled culling has turned into a sport. Instead, the first sign of any engagement with the issues prompted the episode to veer away into cheap gags, robbed of any context or bite.

Science fiction is the perfect avenue to tackle real world issues in a sly, allegorical way, yet Futurama insists on presenting all its targets in undisguised form - foxhunting tonight, free will a few episodes ago - before refusing to offer anything approaching insight or opinion. The original run on Fox wasn't exactly a hotbed of philosophical depth, but occasionally used the genre to gently comment on the ridiculousness of human behaviour and social structures. Since moving to Comedy Central, the writers seem to have given up even that rudimentary level of intelligence, instead preferring to take contemporary issues and hope they'll produce laughs by giving them a make-over involving robots and aliens. Occasionally the results aren't bad - 'Decision 3012' took this approach to the Obama campaign, with a final gag was cynical enough to justify it - but most of the time, new Futurama works best when just being silly and abandoning all pretense of having anything clever or worthwhile to say.

'31st Century Fox' at least managed a couple of small laughs, like Leela pretending that a bear ate the gang's ice cream, the Professor's Get Smart nod, or Bender making up injustices as an excuse to cause havoc. All three were obvious and lacked nuance in the timing, but at least came close to entertainment. 'Naturama', on the other hand, was just baffling from start to finish. I've enjoyed previous anthology episodes, but the point of this one completely passed me by. Unless the writers genuinely thought their viewers needed a crash course on salmon mating habits, 'enlivened' by the voices of the Futurama cast, the only thing justifying the three segments seemed to be a point about how nature doesn't really have a point, and many animal species seem to only exist to procreate and then die. I know certain nature documentaries anthropomorphise their subjects, but did anyone out there believe life in the wild happened any differently? Don't the majority of documentaries acknowledge this anyway?

Each segment used the same formula, meaning that if you weren't sick of the 'animal' gimmick after two or three minutes, the repetitive storytelling would do the job instead. In the first segment, Fry and Leela are salmon (I even feel insulted just typing this). He wants to fertilise her eggs but can't, because he was born in a different stream. With a Zapp Brannigan fish hanging around to take his place, Fry hops into the opposite stream and does the deed just in time before death. Maybe the story could have given a different slant to the Fry-Leela relationship that has been so inconsistently presented this season, but the episode couldn't even be bothered making that token effort. It's just the characters, as fish, flapping about for six-odd minutes before moving onto the next creature. The second segment was Farnsworth as a tortoise, who took a long journey up a hill to mate with a Mom tortoise, got confused and humped a rock, before she finally appeared and they got down and dirty, only for their babies to be crushed under the aforementioned rock. Finally, the crew were sea lions and Kif-lion challenged Bender-lion to a duel for supremacy on their beach, only to get smooshed in the episode's only remotely amusing sight gag.

Again, apologies for the recap, but what is there to say about such a waste of half an hour? Two of the episode's three writers have never written for the series before, and I sincerely hope never do again. The jokes were banal and witless, and the cast's vocal work was (understandably) at its most disinterested. Previous anthology episodes have paid homage to different storytelling techniques, with each segment adopting a new genre. Perhaps there's some alternate universe where a nature documentary version of Futurama might have been funny, even though Futurama and nature documentaries have approximately nothing in common (the other anthology episodes have all been inspired by works of fiction, at least), but not when played three times over, with only the tiniest difference between each. I haven't often loved Futurama's seventh season, but have liked it frequently enough to appreciate the improvement over the year before. '31st Century Fox' and 'Naturama' were creatively bankrupt enough to do away with any goodwill I might have accumulated, though, making it the worst possible way for a series which seemed to have rediscovered some stability to go into its winter break.

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