“A Taste Of Freedom” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired 12/22/2002)

In which Zoidberg has a patriotic lunch…

Freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom. Gosh, that’s a swell word, isn’t it? More than a swell word, it’s a swell idea, a concept so pure and righteous that it can’t be denied or questioned or stopped. Freedom is the answer to everything, and everyone has the right to be free, which only gets tricky when you realize freedom to act also means freedom to respond; and freedom to respond means that, people being people, inevitably someone is going to end up in someone else’s face. Not everybody wants the same thing, not everybody shares the same beliefs, and the more freedom we have, the better the chances that your freedom is going to mess up my freedom, and then there’s the shouting and hurting and the oy, lady!

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Ahem. Anyway, freedom: It’s cool ’til it isn’t, but even then it’s still cool, so maybe you are the one who isn’t so cool, eh? Zoidberg, the most innocent member of the Planet Express team, is an immigrant who adores his adopted planet. When it comes time to celebrate Freedom Day (a holiday which has never been mentioned before and which Fry has never heard of, so maybe it’s a biannual thing), Zoidberg is more passionate than most, launching into speeches about how much he adores Earth, how much better it is than his own homeworld, and how he happy he is to be able to do whatever he wants without fear of persecution or judgement.

Then he eats a flag in front of a crowd, and everything goes to hell.

“A Taste Of Freedom” falls in line with earlier Futurama episodes that brought up major cultural issues (like environmentalism), in that it’s less a debate than a comic mishmash of the inherent messiness of politics and ego. If there’s a point to be made here it’s that crowds love the idea of freedom of expression more than they love the actual practice. The louder people cheer, the angrier they get when someone does something they don’t like, even when that something is arguably a part of the freedom they’ve cheering about.

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One of the episode’s better jokes on the subject comes out of Zoidberg’s defense attorney, a bigamist, Satan-worshipping hippie named Old Man Waterfall. Old Man (as he is affectionately known) routinely starts off with ideas that people like—people have the right to be free!—and then pushing it into directions that people don’t like—the aforementioned multiple spouses, gay marriage (remember when that was controversial?), the Satanism. The script isn’t particularly interested in digging into this idea, as there are giant crab warships to deal with, but just the acknowledgement of the conflict is enough to give things a bit more edge. Futurama is too good-natured at heart to be nihilistic, but its cynicism helps keep otherwise optimistic messages from sounding too trite.

And this episode is, ultimately, pretty optimistic. Oh sure, an entire country turns on Zoidberg for his act of flag mastication; even the supreme court rules that his actions are illegal and, when Zoidberg refuses to apologize for them, punishable by death. Then war breaks out, and Zoidberg’s fellow Decapodians conquer Earth in his defense, enslaving the locals and forcing them to build a giant defense crab to keep everyone in line. There are few voices of reason, and they are by and large impotent. No one has actual conversations about anything. There’s mostly just shouting and rage.

So, sure, that’s not exactly cheerful. But once you put aside the necessary comedic exaggerations, the fundamental arc of the story has everyone eventually coming around to Zoidberg’s way of thinking. While the episode does point out the challenges of free speech (in the show’s usual non-didactic, snickering way), the nice, sane, basically right person in the story is able to calm the crowd, winning over the people who wanted to execute him in an act of brazen heroism. All it takes is betraying his own kind and defeating an entire alien invasion. For Futurama, that’s about as easy as wins get, and the episode doesn’t have any last minute twists to put Zoidberg back in his place on the bottom of the totem pole.

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Which is very sweet, and it’s enjoyable to see the good doctor get a happy ending for once. Overall, the episode’s clever, common sense take makes for entertaining viewing—it’s a glib, but in a biting sort of way. The humanoid-crustaceans-who-act-like-vaudevillian-Jewish-stereotypes Decapodians are always good for a laugh (I just realized that shellfish isn’t kosher, so I guess I finally got a joke that’s over a decade old), and the scenes of the ships attacking Earth are pretty cool.

Still, even with all the strangeness, there is a curious familiarity to much of the episode, isn’t there? Another courtroom scene (this time, Rooster Lawyer is working for the prosecution), and a Zapp Brannigan foul up when it comes time to face down an invading enemy. Maybe that’s just a function of a show being on for four years; maybe after a while, certain concepts become part of the vocabulary. But the courtroom confrontation isn’t all that thrilling to watch, not even with a miniature holographic Zoidberg in the defense chair, and the battle for Earth is over fairly quickly.

There’s a fundamental shallowness to “A Taste Of Freedom” which is at once useful for the comedy (because delving into the issues never distracts from the jokes), and disappointing in the story. The episode takes the most predictable stance on its premise—eating the flag is not something you should be arrested for—and then doesn’t offer much variation outside of a series of escalating incidents. That makes for a diverting half hour that occasionally stabs at legitimate criticism, but one that’s ultimately more forgettable than its various absurdities would suggest.

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Stray observations

  • Opening caption: OR IS IT?
  • On Freedom Day, you can do anything you want. It’s like the Purge, only with less murdering and more nude-hot-tubbing.
  • The Freedom Day parade features the Fighting Dukaki, a reference to a disastrous publicity stunt from Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.
  • “Are you familiar with the old robot saying DOES NOT COMPUTE?”—Bender
  • Zapp loses the invasion when he gives the missile codes to a poorly disguised Decapodian spy.
  • “I request a Satanic funeral”—Old Man Waterfall
  • “Zoidberg, you set us free! I feel like I could stand to hug you! I can’t, but you know what I mean!”—Leela
  • “You’re a nice man, Nixon.”—Zoidberg

“Bender Should Not Be Allowed On Television” (season 4, episode 6; originally aired 8/3/2003)

In which it’s another Cubert and Dwight episode, I—no, wait, come back!

Seriously, come back: While “Bender Should Not Be Allowed On Television” starts like a Cubert and Dwight episode, it’s really more of a Bender episode, with Cubert and Dwight serving as plot motivators rather than plot focus. This is a messy half-hour, and like all of the show’s messy half-hours, it’s no more and no less than the sum of its parts.

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The problem, really, is that it’s nearly impossible to summarize what this episode is about in a quick sentence. “A Taste Of Freedom” was comparatively straightforward: Zoidberg eats a flag on Freedom Day, and ends up at war with the world. There’s a bit more, but that’s gist. Here, though, you could say “Calculon’s son breaks down on All My Circuits, and Bender takes his place, becoming wildly popular,” but that’s only part of the story. There’s also Cubert and Dwight watching TV and copying whatever they see, which means copying Bender, which leads to shenanigans, which leads to Farnsworth and Hermes starting a group to get Bender kicked off the show, which leads, eventually, to Bender joining, and taking over, a group formed to protest him.

Both of these plots could theoretically fill an entire episode. We’ve had episodes about Bender’s various obsessions before, and acting with Calculon wouldn’t be any kind of a stretch. We’ve also had an episode with Dwight and Cubert struggled to relate to their fathers. Here, the two premises are mashed together in a way that doesn’t ever completely gel. Bender’s ascendance as a media darling is too shortlived, and Dwight and Cubert’s sycophantic viewing habits never get into truly dangerous territory. The joke at the end is that Bender makes a speech about bad television role models but his speech is absurd. (“Have you ever tried simply turning off the TV, sitting down with your children, and hitting them?”) Only thing is, nothing in the rest of the episode has built us up to expect anything other than absurdity, so the gag doesn’t land as hard as it should.

That’s really the issue with a story as haphazardly constructed as this one. There’s no rising action, no tension, no concern for anyone involved, and without those things, there’s nothing to contrast against the humor, no surprising shift in our expectations that pulls the jokes together. This is a problem that comes up time and again on Futurama: The show can get away with it in its formative years because the characters are still fresh enough that we’re invested in them even when the stories aren’t great; and besides, the ideas the show throws out are generally strong even when the execution is lacking. But once the freshness wears off, the jokes that used to serve as subversive winks to the audience start to feel increasingly desperate. This isn’t lazy because it’s lazy! This is lazy with intent!

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Thankfully, “Bender Should Not Be Allowed On Television” doesn’t fall into that category, although the Dwight and Cubert stuff is, as ever, not all that interesting. Cubert is a clone, which you’d think would yield some compelling character work, but while he and Dwight aren’t actively annoying, their efforts to be cool barely register as a premise. And they don’t register at all as any kind of commentary. There are plenty of jokes about how the show is hypocritical, lecturing on the negative influence of television while at the same time repeatedly mentioning how awesome it is to steal things. Those are funny on a meta level, and make for great out of context quotes (“You’re watching Futurama, the show that does not advocate the cool crime of robbery.”), but in context, the cleverness only goes so far. It distracts you from the lack of rooting interest, but that doesn’t make said rooting interesting more compelling.

Bender’s adventures in TV land are considerably more thrilling, to the point where I wonder if the episode might not have been better served if it had kept the focus on him throughout. Bender’s plan for getting himself cast on Calculon’s show—shouting outside the audition room about how terrible everyone is, and how great some robot named “Bender” is—has just the right mix of logic and absurdity. But that’s probably the highlight of the sequence. Bender is a terrible actor, but his crudeness appeals to the viewing audience, so the network executives (led by a malevolent laptop) keep him on the air. Which leads to all that bad influence mentioned above.

There’s some satirical bite in the idea that Bender’s random jackassery would be such an immediate hit, but it’s not really explored. It really only exists so Dwight and Cubert can be inspired to steal Bender’s stuff, which in turn inspires him to join the group (Fathers Against Rude Television) to protest himself. Which has a certain appealing surrealness to it, but nothing in this episode lasts long enough for it to register. Yes, it would’ve been more predictable if we’d spent more time building up Dwight and Cubert, or if Bender had really gotten invested in his television career, but sometimes predictability isn’t a bad thing. The structures that Futurama spends so much time skewering serve a purpose, and while the show doesn’t need to adhere to them unironically, if it’s going to spend so much time tearing them down, it ought to have something to erect in their place.

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Stray observations

  • Opening caption: Controlling You Through A Chip In Your Butt Since 1999
  • Netflix had this with a remixed version of the theme song, including some voice work from Billy West and John DiMaggio. Wonder if that’s how it aired.
  • There’s a potential conflict when Cubert wonders if he has a birthday, being a clone and all. Farnsworth points out he was never born, but then decides they could use the anniversary of the day he scraped genetic material off a growth on his back. It’s an oddly sweet little moment.
  • When Calculon’s son breaks down, it happens on air, during an episode of the show, which suggests that the show is filmed live. Which is odd, but hey, sure, why not. Later on, though, when Bender makes his debut, the whole thing is taped and sent to an editing room. Maybe they changed how the show worked after the son’s collapse? Maybe I’m thinking about his too much.
  • “No… more… hanging… wires!”
  • “TV would stink if everyone on it was a positive role model.”—Bender, defining the most recent Golden Age of Television

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Next week: The room gets a bit dusty during “Jurassic Bark,” and we laugh at the days when climate change was a problem with “Crimes Of The Hot.”