'Near Death Wish' represented an anomaly among this season's episodes of Futurama. Where most have sacrificed coherent storytelling for one-liners and ridiculous sight gags, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, this episode downplayed the ridiculous humour in favour of something approaching a narrative. The result was a half-hour which never threatened to be among the year's funniest, but hit the right character notes and felt more gratifying as a result.
At this point, we've known these characters long enough that there's only so much new that can be revealed about them without seeming like arbitrary detail, added in for the sake of filling an episode before moving on without another word spoken. The revelation that the Professor's parents were still alive, albeit in a comatose state in the Near Death Star, will almost certainly never be mentioned again and at first seemed an excuse for the show to fall back on fan service in lieu of any original ideas. Fortunately, the detail added to the Professor's back story fitted in nicely with what was already known, while adding just enough to earn its sentimental climax.
Most of what is known about Farnsworth comes from his youthful career at MomCorp, which has proven a reliable source of gags explaining how he became the crotchety old man we're presented with today. Going further back to establish who his parents were and how they influenced his career and personality pulled some neat parallels about how the typical representation of television teenagers isn't all that far from the typical representation of old people, with both constantly frustrated and always assuming someone is out to get them for no particular reason. There was a lot of the old Professor in the young Professor, especially his penchant for emotional self-indulgence, scientific ambition beyond the understanding of those around him, arrogant spite, and inability to control his bodily functions.
These echoes were the basis of several strong laughs, particularly his ongoing inability to communicate with his parents without bursting into tears and suspicion of their motives. In one of the episode's stronger sight gags, a baffled Leela and Amy watch from atop a service crane as the Professor, pretending not to care that his parents are getting on so well with Fry, sneaks between hiding places across the launching bay, in a dismally unsubtle attempt at spying. Fry's need for a close familial connection also plays well with what we know about him, from his own disinterested parents to general habit of getting overattached to people and animals whom he later leaves or loses. This was the same Fry from 'Luck Of The Fryrish' and 'Jurassic Bark', two of Futurama's most powerful emotional showcases, and while 'Near Death Wish' never threatened to hit those kinds of heights, the character consistency is a welcome relief in a series sometimes too eager to discard it for a joke or strained storyline.
Fry only really served as the catalyst for the Professor's character arc, in any case, and what made a sweet change from the usual 'son discovers his distant parents loved him after all' storyline was how Farnsworth's parents were never presented in a negative light, wisely using the Professor's own selfish streak as a tool for explaining how he could misinterpret their actions. To him, they were too selfish to get off the sofa and play with him. In reality, they were too tired after spending the night reading to their night-terror stricken son. Where he assumed they moved to the country to quash his dreams of becoming a scientist, it was actually because they knew he wasn't emotionally ready for college - and however many years later, probably still isn't. This wasn't a case of presenting a scene in a certain light before showing the other, opposite side later on: while many of the flashbacks were from Farnsworth's perspective, there were always strong hints at alternate truths he wasn't willing to accept.
This saved the story from feeling manipulative and made Farnsworth's eventual understanding and redemption - another neat twist that, for once, the son was the one being redeemed rather than the parents - all the more affecting. He'll be back to his old self again next week, of course, but that doesn't undermine the fulfilment he gained in finally finding peace with his disowned parents, adjusting the parameters of their virtual bodies and retirement home to fit in with their fond memories raising Hubert on the farm. The only part of the episode which didn't quite work was the parents (I didn't catch their names, although the father might be called Ned) thinking they were talking to another son, Lloyd, because while the joke was decent - though I dreaded a revelation that the Professor's arch-rival Wornstrom would turn out to be his 'older' brother - the mistake didn't add anything to the episode's emotional stakes and was a fairly transparent shortcut for changing the Professor's mind. The 'twist' was also ridiculously transparent, since the old brother looked almost identical to the young Hubert bar the addition of a Gary Neville 'tache, and had all the same interests and attitudes.
The episode didn't feature many particularly memorable jokes, although the delivery boy awards ceremony that started the episode was full of characteristically silly, biting wordplay ("We couldn't be more proud of you, son, unless you'd won the award." "I can't go on reading this tissue of lies"), Hermes' old folks jokes were just awful enough to merit his uproarious laughter (with Zoidberg!), and the extended diatribe against one of The Matrix's less scientifically viable conceits - OK, there are plenty of them, but I love the movie so, unlike the episode's writers, am perfectly willing to give it some room - was wonderfully saracastic. "Good job, writers of The Matrix!" 'Near Death Wish' was certainly among the season's best episodes, despite its relative lack of laughs, because it suggested the early seasons' appreciation for character hasn't entirely disappeared. It wasn't the funniest, but didn't need to be: it was heartfelt in a way modern Futurama has only fleetingly attempted, and that's more than good enough.
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