Thursday, 2 August 2012

Television - Futurama 'Fun On A Bun' review

A disregard for anything approaching coherent or logical plots has diminished Futurama since its move to Comedy Central, making episodes feel as though the writers couldn't care less about the integrity of the series' world or its characters, but 'Fun On A Bun' took that problem to such an extreme that it turned around and became funny again.

I still live in hope that, one day, the show will return to being able to channel its trademark absurdism through something approaching a coherent narrative - 'The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings' remains my favourite example of Futurama telling a completely bonkers story in a tight, logically structured manner, without veering off on ridiculous tangents for the sake of a few cheap jokes - but it's hard to complain when an episode starts with an Oktoberfest fallen victim to the unfortunate German urge to make things disciplined, respectable and cultured, before ending in a battle between spaceships and mammoth-riding neanderthals, firing sabre-tooth tigers from catapults and unleashing a giant sloth against a Jamaican bureaucrat (a fine example of an ancient joke being redeemed by brilliant timing).
'Fun On A Bun' benefited from a number of imminently quotable lines, my favourites including Bender's 'Aw man, I can't beat that with a Craigslist pig!', Fry bemoaning his breakup with 'And the worst part is, I had to have the breakup sex by myself!', the history kiosk showing prehistoric man hunting 'the majestic snoofle-oopagus' (is that what happened to Alice? NOOOOOOO!), the crew's increasingly labyrinthine attempts to avoid reminding Leela of the deceased Fry, a neanderthal asking a despondent Fry 'why you stare at prehistoric pig-butt?', Zapp Brannigan finally being the one to criticise the sausage and recognising the neanderthals' overwhelming victory by 'calling it a draw', or (best of all) Fry's bump on the head being drained following a passionate embrace with Leela because 'the blood rushed somewhere else'. Wordplay has always been one of the show's strengths, and this episode had it in abundance.

Add that to a wealth of equally fabulous visual gags, like Bender repeatedly running past a table during a neanderthal attack and picking up a fresh beer each time, and you have an episode which made next to no sense in any logical capacity, but elevated by the strength of its individual gags. Unfortunately, the nonsensical storyline meant the gaps between the one-liners and visual gags (another great one: the crew activating the ship's escape pod inside the Planet Express building, just to avoid a possible Leela emotional breakdown) became laborious. The problem with relying on a storyline funny as a concept but too nonsensical to have any depth is that the concept is only at its funniest on its first reveal, diminishing in value each time it is relied upon to hold the viewer's attention. Snakes On A Plane suffered the same problem, and Fun On A Bun's plot was even less coherent.

The central conflict between Fry and Leela felt dishonest when attached to such messy plotting, more a way of having an emotional arc forced into the story than a genuine effort to expand the two characters' relationship. Having Fry acknowledge in his bleary drunkenness that he hadn't even realised he and Leela were dating, a nod to how their romance has been possibly the most understated in television history, was funny, but nothing more than a good line, superbly delivered. The subsequent arc, with both characters losing their memories and ending up back together after a string of convoluted circumstances including Leela believing she had partially eaten a wienerised Fry, never bothered to explore their problems, preferring to fall back on a big kiss at the end to turn everything back to square one.

A more interesting approach would have been to make the pair confront how neither have committed to their ostensible romance in any meaningful way, spending the time alone to work out why that might be ahead and why each mattered to the other, ahead of the big reunion. Fry letting Leela 'embarrass him for a change' at the end was vaguely sweet, but would have been more potent had the moment been justified by everything leading up to it. The middle part of the episode, dealing with the pair trying to remember each other, would also have benefited had the arc felt as though it might have led to something changing in how the characters treated each other. Instead, combined with a relatively low density of terrific gags, every moment spent away from Oktoberfest dragged a little, with the neanderthal's hidden civilisation a setting Futurama has relied upon far too often in the past to yield any surprises, and Leela's visit to a budget version of an Eternal Sunshine-inspired memory suppressing salon proving no deeper than yet another pop culture nod.

Despite the shortcomings in its emotional stakes, 'Fun On A Bun' was a difficult episode to dislike and one of the funniest since the Comedy Central move. It's a pity Futurama seems to have abandoned all interest in telling stories or respecting its setting: the craziness has always been there, but at its peak, the show reined it in just enough for the future world to make a kind of sense on its own terms. That said, if the joke writing can stay at a level at least reasonably close to the high quality on show last night, it's something I for one can live with. More of Fry's attempted German too, please.


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