Thursday, 9 August 2012

Television - Futurama 'Free Will Hunting' review

Not many shows would have the audacity to end on a main character celebrating a conviction for attempted murder, but it's one of the ridiculous sight gags which Futurama has been doing particularly well this season, often salvaging episodes which offered little as a whole. 'Free Will Hunting' was one of those, with barely enough plot to fill five minutes, let alone the running time's twenty-one, and relying on its individual jokes to get through. That's not always a bad thing, as proven by last week's often hilarious 'Fun On A Bun', but considering what a terrific premise was in place for this episode, the meandering felt like a missed opportunity for an entertaining exploration of a big philosophical concept.

What little genuine reflection there was translated into a handful of jokes probably funnier on the page than in action. Bender went on a search for free will because a judgment against him ruled his decisions were solely the result of his programming, but along the way was seen making a number of independent choices. The philosophical question remains open enough that some could argue this in itself was satire - it doesn't matter if we see Bender's choices or not, as there's no really saying whether or not it's still just his software talking - but given how the episode reduces the concept in one of its last and most successful gags, of Bender trying to shoot the professor, it seems unlikely the writers were trying to engage the question on any deeper level than was immediately apparent.
The opening ten minutes or so were the episode's strongest, whilst simultaneously establishing much which subsequently went wrong. The chain of events leading to Bender questioning his ability to make his own decisions was a charmingly idiotic stream of cause-and-effect, starting from his opting to wear 'nerd glasses' to work for a change, then being propositioned by a college fembot, then attempting to get an education loan from the robot mafia, falling in with a gang, dropping out of school and losing most of his tuition money due to 'damage caused to [the dean's] wife', getting hooked on spark, becoming involved in a shoot-out, and finally being beaten by the mafia as they reclaimed their debt at an inopportune moment. All this in a single day. For its complete lack of narrative sense, the sequence escalated its lunacy with unashamed gusto and earned a few laughs for ambition, if not much else.

Once the main thrust of the plot had been established, everything ground to a halt as Bender wandered around trying to make sense of his broken sense of self, occasionally interrupted by a couple of irrelevant punchlines which had no significance to the episode's outcome: Bender is sprayed with nerve gas! Bender doesn't want to do manual labour! Bender finds religion! Again! Futurama has done some great non-sequiturs in the past, but each of these felt like time-wasting and lacked the build-up and context necessary to generate any laughs. This season has even started poking fun at the series' recent lack of effort in its plotlines (although none have come close to that which concluded The Simpsons' Lord Of The Flies parody, 'Das Bus', which ends with the children still stuck on an island and a James Earl Jones voiceover assuring us they were eventually 'rescued by, oh, let's say Moe') but here it felt like the writers had a concept they didn't want to throw away, but had no idea how to fit into a narrative of any kind.

On the plus side, it's refreshing to see Leela getting more involved in the sillier humour. She's been the series' straight (wo)man since its inception, and while she has performed that role admirably, having her get flattened by a door or fall asleep in the middle of yet another Bender court case is funnier for happening to a character traditionally labelled as the sensible one. The joke of Fry feeling alone without Bender while Leela lay next to him in bed was a good one, finally finding some comic material in the pair's coupling. (Leela's tousled hair is another score for everyone keeping track of the season's trend of sexualising its female characters as much as possible). Perhaps Fry letting Leela embarrass him for a change at the end of last week's episode means we'll be seeing her descend to his level of doofusness a little more often from now. I wouldn't count on it, but fingers crossed.

The only other point of note in this most uninspired of episodes was the volume of callbacks to previous Bender stories. We saw him going into education ('Mars University'), get involved with the robot mafia ('Bender Gets Made'), get hooked on electricity ('Hell Is Other Robots'), visit the robot planet ('Fear Of A Bot Planet') and find religion ('Hell' again). Callbacks are not exactly a rare occurrence in Futurama, although rarely take any more substantial form than throwaway one-liners or visual references. Here, several of them were key driving points for the limited plot, and whilst I'm tempted to put that down to a lack of ideas on the writers' part (strongly backed up by the rest of the episode), the optimistic part of me would like to think it's a further, more subtle joke about Bender's apparent lack of free will.

We may see him make decisions, but in the end, he always goes back to the same places, spurred on by the same weaknesses. In other words, if free will does exist, it's easily pushed aside by a lifetime of accumulated bad habits. Which means maybe it doesn't exist. Or something. Where was I, again? Anyway, whilst the rest of the episode doesn't earn the writers' enough credit for this to likely be intentional, it's the only aspect of the episode which engages with its core philosophical concept on any level, adding an appreciable if accidental slither of depth.

The episode ended with the concept being reduced to whether or not Bender could overcome his programming to shoot the professor, and whilst the free will device's non-specific on-off switch was a nice touch, the binary nature of the outcome was as boringly reductive of an interesting idea as the rest of the episode. True, the joke was great, and the safety catch means we'll never know if Bender could have shot the gun before getting the device implanted (or if he'd have been able to pick up the device himself afterwards), but nothing suggested these sorts of questions were intended to be asked, and even if so, put free will down as nothing more than a 'yes / no' conundrum either way. Futurama likes throwing out obscure academic jokes ever now and again, most notably related to physics or maths, but 'Free Will Hunting' suggests it's probably best that the writers refrain from writing entire episodes around them in future.


No comments: