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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Futurama: "A Clockwork Origin"

Illustration for article titled Futurama: "A Clockwork Origin"
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By now, the main characters on Futurama have settled into certain roles. Fry is the buffoonish but lovable everyman; Leela is the sensible one who has anger management issues; Zoidberg is the loser; Bender is Bugs Bunny without the sense of fair play; and so on. Which is fine—one of the hallmarks of a good-to-great show, especially a comedy with an ensemble like this one, is that it can use a well-defined cast drive the humor and enrich the storylines. For example, the Zoidberg and Cubert B-plot in "A Clockwork Origin" is strictly by-the-numbers, but it's pretty funny. One of the reasons it's funny is that both are so distinct that there's plenty of ways they can bounce off each other. (Plus, given how Cubert-centric shows are often pretty weak, there's something nearly meta in pairing him off with Zoidy, who's whole character is based around being barely tolerated.)

It gets really interesting, though, when these established roles shift slightly. This doesn't always work; changes that are too dramatic can throw off a series' balance, or frustrate the faithful by betraying what they've come to love. But tweaks are good, because they can keep established dynamics fresh. So far on this new season of Futurama, we've had some new pairings, but we've also had one fairly substantial change in Professor Farnsworth. I'd noticed it before, but it wasn't till tonight that I really pinned it down. He's still a crazy old man, but he's a lot more bitter than I remember him being in the original run. The jokes are less about his senility, and more about his "Get off my lawn!" pissiness, and every so often, his lines sound suspiciously like something David X. Cohen himself might say.

"Origin" is mostly about how cool things are when they're made out of robots, but it gets started when a group of anti-evolutions draw down Farnsworth's ire by their protests. The satire here is blunt (the head protester is an orangutan named Dr. Banjo), which doesn't make it any less amusing. Plus, it's refreshing to see a show get as pointedly vicious as this about a subject that too often gets coddled in media in the name of even-handed discussion. Sure, Farnsworth gives up some ground by the end (advocating a sort of intelligent design which is neither intelligent, nor by design), but that doesn't diminish the bite of lines like "We will not give in to the thinkers!" Nor does it take away from the power of the episode's only real emotional beat, Farnsworth's "I don't want to live on this planet anymore." The line is repeated later in the story purely for laughs, but that first time, it's stark and unsparing. No matter how ridiculous the story here gets, it never treats the professor's frustration and contempt for stupidity as anything but sincere. Everybody's had moments like that—confronted with ignorance so firmly ensconced that there seems no hope in dissuading it.

That's maybe three seconds out of the episode, though. The rest is some very silly stuff. We've had a purely robotic planet before, but this is the first time we've seen one evolve from scratch, and that means we get lots of awesome stuff like robot dinosaurs and robot trees and robot, um, fedoras. Lots of great gags—I got as many of the one-liners as I could, but some of them only work in context. I'm not sure this holds together as well as it could as an episode, though. I laughed a lot, and the story worked fine for the first two-thirds, but the finale seemed like a cop-out. I don't mean in the sense that it moved back to the middle ground; I mean that it seemed to retreat into obvious expectations. Oh look, the evolved robots are like humans, and they also think creator-driving evolution is crazy. Oh look, Farnsworth and Banjo find common ground. It wasn't bad, exactly, but it lacked that certain kick, like having the Earth rotate in the wrong direction, or, even better, having our heroes inadvertently kill other versions of themselves and take their place. Closest we get is that the robots evolve into super-higher-beings, which isn't terrible, but is on the lazy side.

Overall, this one was a bit scattershot, starting from a relatively pointed satirical position (I'm not saying the satire was especially deep, but it was pretty strong) and then throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, loosely connected by theme, just to see what sticks. It mostly worked, but I was mildly disappointed by the end, because I keep waiting for the episode to move from good to great. Still, tri-cyclotops? I'm not made of stone, y'know.

Stray Observations:

  • I'm going to call everyone a crapscallion now. That, or a "banana-swilling poop-slinger."
  • I believe we finally hit our "Let's laugh at everyone who cried at Jurassic Bark" joke.
  • "To the Science Mobile!"
  • The Flying Spaghetti Monster! Check it out here if you don't already know the story.
  • "Your tux doesn't fit because you stole it from a boy." "You mean a man. It was his bar mitzvah!"
  • "Ah, the water's as sterile as my milk-man trusting father."
  • "This is Father-Man. He fights crime to earn the respect of Son-Boy."
  • "If this is anything like killing the pigeon on my balcony, we've got our work cut out for us."
  • "We've gotta save them! But the only weapon we have is my fan dance."
  • I wan an iFad.
  • "Dread my locks!"
  • "Go back to Roboklahoma!"