The anthology format is one that doesn't always work, especially for half-hour shows. (Note that here I'm talking about episodes that are themselves anthologies of shorter pieces, not Twilight Zone-esque) anthologies of stand-alone episodes. For instance, at this point when it pops up on The Simpsons it usually signals an indifferent space-filler (or maybe that's just any contemporary Simpsons episode). But Futurama has always made this format something of a special event, usually a season-closer, recognizing in it the potential for unbridled play.
The Futurama anthology episode is usually the equivalent to the old comic book What-If stories, quite literally for the old "Anthology of Interest" episodes. By exploring alternate universes and continuities, one can not only reveal more about the "real" universe of the story but also transgress the usual boundaries of the episodic format. In "Naturama" the writers take particular delight in killing off regular characters and otherwise teasing alterations of the status quo that would never fly in the main series.
"Naturama" imagines the central characters as animals, a fairly hokey premise, but fortunately the various writers do more than cute-dog jokes. Like the previous season finale, "Reanimation" has an ostensible gimmick uniting the three shorts (there it was a change in animation style) but also has a thematic undercurrent cutting through all of the stories. Here all three are about love, in particular the hopeless and frustrating side of love, as well as the collision between personal will and the dictates of nature.
The first segment, "The Salmon", references the well-known but still bizarre mating rituals of the salmon, a natural metaphor for a fatalistic worldview if there ever was one. The story uses the Fry-Leela romance, which has at this point become more of an occasionally-referenced myth than an actual plotline, and exploits all of those mythic associations. Of course, graphing human romance (especially a star-crossed romance involving a love triangle with Zap Branigan) onto animal mating behaviour is specious anthropomorphism, but hey, that's the whole episode.
What's more interesting is the parts of the salmon lifestyle that aren't anthropomorphized. When asked his name, Fry-fish replies "I don't have a name. I'm a salmon." Similarly, the short makes a lot of hay out of the actual sex act, involving the female laying eggs and the male jizzing on them. The almost scatological and definitely bestial specifics of the act contrast with the attempt to overlay a very human romance narrative on it. "The Salmon" constantly undercuts its central premise by pointing out how absurd that premise actually is -- a strange maneuver, but an interesting one.
The second short, an obvious take on Lonesome George featuring the Professor as the eponymous turtle, is more of the cute-animal story one would expect from the overall episode premise. Other than Mom's sourness, the characters here only visually resemble their Futurama incarnations, and the story at large is an uneasy mixture of sentimentality and dark-humour cynicism. It's a perfectly fine seven minutes of television, but other than a few lines about parasites and lifespans it lacks that alienating dynamic that interests me most about this episode.
That dynamic returns in spades in the final segment, which again deals with a strange mating process -- that of the elephant seal. (Incidentally, one has to compliment the Futurama writers for not only being able to dig up these bizarre biological corner cases but using them to create further jokes and not just chuckling at the idea of seal sex). Bender is reincarnated as a "beachmaster", keeper of a massive seal harem, which is a divergence from canon Bender -- who isn't interested in lust any more than any of the other sins -- but one that allows him to retain the characteristics that make him appealing. The Amy/Kif romance is also interpreted into a new form whilst retaining its essence, the beta-male-makes-good storyline. If anything, it becomes more impactful in a setting where the term "beta male" is not a metaphor.
The story itself is filled with strange ambiguities. Amy is treated as genuinely in love with Kif, but gleefully joins in every pile on Bender. Kif heroically challenges Bender to a fight, and is promptly squashed. At the end bender is still content in his throne, although the beta males have secretly impregnated many of the females. There's nothing revolutionary about a story where neither good nor evil wins, but there's usually a message, whereas here there's just unpleasant things happening.
The Phil LaMarr-voiced narrator assures us at the end of the second segment that "nature is horrific, and teaches us nothing". It's comically overstated, but in the end that does seem to be the main take-away from "Naturama". As much as we may wish to ascribe human characters or motivations to animals -- George is lonesome, the salmon long for their home, the beachmaster is slothful and indulgent -- ultimately only a mixture of biology and raw chance rule.
This is not an especially new idea, with the idea of nature as meaningless violence going back at least to Hobbes. The general acceptance of evolution means that it's a fairly widespread idea. What "Naturama" points out is the way in which we attempt to elide this view through narrative, whether it be ascribing human characteristics to our pets or the full-scale anthropomorphism of a Disney movie. It does this by constantly calling attention to the ridiculousness of its own narrative conceit, a surprisingly bold movie for a show as long in the tooth as Futurama.
Of course, it does leave us with one final question: is this realm of random violence and meaningless endings really all that different from the one we humans live in?
Next week: "I got rope, I got duct tape, I got a tazer..."