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Futurama: "All The President's Heads"

Illustration for article titled Futurama: "All The President's Heads"
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All right, I'm about to criticize tonight's episode of Futurama, "All the Presidents' Heads," for being too silly. It's a strange line to draw. This is a show that has been open about its goofiness since the very first episode; we've had aliens that morph into parodies of Married With Children, a computer that falls in love with a robot, a robot who develops sentient life on his belly while floating through space, and a hero who's gone back in time and impregnated his grandmother. And those were some of the show's better episodes. Futurama has never worried too much about maintaining decorum, and that's why it's such a fun show when it works. All stories and gags are possible. Nothing is off-limits.

Thing is, though, those premises I mentioned above, and the premises of all the series' greatest moments, have enough internal logic to work. There's enough precedence behind them that they only really seem ridiculous when you separate them from their context. In tonight's episode, the Planet Express crew discovers that if you drink the fluid from the jar of a head in a jar, you instantly travel back to the time period when the head was attached to a body. There's a bit of fantasy science thrown around—the Head-in-jar museum uses opalescence to keep the heads fresh, and the substance creates a time bubble which can be accessed by anyone, if only for a short time. After a couple of short time jumping sketches (Zoidberg inspires Andy Warhol, Bender grabs a gangster from a speakeasy in the '20s), Farnsworth decides to use this discovery to travel back to the time just before the Revolutionary War and stop one of his ancestors, David Farnsworth, from besmirching the family name.

This is really stupid. There are a few decent gags sprinkled throughout the episode, and some obscure historical references for the trivia geeks, but the premise here, and the general execution of that premise, is just too lazy and slipshod to base an entire episode around. Time jumping via jar juice is such a bizarre choice—it seems more like something that would happen on an episode of Super Friends than on a show that generally does well by science fiction. There's no consistency to the travel, either. Why would Zoidberg and the others show up in Andy Warhol's apartment after chugging the dregs of Lyndon B. Johnson? Do LBJ and Warhol have some specific ties I'm not aware of? There's no way to pinpoint the precise moment in the president's history you'll travel to, either, which makes it convenient that Farnsworth, Leela, Fry and Bender jump back to colonial times on just the right day to find and stop David Farnsworth.

Some of that is nitpicking, sure. I don't mind a certain amount of coincidence in a show, if it helps move the story along. But the basic concept is just so dumb that it took me out of the story the minute it came up. I expect more from these guys. Maybe there's a connection I'm missing, but even if I am, the episode would still be a so-so slog through a lot of obvious history jokes. Some of them work (The Franklinator!), and few of them are outright terrible, but none of them are good enough to really justify building a storyline around. Then, in the process of clearing his family name, the time travelers (ie, Fry) change history—Fry grabs a lantern from the famous "one if by land, two if by sea" church, and Paul Revere's famous ride fails to warn anyone successfully. When the team flashes back to the present, everyone is suddenly British.

And what a British they are! Futurama has never been afraid of reaching for the low-hanging fruit, and like a lot of great comedy, the jokes work best when they're a mixture of high and low humor. Here, though, pretty much everything was low, and I don't mean "crass." ("Crass" was Bender searching through a chamber pot for a forged ha'penny. And that was great.) If you can think of an obvious joke about the Brits, "Heads" included it. They weren't very funny, but there's something to be said for completism, I guess. And then, just when it seems all hope is lost, a solution presents itself with all the random providence of someone saying, "Oh right, we should probably find some way to undo all of this before the end credits." Futurama has done time travel before, and far better than this, because those older episodes were made with the understanding that time travel is an over-used trope in sci-fi, and that any story which wants to use it, should do so for damn good reason. There's no reason here, and on a series that's never been afraid to be smart, that's disappointing.

Stray Observations:

  • Oh, President John Tyler jokes, you never get old.
  • On the plus side, Leela was in top form tonight, kicking ass and stealing silver. Her Peru line was great.
  • "Well, it's six o'clock. We can deliver that human heart tomorrow."
  • What bugs me the most about this one is that everything was going great right up until Zoidberg jumped back in time. I could almost hear the record scratch in my head.
  • "No parties, or it'll be your ass in a jar!"
  • "I'm sure no one's ever said this before, but I must get to Philadelphia as quickly as possible!"
  • "Are you man or machine?" "Mostly machine. There may be a few dead cats in there."
  • "Fry, you dope! You've really screwed the granny this time." This needs to be a catchphrase. Please feel free to hurl it at me in the comments.