“Anthology of Interest I” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 5/21/2000)

In which there’s a giant robot, a murderous cyclops, and a plot hole…

Continuity is a marvellous storytelling tool. It can intensify audience investment in characters, allow for more complex narratives, and create a sense of persistent world-building that lasts far beyond the actual artistic work itself. But it can be a drag, too, an annoying set of increasingly complicated rules that writers have to follow or else run the risk of breaking the fiction completely. It’s a bit like a long-running game of chess. At first, the board looks clear and full of possibilities, but the more you play, the fewer options you have left open to you, and the more important it becomes that you choose correctly. This raises the stakes and creates growing intensity, but it can also (when, like me, you are not very good at chess) become frustrating as hell. Sometimes, you don’t want the rules. Sometimes you just want to murder everyone and be done with it.

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Enter Professor Farnsworth’s “What If” machine, a parallel universe device that allows users to view alternate dimensions that serve as answers to simple “what if” questions. Like if you asked, “What if I’d gone outside for a walk in the park instead of reading a review of a show that aired over a decade ago?”, the machine would show you getting mugged and then kidnapped by a crazed Teletubbies cult and brought to an undisclosed location where they prepared your stomach for the Again Again machine. (And who wants to get mugged, right?) This is essentially Futurama’s version of the annual Simpsons“Treehouse Of Terror” anthology episodes: a collection of three short stories that exist outside of continuity, allowing the writers to get up to whatever tricks they might wish without fear of rules or limits.

“Treehouse Of Terror” episodes are (at least nominally) connected by a horror theme, so one of the questions raised at the outset of “Anthology Of Interest” is just how dark the storylines are going to get. Futurama has been a more cynical show than its forebear from the start, but without the horror backdrop driving the anthology plots, it’s at least theoretically possible that this episode wouldn’t have had a fictional body count. (More fictional than usual, I mean.) Thankfully, fans of carnage can breathe easy, provided they still have their lungs. A lot of people die in this episode. And I meant a lot. The last “scenario” (not counting the final twist) has Leela murdering nearly every member of the Planet Express crew, and while there isn’t a ton of blood, there are definite visuals.

These aren’t segments designed to offer much in the way of emotional depth or character work; the most they accomplish is some light commentary on the protagonists’ fundamental characteristics. So when Bender wonders what it would be like if he was 500 feet tall, he’s the same Bender we’ve always known, only, y’know, 500 feet tall. When Leela wonders what it would be like if she was more impulsive, the story that follows demonstrates that her uptight, by-the-book approach to life is all that prevents her from going on a killing spree. (And then sleeping with Fry.) And when Fry wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t fallen into the cryosleep tube, we learn that without a frozen Fry, the universe collapses—after all, his millennium long nap is the premise of the series, and without the nap, there’s no series.

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All of this isn’t a bad idea for an episode, and there are moments of inspiration throughout. Watching Leela slaughter her way through most of the main ensemble is good for some laughs, and having Fry team up with Stephen Hawking, Al Gore, Nichelle Nichols, and Gary Gygax is a fun way to bring in some big-hitter guest stars, at least from the nerd perspective. Fry’s segment is the closest “Anthology” comes to really living up to the potential of its premise, managing to cram a lot of weirdness and a few twists into its compact frame. And the twenty minutes are certainly never boring. The script even works in a final reversal, when we learn in the last scene that the everything else we saw was just the result of Professor Farnsworth asking the “What If” machine what would happen if he invented the Finglonger. It’s the sort of development the show excels at: structurally meaningless, but funny in part because it’s meaningless.

That aside, this still feels like something of a wasted opportunity. If an episode is going to purposefully shirk its story responsibilities, it needs to offer something more that just the fact of its existence. Bender’s “What if I was 500 feet tall?” story has some good gags, and the fight with Zoidberg is fun (and disturbing), but finding out that he and Fry would still have been friends no matter their respective sizes isn’t enough to justify the segment. I’m probably just being overly critical here, but the last segment at least demonstrated some ambition. On the whole, “Anthology” plays out like a moderately engaging thought experiment; certainly not a complete waste, but nothing that justifies the existence of the experiment over another entry that played by the rules.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Painstakenly Drawn In Front Of A Live Studio Audience.”
  • Okay fine, I’m being too harsh on this. But don’t promise me novelty and then fail to deliver completely on that promise!
  • Oh, giant Bender kills Hanson. Remember Hanson?
  • While we’ve seen the character model before, this episode marks Scruffy’s first official named appearance. Long live the Scruffster!
  • “Something’s wrong! Murder isn’t working and that’s all we’re good at.”

“War Is The H Word” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 11/26/2000)

In which war, huh, good god y’all, what is is good for…

Sometimes, Futurama scripts take a convoluted approach to getting to the point. Other times, it’s pretty much a straight line. “War Is The H Word” takes the straight line approach, even if it doesn’t initially appear to. Fry and Bender are at the store picking up gum, and they see a soldier ahead of them get a five percent military discount. They ask for the same discount and are incensed (in the best Fry and Bender tradition) at the unfairness of not getting something that doesn’t apply to them for clear and utterly fair reasons. So they join the military with the intent of dropping out immediately after enlisting—they’ll get the discount, but avoid the service. Unfortunately, “war were declared.” And war is, well, look at the title again.

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“War Is The H Word”’s premise (Fry, Bender, and eventually Leela join the army to fight a war) is largely an excuse to hang a bunch of different joke concepts on a single broad (heh) concept. The military means there’s room for gags about basic training, gags about Fry and Bender being terrible soldiers, gags about Zapp being a terrible officer (I’d forgotten how often Zapp pops up in these first two seasons), gags about how awful humans can be when it comes to invading the territories of other races/species/sentient ball creatures, gags about Zapp being attracted to Leela in drag, even some great gags about the binary modality of MASH’s tone. I’m not sure there’s one specific thread that ties everything together, but there doesn’t really need to be. The story makes reasonable sense, and the jokes range from decent to excellent; there’s enough of them to keep this from ever feeling too stale.

One slight exception: the jokes about Zapp being into “Lee Lemon.” Now, this sort of works because Zapp is a lunatic, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he’d be so invested in presenting a specific, and narrow, view of masculinity that he’d become uncomfortable at the thought of being attracted to a man. But Kiff also reacts disgustedly at the idea at one point in the episode, which is kind of weird. I’m not saying this crosses some sort of offensiveness line, or that I think the show is being homophobic—the joke here is pretty much always on Zapp, which is exactly where it needs to be. But it is odd that in the year 3000, apparently human sexuality has remained stuck largely in the 1950s. It’s not a problem, exactly, but it does underline the specific perspective that drives so much of the show, and how that perspective takes certain concepts (like, say, a dude being attracted to another dude without realizing it’s a woman, which is a bit that’s been with us since before Shakespeare) for granted.

Anyway, now that I’ve irritated everyone, “War Is The H Word” is fine; I think I have a soft spot for the sprawling epics like this one, and I’m especially keen on stories where the “heroes” are actually just heroes because they’re the characters we’re following. The bouncing ball aliens are the rightful denizens of Spheron One, and they end up losing their entire planet thanks to Nixon’s trickery. As social satires go, this isn’t exactly complex, but there’s something satisfying in just how uncompromising the plotline is. There’s a sneaking suspicion early on that this war is human-caused (Zapp’s briefing on the battle ahead is low on details, big on lies and double-talk), but the confirmation of this doesn’t lead to a sudden reversal in the fortunes of the downtrodden. Bender has a bomb in him, and the aliens leave their homeworld, never to be seen again. The only nice thing is that they didn’t all get killed in the process, but Fry, Leela, and Bender remain, at best, enablers, and at worst, outright extortionists. (The “x” makes it sound sexy.)

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Hm, what else… well, I’d say more about the MASH joke, but I haven’t watched the series since I was a kid. All I can say is that the riff here, which has robot surgeon “iHawk” switching between “irreverent” and “maudlin” from line to line, is in keeping with my general memories of the show, and of the critical work I’ve read on it in the last few years. The swap that makes “This isn’t a war, it’s a murder” first melancholy and then Marxo Grouch is a deft piece of writing, and it’s impressive how neatly the episode manages to both skewer and homage the earlier show in such a small space of time. And hell, the scene ends with Zoidberg enraged that the robot stole his punchline, and an enraged Zoidberg is always worth a laugh.

While the Leela/Lee Lemon plot was somewhat underdone, the low-key approach actually helped the material in some ways, as it turned the joke into less a case of concealed identity, and more a bit about how dumb everyone else was not to see through the ruse. Inevitably Leela is a far better soldier than Fry, Bender, or pretty much anyone (for some reason, the army is no longer coed; Zapp himself acknowledges this. I guess this is because it’s the only way the writers could arrange to have Leela disguise herself as a man?), although her prowess in training never really pays off in the field.

That’s the biggest criticism against the episode, really: very little of it pays off, apart from a call-back joke about Big Pink gum. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but with a scope as big as this one, it might’ve been more satisfying to have a tighter storyline, something with a clear rise and fall, as opposed to just a lot of stuff happening and then it’s over. The final joke, which has Bender struggling to guess the word he uses least often, depends on information we learned only a few minutes before. It’s not complicated information (the bomb Nixon hid in Bender was voice activated), and it’s not a terrible joke by any means, but there’s no real build to it. There’s strong writing in “War Is The H Word,” but the structure is half-hearted, which makes for an enjoyable, but forgettable outing.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Touch Eyeballs To Screen For Cheap Laser Surgery”
  • Zapp claims to suffer from “Sex-lexia.”
  • “A few of you will be forced through a fine-mesh screen for your planet.” -Zapp’s pep talk
  • Nice, unobtrusive Star Wars gag during soldier training.
  • Character development moment: Fry tells “Lee” that he has a crush on a cyclops back on Earth. (Lee says “Aw.”)
  • “We have all seen too many body bags and ball sacks.” -Henry Kissinger’s head
  • Bender is initially set to explode on the word “ass.” (It’s word number one in his Top Ten Most Frequently Used Words.) Later, Farnsworth reprograms the bomb to only go off when Bender says “Antiquing.” Which he does, but the explosion doesn’t seem to kill anyone.

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