4 out of 5
Created by: Matt Groening
Giving some over-long, in-depth review of Futurama would be a lark at this point, on par with a modern day take on any long running, classic series. And with Groening’s long-running Simpsons as a comparison point, it’s easy enough to just say “like that? Then you’ll like this.” and be done with it.
Though, at the time of its premiere in 1999, that’s wasn’t an absolute truth for me, a then-diehard Simpsons fan. I found Futurama amusing, but not enough so to keep me watching; it felt like a loose echo of Matt’s other series, surface-level goofy with its partially alien cast but otherwise toned done from what I saw as Simpsons’ frequent ability to go completely and unexpectedly off the rails into hilarity.
Returning to Futurama years later – and finally sticking with it – I do get where I was coming from: while the scope of the show is essentially larger, giving us space and beyond to play with, its cast is actually much smaller and more consistent than the Simpsons’, as well as sticking more squarely to a “Planet Express crew has a delivery scheme go wrong” setup throughout, and not so much bothering with the occasional exploration of family dynamics that (at a point) fueled and guided the Simpsons. So it was, in a sense, a much more traditional sitcom. However, from a modern day perspective, with the 30-year old Simpsons now more often just a loose collection of gags (which I still do enjoy), that very consistency of Futurama is much easier to appreciate: what once felt like it existed in the shadow of a better show stuck to its guns to become its own thing: the characters and humor of Futurama have the self-aware taint of Groening’s work, but they could only exist within the worlds of Futurama.
…On which dim-witted delivery boy, Fry, accidentally, uh, cryofreezes himself in 1999 and wakes up in the 31st Century, rather conveniently taken in by his nephew, Professor Farnsworth, and his delivery company, Planet Express. Together with one-eyed mutant captain Leela, drunken robot Bender, and Amy, Hermes, and Zoidberg, episode by episode hijinx persist, relying much less on Fry’s displaced past-self than the kooky juxtapositions of each of these characters’ personalities, whom all play fairly large roles for the seven seasons that followed…
The show’s “classic” episodes and celebrated intelligence of its writers don’t really stick out in today’s more geek-centric, internet-informed landscape, but again, it’s more about the consistency of the thing: even during its less well-received later seasons, Futurama never really dropped the ball on its high concept premise and sci-fi trappings, frequently involving time and dimensional travel, different alien cultures, and Professor Farnsworth’s plot-providing wacky inventions. Bender becomes a standout in the same way Bart did, but despite having his own version of the latter’s ‘eat my shorts’ – with the winky ‘bite my shiny, metal ass – he’s another example of the series not resting on laurels; characters don’t grow, per se, but nor do they become empty proxies of themselves; they are almost always enjoyable to be around and to watch.
It’s true that I never found myself falling off my seat laughing as I would with the Simpsons during its classic years. Then again, my tastes have evolved; I can’t say I’d be doing that if I saw the Simpsons newly at this point. But even at its bests, I could only tolerate watching a certain quantity of the show at length; binge-watching the Simpsons is not something I’d think to sit down to do. Futurama’s positives, meanwhile, or pretty perfectly rationed to allow for that: turns out it’s a very easy thing to binge, and 100+ episodes later, it dawns on me how much of an accomplishment it is to keep up that kind of quality for nearly its entire run.