Zachary Boren bids farewell to what he argues is the best cartoon of all time.
Ladies and gentlemen and smizmars, Futurama is no more. Or so we’ll say on September 4, after Comedy Central has aired the series finale. Yes, we’ve been here before. Yes, Futurama was cancelled by Fox in 2003, and yes, it was resurrected by Comedy Central in 2010 after four successful direct-to-DVD movies. But this is the end. Ignore all murmurings of yet another Futurama feature – the curtain is closing for good.
The Futurama of 1999-2003 remains the greatest cartoon series ever
If you’ve watched Futurama since its improbable return three years ago, you’re likely to feel something approaching relief. For there’s a consensus amongst the show’s fanbase that these later seasons simply haven’t been as good, and there’s a fear that this creative decline will affect the show’s legacy. This all makes sense, because the Futurama of 1999-2003 remains the greatest cartoon series ever. Better than South Park, better than the works of Genndy Tartakovsky, and better even than The Simpsons.
In fact, what has recently happened to Futurama is not unlike what happened to The Simpsons after that first glorious decade on air. These great shows succumbed to a combination of recycled stories, overused characters and contrived topicality. That these televisual brothers both fell from the stratosphere into a puddle of mediocrity does nothing to subtract from what they were in their best years.
This is truer for Futurama than its elder, more successful sibling. For The Simpsons’ decline was gradual, its laughs, sincerity and invention drying up over a period of years. Futurama, on the other hand, had an ending. Yes, in some ways cancellation was the best thing that could have happened to it. Those phenomenal four seasons at the turn of the century, like Fry, can be frozen and preserved for many, many years.
The show’s key strength was playing with continuity in an interesting and effective way
To non-fans and casual viewers, it may seem hyperbolic to declare Futurama the be-all and end-all of animated television. But the show of once upon a time played with continuity in an interesting and effective way. Yes, like The Simpsons (and all other cartoons), there was a status quo that Futurama relied on, but the show subtly incorporated an overarching narrative: the relationship between loveable slacker Fry and Leela, his Cyclops starship captain.
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Although the show always returned to its status quo, the audience was given nuggets of movement and progression. There was the incident with the parasites, and the episode with the poisonous space wasps, and, of course, the finale. That Fry and Leela’s relationship was never cloying is a testament to the show’s writers, who showed again and again that they knew when to let a moment breathe and when to undercut it with a joke. At the end of Futurama’s original run, the story of Fry and Leela had turned into quite the epic and it was given a fittingly beautiful conclusion.
Fry and Leela, whilst funny characters in their own right, were needed so as to ground a show that went batshit crazy from time to time. In Futurama’s year 3000, anything could happen. The show’s writers were liberated from sensical storytelling; Nixon’s head with a robot body was elected Earth president, and robot Santa goes on an annual killing spree. The future’s crazy. But David X. Cohen and his team of nerds are very, very clever. Sometimes the science is jibberish, but sometimes it isn’t. For instance, the show used some serious math to resolve its brilliant body-swapping episode a couple of years ago.
Bender is a writer’s dream – he can do anything. He dreams about killing humans AND becoming a folk singer
And show’s inherent nerdiness has produced some pretty stellar comedy. This show is littered with laughs, populated by chaotic characters. Bender, Fry’s robot buddy, is a writer’s dream – he can do anything. He dreams both about killing all humans and becoming a folk singer; he’s been god, and he’s met God. He’s a big kid, albeit kind of evil, and that opened up so many storytelling opportunities. Zapp Brannigan, the show’s spoof on Shatner’s Captain Kirk, is another one who always brought the funny. It’s the way he talks. And the things he says. He starts a war with a neutral planet, and drives the space titanic into “that black-ish hole-ish thing”.
Futurama also enjoyed a reputation for being awfully sad. For a cartoon that kids like myself watched, it was pretty gutsy to occasionally revisit Fry’s old life in the year 2000. There was the episode about his brother and the seven-leaf clover and, most of all, the tragedy of his long-dead dog. That right there traumatised a generation.
So what if Futurama returned in 2010 less inspired than when it left in 2003? There have still been a few classics – the forward time machine, and that episode about reincarnation – so I suppose it was worth it. People aren’t going stop loving Arrested Development just because its Netflix experiment didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. And so neither should Futurama’s original run suffer for these later years. Take this opportunity to bid farewell to that show again, the best cartoon series ever. And let’s look forward to September 4 – if this Futurama finale is anything like its last, I want to see how it ends.
All images: Comedy Central