Earlier this month, Futurama was cancelled for the second time in its (almost) 14 year run, one which included eight seasons and four TV movies. As a fan of the show since its onset in 1999, I remember the major sense of emptiness that came from experiencing my first ever cancellation when I watched the first final episode (it sounds sad I know, but I was nine at the time).
This time around, however, it seems like the show has embraced its second death with a sense of bitter-sweet conclusion, rather than a cut to black.
For those who aren’t entirely informed on the show’s history, it was originally cancelled after its fourth season in 2003, largely due to a time slot jumble on Fox’s part. From there, it followed the same path as “Family Guy,” heading to Adult Swim for almost five years of late night reruns.
But in 2005, Comedy Central bought the rights to the show, and in 2008 it was brought back…sort of. Over the course of the next two years they released four straight-to-DVD movies, which were each pretty much just four episodes stitched together. These “movies” had a weird feel to them, as they always seemed to be towing the line between being actual movies or just hour-and-a-half long episodes.
The best of the four was probably “Bender’s Game,” which completely embraced the long episode format and tried to make things as weird and goofy as possible. The final episode of the fourth movie, “Into The Wild Green Yonder,” was meant to serve as the new conclusion of the series, with the entire crew disappearing into the same blue vortex that appears at the beginning of the show’s title card. But, of course, time makes fools of us all, and that next year Comedy Central went ahead and premiered a new 26-episode season.
When the show came back, it hit the ground running. Whether it was because of new writers, learned experience from the five year hiatus, or simply because the show could get away with more on Comedy Central, Futurama returned better than ever. The jokes felt edgier and more rapid-fire, the stories were a little smarter, and, of course, the writers’ absolute infatuation with science (both real and fictitious) was oozing out of every pore.
Some of the funniest episodes were the ones that tried to remain as sporadic and fast paced as possible. For example, in “The Late Phillip J Fry,” the gang finds themselves trapped in a time machine that can only move forward, which results in the show jumping from one weird future to the next, hopping between parodies of Planet of the Apes, Terminator, and even H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” before concluding it all with a neat play on the Big Bounce theory (for all of the non-science geeks out there, it’s the theory that the universe will end in an implosion, followed by a new Big Bang).
Even obligatorily issue-of-the-day episodes such as “Decision 3012,” a play on the recent Presidential election, constantly tried to find ways to meld both a completely original story and a truckload of neat gags. Ultimately, each episode seemed to have a genuine drive behind it, a sense that the writers never felt like they were just going through the motions.
Of course, it wasn’t just the intelligent, sci-fi savvy humour that made the original run of Futurama so great. I’m sure anyone who remembers “Jurassic Bark,” in which Fry finds the fossilized remains of his dog, knows that the show was completely able to tug at your heartstrings. Admittedly, none of the new episodes is as heartbreaking as that one, yet the show still made an interesting decision. One of the only real plot arcs of the original series was Fry’s love for Leela, which always felt like a hapless pursuit, until the open ending of the fourth season.
With the new seasons, however, the show went ahead and actually brought the characters together, with the two dating over the course of the new seasons. This was part of the trend that made the show so fantastic. There was always a sense that the creators truly cared about their characters, playing off of their idiosyncrasies in a way that never felt mean spirited. Even Bender, the foul-mouthed, amoral, alcoholic robot, had his chance for a genuinely fascinating existentialist crisis in “Lethal Inspection.”
As a result, the final episode, “Meanwhile,” focused solely on Fry and Leela’s relationship, with the two living out their lives stuck in a time loop together. What’s remarkable about the episode is that its focus was less on jokes, and more on wrapping up their story together. Ultimately, it managed to knock it out of the park, with everything leading up to a conclusion that, goddammit, just left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
Of course, its creators seem reluctant to say it’s over, which seems inevitable with this show’s history. Both Matt Groening and David X. Cohen have hinted another movie might lie in the future, along with a “Simpsons” cross-over episode.
Personally, though, I hope this is actually the end. In a world where “Family Guy” seems to be cynically running through the motions each year, and “The Simpsons” lifelessly enters its 25th season, it’s refreshing to see a show’s creators know when to throw in the towel. After a strong second life, the show managed to say goodbye to its world and its characters in the best way possible, and I felt nothing but satisfied.