“A Leela Of Her Own” (season 3, episode 15; originally aired 4/7/2002)
In which Leela balks at failure…
Blernsball, the futuristic sports game that serves as the central gimmick for this week’s first episode, was introduced way back in “Fear Of A Bot Planet.” Then, the joke was that the game was so overly complicated and obtuse that it was impossible for an outsider to understand. Fry thought he could figure it out, but he couldn’t; and for the limited amount of time we spent watching the game, there was no consistency on which to build assumptions about rules. Which, again, was the point. Blernsball was created for a single scene in an episode which never referenced it again. It was part of the show’s general world-building, but it also wasn’t really a concept that needed a revisit.
Yet here we are, and one of the main concerns you have to get over in order to enjoy this episode is how much “A Leela Of Her Own” takes the original “blernsball” and waters it down until it’s basically just baseball with a few goofy trappings. When Leela pitches, she’s throwing a tethered ball; and there are some bits with giant bugs and what not. But the rules are the same rules baseball has had for a century or more. Three strikes and you’re out, getting round the bases back to home scores your team a point, and if the pitcher beans you, you get to walk (or be carried) to first base.
That last is important, more or less, but while these changes are necessary to make blernsball into a game that can support a whole story, it’s a let down to see something so weird and outlandish being conventionalized into yet another riff on something we already know. This is an approach Futurama has used before, and will use again, with varying degrees of success: the “science fiction” is like a series of removable stickers placed over a blandly familiar surface. That can be effective, and “A Leela Of Her Own” is actually pretty good, but there’s something disappointing in the limits of its imagination.
What makes this work, then, is the fact that it’s a strong storyline for Leela, one which is both critical and sympathetic towards her in equal measure, and one that allows her to be just as big a screw up as Fry or anyone else on the Planet Express team. By now, Leela’s supreme competence is a matter of course, and one of the defining traits of her character. But it’s such a dominating factor that it can obscure her weaknesses in other areas. To learn more about someone, it can be useful to take them out of their comfort zone and show how they behave in an area where they aren’t confident. Like, say, make Bender want something he can’t have, or put Leela on the pitching mound for a spirited game of blernsball.
The script has an industry standard convoluted first act, but thankfully, this one makes better use of its starting material. The family of Cygnoids who move in across the street give the episode its starting point when they open a pizza parlor (“Family Bros. Pizza: You’ve Tried The Rest, Now We’re Open.”). They’re terrible, Fry offers to help, and the Cygnoids and the Planet Express folks end up playing a friendly game of blernsball in the park. The progression makes sense in context, and better still, the episode checks in on the Cygnoids from time to time through the rest of the story, showing as their fortunes improve just as Leela does. It’s not a particularly memorable arc (they’re inept, they get a bit better, a rich guy buys out the franchise), but it is an arc, and that simple act of construction helps, in its small way, to keep things grounded.
Then there’s the main storyline. As mentioned, it’s a good one for Leela. Putting her on the pitcher’s mound is hilarious in and of itself, because as she mentions early on, she isn’t so great on the depth perception; and yet it makes sense that she’d automatically adopt a leadership role even if she wasn’t suited for it. Leela is a control freak, after all. The resulting combination of power and impotence is both consistently funny and oddly endearing. The sight of various players getting hit on the head and carted off becomes one of the episode’s easiest, and best, running gags, and Leela’s growing frustration at her ineptitude makes the gag sadder and funnier at the same time. Because she’s legitimately unhappy with what’s going on, and because the batters are sincerely worried about getting hit, the joke lands.
Leela’s frustration also makes her willingness to join the official blernsball league as what is essentially a publicity stunt easy to understand. She’s normally the sharpest members of the Planet Express crew; in group episodes, her job is typically to roll her eyes at whatever foolishness is going down. But she’s not invulnerable to the occasional foolishness herself, and the offer of legitimacy—even a legitimacy that’s acknowledged up front to be bullshit—is too much to pass up. Every major character on this show has a deep down desire to be viewed as someone important, someone who matters. Leela has never shown any interest in blernsball pitching before this episode, but the chance to be a pioneer (as the first women to play in the league) is valuable in and of itself. The fact that the chance is built on an absurdity is what makes it fit for comedy and not tragedy.
One of the smart things about “A Leela Of Her Own” is that it never for a moment pretends that it’s actually possible for Leela to become a great, or even good, or even basically decent, pitcher. The story tacks on the expected sports cliches—underdog must train for a make-or-break final game—but the stakes are laughably low: Leela trains with Hank Aaron XXIV (voiced by Hank Aaron, who also provides the voice for his own head) so she can avoid supplanting him as the worst blernsball player of all time. And she fails. The only thing that keeps the episode from being utterly despairing, apart from the fact that it’s just a sport so who cares, is the fact that Leela’s ineptitude ultimately inspires other female players (like Jackie Anderson, the first good woman blernsballer, who gets a grand slam off of one of Leela’s only good pitches) into the game.
That’s not much of a win, but it’s enough to satisfy that “underdog makes good” itch. I’m curious how this episode would play if it had gone darker—if Leela hadn’t had a final, relatively sweet moment with Jackie before the end. But as is, it works.
- Opening caption: SCRATCH HERE TO REVEAL PRIZE
- “The wall of that strip club isn’t going to collapse twice in one day.” -Leela, to Fry.
- Oh, Leela ends up pitching for the New York Mets, and while I don’t know much about sports, I do know that the New York Mets are not supposed to be very good. I think.
- “The fans haven’t been cheering for me. They’ve been cheering at me!” -Leela
- The Family Bros. Pizza secret ingredient: crushed lived hornets in the dough.
- “Strike one! A personal best.” -Leela
- While Leela gets to leave with at least some good news, poor Hank Aaron XXIV loses his cushy spot as the Worst Blernsball Player Of All Time. Sure, he’s still the worst football player of all time, but it’s just not the same.
“A Pharaoh To Remember” (season 3, episode 16; originally aired 3/10/2002)
In which Bender walks, whips, and almost dies like an…
Did you ever see the episode of the The Twilight Zone about the little kid with godlike powers? “It’s A Good Life,” it was called, and it’s a doozy. See, this little boy holds an entire town hostage in terror because he can do pretty much anything he sets his mind to. And the moral of it, if there’s a moral to be found in such a nightmare, is that a little boy is not somebody who should be given absolute impunity to do whatever he wants to anyone. Nobody should, really, but little boys especially shouldn’t. At least with an adult, there’s an off chance that years of social conditioning and a basic grasp of empathy might slow you down before the horrors begin. With a kid, it’s all big feelings and little comprehension, and if you take away the threat of punishment, things go to hell (and the cornfield) almost immediately.
Bender is basically a big kid who is also a robot. Most of the time he seems to be a grown-up who does grown-up things like drinking booze and pimping robot floozies, but these behaviors never entirely hide the kid-like center inside of him. “A Pharaoh To Remember” has him struggling over how he’ll be remembered after his death, which isn’t exactly something you’re worried about when you’re five years old. But the way he deals with that struggle, and the way he ignores consequences of actions, is pure child. It’s also why Bender remains likable (for want of a better word) throughout. He does monstrous things in this episode—betrays his friends and torments strangers for no better reason than his own vanity—and yet there’s something charming in the purity of his aims. You really don’t expect him to know any better. Besides, it’s a cartoon.
Like “A Leela Of Her Own,” “A Pharaoh To Remember” succeeds in part because it commits to the darkness of its premise without flinching. That darkness is a wee bit darker here, but that’s all to the good. There’s no effort made to soften Bender’s reign of terror, and both Fry and Leela are clearly, and understandably, furious with him. The main ensemble of Futurama works together and often cares about one another, but that caring doesn’t preclude real resentments and frustrations, and that willingness to let friends rage at one another without immediately backtracking with a heartwarming apology or rapprochement is crucial; it makes both for better jokes, and for ensuring that the moments when the show does lean on sentiment land, and land hard.
Also important: all of Bender’s jerkiness comes from a place of legitimate sorrow and fear on his part. The first act of the episode establishes his worries about how he’ll be remembered while he’s gone, and it’s the perfect Bender obsession, an idea that seems to come out of nowhere (he’s upset when a witness to one of his robberies mis-describes him), and which he commits to with an absolute, single-minded ferocity that destroys all other concerns. It’s a little like someone in the grip of a manic episode, and it’s telling how, when Bender’s friends try and comfort him by holding a “surprise funeral” to show him how much he’ll be missed, the effort doesn’t make him feel better. Where in other series, such a demonstration would serve as the climax of the story, here it’s just a reminder of how deep Bender’s malaise goes, and how gestures don’t do much when set against unsolvable existential crises.
Admittedly, facing that truth for too long would make for one bummer of an episode, so instead it’s off to Osiris IV, a planet where the dominant race (or at least the only race wee see) are doing what appears to be an endless iteration of the Ancient Egypt Shuffle. Turns out the Osirians visited ancient Egypt back in the day, and took notes; so now they spend their time forcing their slaves to build enormous tombs to pay homage to their fallen leaders. Fry, Leela, and Bender get press-ganged into service, and Bender, finally seeing a chance to get some real despotism going, finagles his way into a pharaoh-ship. Once in power, he demands his slaves (including Fry and Leela) build him the biggest monument yet. It even breathes fire!
The central irony of all this being that no matter how big a statue Bender has built for himself, he’ll never be happy with it—worrying about one’s legacy is really just a way to cope with your own mortality, and that’s not a problem that can ever be solved. (Well, I guess it can be solved, but the solution is conclusive and no one ever says if they were satisfied with it.) Watching Bender first grow enamored with the Osirian culture (his eagerness to increase the cruelty of the slave-owners to maximize efficiency is reminiscent of Hermes’ efforts in “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back”), and then scheming his way to the top is great fun, and that fun is balanced by the knowledge that his quest is doomed to fail; partly because of hubris undoes him, but mostly because quests like this always fail.
“A Pharaoh To Remember” doesn’t have a particularly clever setting; it lampshades its use of familiar Egyptian iconography well enough (in addition to the Chariots Of The God-tweaking explanation for the similarities between Osiris IV and Earth, Fry mentions Star Trek, which had a run of episodes where Kirk, Spock, and Bones visited “theme” planets that matched up with various eras in our own history), but the lampshading doesn’t make Osiris a compelling culture in and of its own right. Hell, there’s even a swipe at Elton John and his rewriting old songs to pay homage to newly dead people. The Egyptian stuff is really just a way to introduce slaves and monuments so that Bender can be as crazy as he wants to be. And that is a worthy goal. If you don’t find the sight of giant stone Bender breathing fire and ranting “Remember me!” as it explodes funny, I’m not sure there’s much help for you.
- Opening caption: Pssst… Big Party At Your House After The Show
- Bender’s early efforts to create a legacy make for some good gags. I especially like his attempts to spray-paint himself on a building, only to have the demolition crew turn the imagine into an insult, like one of those Mad Magazine fold-ins.
- “You know the worst thing about being a slave? They make you work, but they don’t pay you or let you go.” -Fry, getting to the heart of the problem.