Futurama may not be as inventive as it was in its pre-Comedy Central heyday, but this season has seen the series' writers settle into a comfort zone allowing them to produce consistently solid episodes, occasionally elevated by the characters' inherent comedic strengths. Futurama's cast is more outwardly ridiculous than that of The Simpsons, perhaps explaining why the latter has so completely gone to pieces, forcing its characters to act in ways increasingly outside their established norm for the sake of generating storylines. Futurama is also a much younger series, of course, but eight seasons is nothing to be sniffed at these days.
'Viva Mars Vegas' was one of the season's less interesting episodes, especially following last week's sweet 'Near Death Wish', but managed to get away with its bonkers premise because of the inherently ridiculous rules on which Futurama is based.
So here we go: following a gorgeous hand-built opening sequence (who cares if there was no particular reason for it to be attached to this episode?), Amy decides to take the gang to her family's casino on Mars. Zoidberg isn't allowed to come, due to his hopeless money-management skills. While literally down in the dumps, a discarded sack of robot mafia money lands in his lap, allowing him to travel to Mars on his own dime. He soon gambles away the money, and is accosted by the mafia on return to his dumpster, spraying them with ink to make his escape: a terrific use of his species' defence mechanism, previously created for the sense of a joke. Meanwhile, during his drunken weekend, Fry discovers he has a facial tattoo, so the Professor begins to remove it using a laser designed to make ink invisible. Zoidberg shows up, covered in ink, and the laser accidentally deflects onto him, turning him invisible. Meanwhile, the robot mafia have taken over the Wong family casino, so the Planet Express crew decide to get it back by sending in the invisible Zoidberg to eat all the money and a priceless heirloom in the vault.
I'd like to see another sitcom try to pull off a plot like that.
There weren't many laughs in 'Viva Mars Vegas', but the silliness of what was happening was enough to keep it enjoyable. Futurama has adopted the old Simpsons strategy of disguising its main plot with most ridiculously circuitous build-ups, and it took about two-thirds of this episode to get to the crew planning their casino heist. Even though the execution of the set-piece was limited to one scene in one room, the elements leading up to the denouement had been sufficiently well established for it to be satisfying even without much screentime. There was a convenient bit of retconning over the Wong family's deal with the native martians, especially regarding a land ownership clause which didn't make much sense, but everything was reset to normal at the end (with the Wong family keeping their home and OTHER casino) and the script tight enough for such quibbles not to be too irksom.
Zoidberg is one of my favourite Futurama characters, but with the exception of the all-time great 'Roswell That Ends Well', episodes centred around him don't tend to produce as many laughs as expected. He's so ridiculous that the more the series tries to build a coherent storyline around him, the more it loses the absurdist impact of his shorter appearances. Futurama's characters are all pretty nuts, but Zoidberg aces them several times over (a constantly hungry lobster doctor who is hated by his co-workers but dreams of being a successful comedian), bringing a sense of chaos to any scene in which he appears. When made the focus of an episode, those characteristics have to be dialled down - particularly the degree to which the gang are willing to put up with him - for the sake of the story. It's easier and often more successful to put a straight man at the centre of a narrative, giving it a relatable core and piling on the absurdity from the outside. Having Zoidberg at the centre means extra work is needed to 'ground' the story, making it seem that much less natural.
Also disappointing was the lack of any deconstruction of the heist movie tropes adopted by the episode. As noted in my review of Breaking Bad's 'Dead Freight', heists are nearly always fun to watch, but rely on such a familiar set of rules that something feels lacking when a series like Futurama, which takes such pride in its anarchist streak, is content to use the format with only one line from Amy (about only explaining one facet of the plan as it is underway) providing even a trace of irony. Fortunately, the plan involves an invisible sentient lobster eating vast quantities of cash, a Jamaican bureaucrat dressing as a Nigerian email scammer, and an upturned cart of week-old shrimp, so it'd be tough to call any of what happened 'conventional'. It's just a shame the jokes focused almost completely on surface detail and never sought to dig out the deeper levels of humour successfully mined by Futurama's finest half-hours.
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