Sunday, July 3, 2011

Futurama 6-14: Neutopia

You never forget your first love. Well, okay, Futurama isn't my first televisual love by a longshot – that would probably be Sailor Moon, which is enough to get my man card officially revoked – but it is a show I loved as only a show with a limited fanbase and constant ratings trouble could be loved. So its recent ressurection on Comedy Central after a long drama that involved a spate of straight-to-DVD movies was a bit like running into a friend you haven't seen in years, and slowly beginning to wonder if that friend wasn't as cool as you used to think.

Don't get me wrong – outside of a couple rust-shaking episodes the sixth season of Futurama regained the quality of its previous run. The issue is that looking at a television series (especially a prematurely cancelled one) through rose-coloured glasses it's easy to only remember the great episodes and not the solid-but-not-earth-shaking ones. So season six, like every other Futurama season had some half-hearted duds, some of the best episodes of TV ever, and a lot of good episodes that hung a ton of killer one-liners on a somewhat ramshackle plot.

(I should say season six thus far, because in an attempt to make their season numbering even more arcane the Futurama guys have dubbed the thirteen episodes that aired last year the first half of season 6 and the ones that air this year the second half, with a similar split-season schedule set for season 7 in 2012 and 2013. I'm still trying to get used to this.)

Neutopia” is one of those Futurama episodes of the third category, one of those meat-and-potatoes episodes that makes up the bulk of a series. These episodes are important for a TV show too: not every half-hour can be a highlight, and the B/B+ episodes cement a kind of normalcy for the series that is necessary for the “A” episodes to be able to break or threaten it. I also think they're every bit as worthy of study as the flashier episodes, and there's plenty to dive into here.

Futurama is of course created by David X. Cohen and the needs-no-introduction Matt Groening. After the universalism of The Simpsons, Futurama seems like Groening's attempt to create something slightly more idiosyncratic and personal which has no qualms about delving into geekiness every once in a while (although it's still pretty approachable). This particular episode lists series newcomer Edmund Fong as a director, who sticks to a functional and conventional style here, and J. Stewart Burns as the writer. Burns is a veteran of both Futurama and The Simpsons, and while he doesn't have any hall-of-fame Futurama episodes under his belt he is credited for some really fun ones, like “Mars University”, “A Head In The Polls” (the Nixon one), and “The Deep South”. This is his first episode since the return. (As usual with American comedies, the actual writing is done mostly by committee, with the credit episode writer just trying to cobble all of the jokes that get thrown out there into a semi-coherent episode. Still, if his past episodes are any indication Burns is good at cobbling.) In other words, the staff seems set-up specifically to produce a fun re-introduction to Futurama that isn't going to aim too high.

Vaguely a riff on the LeGuin/Tiptree-esque gender-questioning science fiction, “Neutopia” begins by re-establishing the Futurama status-quo. We begin with Hermes counting down on his watch the moments until Planet Express officially goes bankrupt. This is interspersed with shots of the Professor padding his way frantically down the hall in fuzzy slippers. Hermes finishes his countdown, but the Professor bursts in anyways with his catchphrase of “Good news, everyone!”, and we are given the impression that he has a job that will save the company. However, after a lot of rigamarole (including a giant lifter suit controlled and mis-controlled by Amy), the package turns out to just be a letter the Professor is sending himself.

This opening is interesting because it could be excised from the episode without much concern – we aren't even losing much in the way of jokes. What it does do is refamiliarize the audience with the cast members and tenets of the series – Planet Expresses' perpetual desperation, Amy's ditziness, “Good news everyone!”, etc. This is basically a message of “Hey, we're back and we're just like you remembered us.”

The structure of the gags also aids in this. We open on a misdirection gag – we think the Professor has to get to Hermes before he finishes the countdown, but in fact it doesn't matter (as such dramatics often don't.) This is followed by another misdirection, in which we're lead to believe that the Professor has a major delivery job, but we then find out he is only sending a letter to himself. However, this time we're prepared for the joke and almost expecting it – after all, there's no way the Professor has done something wholly competent. If Futurama could be described as comfort television (and in many ways it is) then the purpose of “Neutopia”'s opening sequence is to demonstrate this, gently letting the audience know how its jokes are going to work, the text not an adversary but an aid.

From this basic conflict – Planet Express is broke – we head into the rest of the episode. Since this is one of those Futurama episodes where everyone suddenly becomes a sexist, the men of the company decide to raise money through a girly calendar, which is hamstrung by the fact that they only have three women (even counting Hermes's wife.) So they instead decide to turn Planet Express into a commercial airline.

A lot of the battle-of-the-sexes jokes seem over-the-top, but they're also eerily similar to reality. The bit about Leela's airplane suggestion being ignored until one of the men suggested it is apparently a common experience for women, and Leela (the only qualified pilot) not being allowed to fly the plane is reflective of a deep misogyny in the industry as reflected by this guy. In a television show it comes off as hamfisted, but it turns out the world can be pretty hamfisted at times.

Of course, the plane eventually crash-lands on a random planet, on which a godlike being takes an interest in this human notion of “gender” and decides to put it to the test. Until things get a little crazy, the jokes here are pretty run-of-the-mill – men don't ask for directions! Women like to shop! It's enlivened only a bit by the presence of some familiar background characters – Scruffy, the kajigger lady, and others I'm probably forgetting.

Including so many recurring characters in this episode also ties into the re-familiarization that is natural to the season premiere (which, effectively, this is.) A steady stable of recurring characters is essential to almost any good comedy series, not just because it provides a toolbox of gags for writers to go for but because it creates the sense of a fuller universe out beyond the main cast members. For “Neutopia”, these characters are essentially part of the background, not adding more than a line or two, but they're a familiar background and that's what important -- “Neutopia” is all about the feeling of “Hey, I remember this. It's funny”, and Scruffy mumbling in the background certainly accomplishes that. As a comedy builds up enough of a background it can achieve laughs merely by referencing past gags, calling back the memory of humour and thus reviving it, although this is something that can definitely be overused.

After a long string of tired “battle of the sexes” jokes, this literal battle of the sexes ends up in both teams realizing that they needed to combine parts from Bender and Amana (the female refridgerator robot) in order to escape an oncoming volcanic eruption. The episode sets us up successively for two pat and predictable endings – first, the two sides will realize they have to co-operate to survive and all Learn A Valuable Lesson, or later that the two groups will simply steal each others' parts and both end up doomed because of their bickering. However, both of these sets of expectations are undercut: Hermes and LaBarbara meet up on the mountain and fuck, forgetting their vital missions. Thus ultimately both sexes fail their trials not due to their separation but through their unexpected joining. (As an aside, is anyone else as sick of “argument turns into sex” scenes as I am?)

(The marriage between Hermes and LaBarbara is strangely central to “Neutopia”, existing as something that can withstand all of the gender-challenging chaos around it. There's no over-exaggerated love between the two: rather, it seems to be implied that the normalcy and sometimes mediocrity of the relationship is what allows them to both return to it so readily, no matter what the circumstance. This is one of the few genuinely interesting points in the episode.)

So all of the characters are then neutered by the god-like rock being, and promptly construct a genderless* utopia. This brings out the underside of the battle-of-the-sexes trope: that gender is essentially the root of conflict, and without it we would live in harmony. (Weirdly, certain strains of radical feminism and boorish stand-up jokes end up in the same place.) This isn't a very convincing notion, to be honest, but it's one of “Neutopia”'s more explicit serious suggestions. Of course, this idea only stands up in a narrative explicitly constructed around gender quarrels – if the rock guy had showed up in the next episode, whose conflict revolved around Bender's laziness and the Professor's madcap inventions, turning everyone genderless wouldn't really solve anything. The simplicity of the solution almost seems like a parody of post-gender utopias, but they're probably too niche a target even for this show.

However, this serenity only lasts for a short while before Hermes and LaBarbara convince the alien to restore gender so they can have sex. Once again their relationship (or at least their desire to bone each other) transcends whatever wacky situation they find themselves in. Building off the premise of gender as the root of conflict, the episode then counter-proposes that even if this is true, it (or at least the desires it generate) are also key to our humanity. This is really quite a problematic ideal, situating sex (both the activity and the descriptor) as the unjustified centre of the universe.

The final stretch of the episode consists of the cast having their genders returned, but reversed. This leads to fewer gags than one would think – the main purpose would seem to be to display every cast member as the opposite sex. Some of the reimaginings are interesting (LaBarbara's reincarnation as a dreadlocked stud similar to her man in “Bender's Big Score”), others are fairly normal (Fry-with-boobs) while others are just kind of terrifying (the strangely unchanged Scruffy.)

Matt Zoller Seitz writes about Futurama as having a Vaudevillian aspect, and if this is true then “Neutopia” functions as the freak show. This is the cinema (well, television) of attractions: the appeal of this sequence is not based on sharp writing or funny jokes but on mere concept and spectacle. Seeing the cast neutered and then have their sexes reversed certainly fulfills that role, and even if the episode isn't that great it has the appeal that “what if” storylines always do.

(It also fulfills certain urges in certain fans who are doubtlessly out drawing perverse fanart of gender-flipped Fry. I guess this is a bit of fanservice then, acknowledged by a later comment that “our fans are perverts.” But seriously, there are a lot of Futurama perverts out there. It's nice of the show to make a joking, almost accepting nod to them, which fits into Futurama's indulgent and warm attitude towards its fans. This has been contrasted a lot with The Simpsons' mocking of its disappointed hardcores – seriously, can you imagine a modern-day Simpsons episode making a joke like that, almost approving of the most deviant elements of its fanbase? (Then again, half of the characters on The Simpsons are minors, so I guess it's a different situation.))

Unfortunately, this carnivalesque aspect doesn't last for terribly long before everything is resolved and the episode ends. This makes “Neutopia” feel like an episode that took so long getting to its premise that it couldn't explore it any. This is the downside to the Groening-style narrative style of starting out somewhere irrelevant and then slowly tangenting yourself to the main plot – sometimes it doesn't give the main plot all the time it deserves, and you just end up with a lump of interconnecting scenes. “Neutopia” does have some narrative structure – the return to the beginning concerns of money and the girly calendar at the end is a nice touch – but it's still hurt by this.

All in all “Neutopia” is not a good episode of Futurama, and maybe not even a good episode of TV in general, but it does work as a re-introduction to the characters and the anything-goes setting of the series. As a pilot this would be pretty dire, but it draws on the extensive history and mythos of Futurama to elevate it through mere memory, as well as the voice talents of its cast, most notably the ridiculously versatile Billy West, and the steady stream of slightly odd jokes that the writing team can consistently produce. These are assets that even the worst episodes of Futurama can and do draw on, elevating them to something better than they would be individually. There's a tendency in TV comedies to create “continuity” by sticking serial drama plotlines in the show haphazardly, but episodic comedies already have a kind of continuity. Every episode creates not just another part of the show's expanding universe, but forges a relationship between show and audience. If that universe and relationship are good enough, even the dwarves can stand on the shoulders of giants.

* “Neutopia” seems to use sex and gender (both the terms and the concepts) interchangably, which makes my inner queer theorist shoot steam out of hir ears. Obviously you can't expect a mainstream TV comedy to use the carefully prescribed language of academia, but it would be nice if there was at least some attempt to distinguish the two concepts and not have characters discovering themselves neutered and exclaiming about how their gender is gone.

Next Week: Our intrepid reviewer tries to get caught up on Game of Thrones.

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