“30% Iron Chef” (season 3, episode 21; originally aired 4/14/2002)

In which Bender wins fairly, for him

Here we are, at the end of season three, with a pair of episodes which don’t inspire much analysis—crap, I’ve already done my “these don’t inspire much analysis” routine, haven’t I? I need to start working on new material. Someone might actually read one of these write-ups someday.

Still, while I prefer “30% Iron Chef” to “The Route Of All Evil” by a comfortable margin, neither of them are classics, and both fall victim to that familiar problem that plagued the show off and on throughout its run: a story premise that just isn’t interesting enough on its own to be worth an entire half hour. Bender’s journey from shitty cook to shitty cook who cheats (more or less) to humiliate his former hero on national television is fine for what it is, but there’s no real tension or investment in any of it. The climax of the episode plays out as a goof on Iron Chef, which is amusing but not particularly gripping for non-fans (I’ll confess, I knew about that show when it was on, but never really got into it), and the ending is never in doubt.

Still, at least this episode is built on an effective dramatic core: Bender wants to be a chef, but he’s a robot with no sense of taste, so he’s a terrible chef. (Never mind the fact that a robot would presumably be better at following instructions to the letter; maybe Bender’s just such a mess he can’t even do that right. Or maybe I just don’t know a damn thing about cooking.) That, right there, is a fundamentally tragic internal crisis, even more tragic than Bender’s dream of being a folk singer. The fact that the story plays this as a legitimate desire on his part is what gives it what little edge it has. Fundamentally irresoluble desires—irresistible wants which can’t ever be achieved—are a great engine for storytelling, and no one makes the mistake of turning Bender into a good chef.

Instead, he runs away from home after overhearing the others complain about his awful, awful cooking. Scenarios where characters try and hide their true feelings to avoid hurting a friend, only to have those feelings inadvertently revealed, are a staple of storytelling, and a reliable one at that; nearly everyone can remember a time in their own lives when they were either the person keeping secrets, or the person finding those secrets out. What makes this particular situation uniquely Futurama is the fact that it’s not just Bender being bad at something—his cooking is so terrible that his creations could (and do) literally kill people. Fry and the others aren’t being mean, and it’s not as if Bender himself wouldn’t say worse about someone else if he took a mind to it. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim this subverts cliche, but it does make things more interesting than they otherwise would’ve been.

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So, Bender runs off, and after a series of events (not really that unfortunate), he ends up in an outer space hobo town, where he meets the great cook Helmut Spargle. Helmut offers to teach Bender how to cook so Bender can humiliate his former idol, Elzar (who also just so happens to be the man who took over the great cook’s TV show gig; small universe, that), which leads into a training montage. Said montage is then immediately undercut when Bender’s first attempt at a meal after serving under Spargle’s tutelage kills his mentor. Thankfully, the mentor still wants to see Elzar humiliated, so in his last words before his stomach explodes, he gives Bender a vial of “perfect flavor.”

This is all pretty funny, and watching Helmut’s reaction after taking that first fatal bite is a hoot. As with the “overhearing friends being mean” set-up, this is all following a very familiar, well-trod path, and the show’s refusal to take that path seriously helps it from feeling stale. But it also keeps there from being much in the way of stakes. Once Bender gets the vial of perfect flavor, there aren’t really any surprises left in the episode. Having the showdown on an Iron Chef parody called Iron Cook, and throwing in Martha Stewart’s head as one of the judges, is clever enough, but that’s about it. Bender gets the MacGuffin that will allow him to circumvent his crummy cooking and win, he uses it, and he wins. All the novelty of the third act works to distract from the fact that the story just gives up and wanders off. Even the final zinger (in which Professor Farnsworth analyzes “perfect flavor” and discovers it’s water laced with LSD) is a minor variation on the end of “I Second That Emotion.”

Still, enough jokes land to keep this sloppiness from being an episode-killing problem. And we do get an excellent Dr. Zoidberg storyline here, as the good doctor breaks Professor Farnsworth’s scale model of the world’s largest bottle, and then frames Fry for the crime. As in Bender’s plot, there’s a clear effort to repeatedly draw attention to how unimportant so much of this is, but it works better here because Zoidberg cares, even if no one else does. He’s terrified, arrogant, and guilt-ridden by turns, and since the story is so slight to begin (and since it’s not designed to support the episode, only augment it), the contrast between those emotions, and the complete lack of consequences, is effective both as a comedy, and as a character piece. That’s Zoidberg for you: always out of step with the rest of the world.

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I’d be curious to hear if cooking fanatics, or at least people who actually watched Iron Chef, got more out of this than I did. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, although I’d argue that doesn’t make this a better episode, exactly. Bender being Bender makes for good television, but it’s frustrating when something like has all the ingredients for a great feast, and only ends up a snack.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “If Accidentally Watched, Induce Vomiting.”
  • Bender makes everyone specialized meals. Amy gets a pony leg, because she’s cute.
  • Another way the episode undermines any suspense: no one cares when Bender runs away, because there is absolutely no reason to worry about it. He even has a form he fills out before he goes. (And while he checks off “This Time I Mean It,” I’m not sure the sentiment really lands.)
  • I could’ve watched a whole episode of Bender riding the rails and being a “robo.”
  • “I don’t want to hurt Bender’s feelings, but this food actually tastes better as vomit.”
  • “My story’s a lot like yours, only more interesting, because mine involves robots.”
  • “I’m acting astonished!” -Zoidberg
  • The central ingredient for Elzar and Bender’s competition: Soylent Green.

“The Route Of All Evil” (season 3, episode 22; originally aired 12/8/2002)

In which we meet Dwight.

Here’s the deal: because I didn’t realize that Netflix would have these episodes arranged in a different order than Wikipedia, I’ve been trying to fix things this season by ignoring the Netflix arrangement (which is set up as five seasons before the movies, instead of the canonical four) and cover everything that Wikipedia lists as season 3 before moving on to season 4. Which is why this week’s double feature is a bit kerfucked, selection-wise. I apologize to anyone who’s been trying to watch along with me at home, because I should’ve explained what I was doing sooner. But starting next week, it’s season four, and I’m following the Wikipedia order, which is also the production order. (Although not the order the episodes originally aired in. Oy, this show.) At least we’ll be consistent, anyway.

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If you’re wondering why I would open this review with a paragraph that for all intents and purposes really belongs in the Stray Observations, well, “The Route Of All Evil” kind of sucks, and I want to avoid talking about it as long as possible. Because it’s suckage is not the kind of suckage that makes me want to rant about laziness or sloppiness; it’s not a suckage that inspires outrage about offensive attitudes; it’s not a suckage that aspires to greatness only to fall short in the final moments. This is the sort of suckage that brings up no great feeling at all in me, and that’s no fun at all to write about. You can tell by how many times I’ve used the word “suckage” so far. That amused me more than anything in the episode did.

Well, let’s be fair: the subplot in this one is somewhat delightful, for a given definition of “delight.” While out beer shopping one day, Leela, Fry, and Bender decide they’d like to homebrew some beer of themselves. So they dump a bunch of ingredients into Bender, wait for a bit, and then he produces several gallons of an ale he names Benderbrau. At the end of the episode, Bender brings a case of his ale to share with a battered Farnsworth and Hermes at the hospital. Everyone laughs heartily; the end.

The only real twist to this plot is that Bender acts like an expectant mother while the beer ferments inside him. He even takes on a bit of weight. It’s cute, but it’s not this is so enjoyable to watch. I think all it really boils down to is that we get to see Leela, Fry, and Bender working as a team and spending time together as friends in a way that’s neither cynical nor overly sentimental. It’s a hang-out storyline, and its pleasure comes from the low-key, affable vibe of watching people work together for something that turns out just fine in the end. I have a soft spot for this sort of thing, and placing it in the secondary story slot is a smart move. As with Zoidberg’s quest for redemption in “30% Iron Chef,” this works best as something that doesn’t have to matter that much; it’s agreeable and light, and serves as a nice compliment to the main course. (Sorry, still stuck on food metaphors.)

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Unfortunately, that main course is where the suckage comes in. This is a story about Cubert, who is boring, and Dwight, who has never appeared before this episode and who is also boring. Dwight is Hermes’ son, and he and Cubert are both children, and focusing most of an episode on a pair of children we barely know anything about is a horrible way to run a television program. Just horrible. Cubert’s first appearance was mitigated by the fact that the dramatic arc of the episode was focused on Farnsworth and his fears of obsolescence. We didn’t have to care about Cubert, only recognize that, with his ongoing contempt for his genetic progenitor, he was the physical embodiment of everything the professor feared.

There’s still an effort to connect Cubert and Dwight emotionally to regular characters on the show, and we’ll get to why that doesn’t work in a moment, but for now, let’s just luxuriate in the awfulness that comes from building a dull plot out of people we have no reason to like. Dwight’s personality seems to be that he’s a boy who says things. Those things are not quite as obnoxious as the things Cubert says, although even Cubert’s been softened a bit. They’re just precocious, slightly bratty kids who want nothing more than the respect of their father figures, even if that means building a business and using it to kick said father figures out on the curb.

That business—a newspaper delivery route that gives the episode its title—provides what little conflict this half hour contains, and the whole thing is so half-assed it’s not really worth the time it would take to recount here. (Basically, Dwight and Cubert are very clever, but eventually get in over their heads and need Hermes and Farnsworth to bail them out.) The premise is uninteresting, and the nominal heroes barely register.

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The closest this comes to relevancy is in a doomed attempt to speak to the father-son connections between Hermes and Dwight, and Farnsworth and Cubert. But it doesn’t fit this show in any meaningful way. We’ve never heard of Hermes’ kid before now (at least not that I can remember), and the scant time paid towards introducing Dwight and showing his and his dad’s relationship barely qualifies as expository, let alone anything we can hang a story on. Farnsworth and Cubert aren’t much better. While the two have had screentime before this. their connection was never something the writers (or, speaking for myself, the audience) seemed very keen on investigating. So much of this feels like it’s coming from some different show entirely, or else it’s all an ill-advised attempt at a spin-off; but since Futurama was never well-rated enough to warrant a spin-off, it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense at all.

Well, I seem to have managed to work up some moderate irritation at this anyway, so that’s nice. And I haven’t even talked about the blob aliens who serve as nominal antagonists here. They’re fine! They’re blobs. Futurama is not a show that needs child characters to open up new storytelling avenues, because every member of the regular ensemble is fully capable of acting like children should the situation require it. It’s not hard to imagine a half hour centered on Fry and Bender running their own paper route. That might not have been better, but it would at least have slightly more of a reason to exist.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Disclaimer: Any Resemblance To Actual Robots Would Be Really Cool”
  • “I heard alcohol makes stupid.” “No I’m… doesn’t.”
  • Headline: Paper Boy Wins Award On Slow News Day
  • “Business is down, so I filed papers to have you all reclassified as slaves.” -Hermes
  • “This week on The Real World: The Sun. ‘Aahhh! I’m burning to death!’”

Next week: We start season 4 with “Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch” and “Leela’s Homeworld.”

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