“Bend Her” (season 4, episode 13; originally aired 7/20/2003)

In which Bender unleashes his inner woman

I’m not sure I have a consistent opinion on potentially offensive comedy. (“Oh boy!” you cry, “this is going to be one of the really fun reviews!”) I don’t like the word “offensive,” although “problematic” has been so overused that it’s nearly as bad. I don’t like the idea of trying to reduce art, no matter how vulgar or clumsy, to something we have to set against a checklist of appropriate viewpoints. You shouldn’t have to agree with a joke for it to be funny, and every once in a while, punching down can be fun. But at the same time… I dunno. I guess the best way I could put it is that every decision you make when you’re creating something for public consumption has a certain level of risk to it, and some choices are riskier than others. You have to earn some jokes in the only way that matters: by being funny.

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“Bend Her” isn’t a cruel episode, and even calling it mean would probably be stretching things. But it is predicated on a lot of tired, and borderline problematic (sigh) gags about gender roles; gags that all seem to be based on tediously dated notions. See, it’s funny because men don’t have emotions, but women do, and blah blah blah blah. Bender, deciding he wants to win an Olympic medal for bending but realizing he can’t win competing against the male robots, has Professor Farnsworth change his gender. Then, before he has time to change back, the new female Bender (“Coilette”) is swept up in a whirlwind romance with Calculon. Everything goes just a little too far, and Bender realizes he actually kind of respects Calculon’s feelings for him; so, under Leela’s guidance, he and the rest of the Planet Express gang fake a soap opera death for Coilette, to end the relationship without breaking Calculon’s heart.

That last bit? That’s a good bit, and it’s one of the only times the episode feels legitimately clever and funny. The absurdity of the idea, the way each character acts out his or her role (Leela, it turns out, is a terrible, terrible actor; Fry is more convincing, but can’t throw a spear worth a damn), and the energy with which it all plays out is entertaining as hell, and it’s the exact kind of comedy writing the show so often excels at: taking an absurd solution to a problem and making that solution seem like the only logical choice. Sure, making fun of soap operas isn’t exactly new ground, but just because material is familiar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

But man alive is “Ha ha, Bender is a girl now!” stuff lousy. It starts with the basic premise. Bender suddenly deciding he absolutely has to win an Olympic medal for bending, something he’s never expressed even the remotest interest in before? That makes sense. What doesn’t is the idea that the Women’s Bending events are so substantially easier than the Men’s that Bender is, once he throws on a dress and threatens an official, able to win them all without any trouble. Having a boorish character disguise themselves in order to succeed at a task only really works if that disguise ends up being more trouble than it’s worth. That sort of happens here with the Calculon relationship, but it’s bizarre to see him breeze through the Women’s events, as though pretending he was a lady (and then having the surgery to prove it) actually was a good and sensible idea.

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It’s part of the reliance on gender stereotypes that drives most of the episode. Everyone knows women are physically weaker than men, right? Everyone knows women feel things more than men, right? Everyone knows… actually, that’s pretty much it. There’s something amusing about seeing Bender commit to womanhood by talking about how ladies need to be willing to show more skin, because it’s clear we’re supposed to see what he’s saying as ridiculous. And really, the sight of Bender getting overly involved in the latest ruse to catch his family is generally going to be enjoyable, because of who he is.

Yet underlying all of this are basic assumptions about how men and women behave that are neither interesting nor particularly insightful. It’s not presented as any great statement on Men and Women and the Spaces Between Them. But the story’s willingness to take its premise as face value in the most predictable way possible robs it of all but the most rudimentary life. The whole damn thing is lazy, and that’s more annoying than any of its blah gags about ladies crying. Apart from the sight of Bender as a woman, there’s no second step to the premise, no unexpected spin that throws everything into question. Sure, the affair with Calculon extends the story past the opening act and provides us with the rudiments of the climax, but every story about a guy dressed up as a woman always has to have a buffoonish fella who falls for the “lady.” The gag was old when Elmer Fudd was falling for it.

Really, the episode’s biggest failing is that it’s essentially forgettable, Futurama going through the motions on the assumption that the mere notion of Bender with boobs is going to be enough to hold our attention. (For some of you, this may be true. Enjoy!) The only way it could’ve been lazier would have been for Zapp to be the one to romance Bender, not Calculon; as is, at least we get that nifty soap opera sequence at the end, and a brief glimpse of Calculon’s attempt to turn tragedy into Oscar gold. Offensiveness in art can be a way to shake preconceptions, and force us to either defend our beliefs or look at things in a new way. At the very least, it should provide some excitement. There’s no excitement here, and the only real offense comes from idea that anyone involved thought this hackwork was worth our time.

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Stray observations

  • Opening caption: TOO HOT FOR RADIO
  • Another bad sign: there’s a subplot, involving Hermes brief return to public limboing. It’s revolved quickly, and there is no pay-off later in the story, so far as I or my notes can remember.
  • “Something tells me I could easily beat those trained professionals.” -Bender
  • You could argue that, since robots are built by people, the function of their respective genders is more a reflection on what those people assume gender to be, than it is on any inherent value in the gender itself. But since there’s no effort whatsoever to acknowledge this in the episode, I’m not sure it’s relevant.
  • Hail Robonia, a land Bender “didn’t make up.”
  • Fry’s constant terror that Bender is now actually a woman, and thus attracted to men, and thus not someone he can be friends with anymore, is both in character and annoying. Really, the whole “girls have cooties!” vibe from so much of this just gets old.
  • “I’m a doctor, she’s dead.” -Zoidberg
  • I’ve got high expectations for Coilette: The Calculon Story this awards season.

“Obsoletely Fabulous” (season 4, episode 14; originally aired 7/27/2003)

In which Bender gets a downgrade

Ahhh, that’s better. Not great, but at least the writers are actively engaged in this storyline, as opposed to just regurgitating stale material. That’s probably because evolving technology and the threat of obsolescence is a topic closer to the hearts of the show’s creative minds than the so-called war of the sexes. Or maybe not; it’s not as though this is a straight-faced lecture on how progress can ultimately serve to help the working class, rather than destroy it. Any effort at subtext or thematic consistency in here is largely a wash, as the basic concept raises far more questions than the plot can answer. But that’s all right—what matters is that said concept provides a fertile ground for both Bender’s actions, and for a lot of swell jokes about outmoded robots. That’s enough for me.

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Still, about those questions: it’s funny how Futurama presents us with a world in which sentient robots exist, and all those robots were essentially created by one person (and a lot of factories); but it’s never exactly clear on what the standard relationship is between robots and humans. Bender isn’t a slave or anything, but Mom is clearly building her robots with profit in mind. She wouldn’t bother creating the upgrade (Robot 1-X) that terrifies Bender and sets the plot in motion if there weren’t something in it for her. And Robot 1-X is thoroughly subservient to the point where it’s difficult to discern if the machine has any will of its own. So, some robots are thinking, independent beings, and some are not? Are there are any legal distinctions between the rights of the two? Is Bender, with his freedom to more or less come and go as he pleases, the exception or the rule?

All of which sounds like some pretty classical thinking-too-much-on-my-part, and I’m not saying the show needs to explain any of this. (Which is a good thing because, spoiler alert, they don’t.) Since so much of the action typically focuses on our heroes, the rest of their world only needs to exist so much as it’s relevant to them, and any heavy duty dissection can be left to the nerds and the word-count hungry reviewers, where it belongs. But what’s weird is how much this episode dances up to the edge of pointing out all this stuff, before backing away, never to return.

F’r instance, there’s the presentation where Mom unveils the newest model of robot, Roboticon 3000. Robots are allowed in free (Fry, who has a soul, has to pay), and the place seems to be a kind of all-purpose robotics fair for positronic men and women. But then Mom gives her big conference, which leads to the introduction of Robot 1-X, a machine designed to basically replace most existing robots. What’s the point? Pure sadism? Not exactly; there’s also a system for changing the minds of robots who hate or fear the new technology.

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Which is even weirder—like, Philip K. Dick levels of weird, although maybe not quite that batshit. (There’s a ultimately a clearer distinction between fantasy and reality in this story than Dick was ever much interested in.) The big twist at the end of the episode is that the entire mid-section of the story, from Bender escaping the brain-changing machine, to him finding an island of misfit-bots, to him bringing those ‘bots back to the mainland to wage war on technology, to him finally learning his lesson when he’s able to use Robot 1-X to save his friends, is a head trip. This is how Bender’s neural circuits process the newly installed program: as a story with an easily understood moral about loving Robot 1-X.

That’s clever. But it’s not really an inspired cleverness, not in the same way that “The Sting” was. That episode had us constantly uncertain as to what was real and what wasn’t. In this one, everything plays out as straightforward as most any regular Futurama episode, and the final reveal serves no more than to add a mildly amusing twist. It doesn’t explain anything, because there wasn’t anything that needed explaining, and worse, it actually detracts some from what did work in the episode. By revealing that everything we saw was even more fictional than usual, the ending makes the whole enterprise a bit more hollow, a bit more pointless. It’s not disastrous, but it is unnecessary, and unnecessary things are sometimes more irritating than disastrous ones.

Still, I came into this review relatively positive on the whole endeavor, and I stand by that. Watching Bender, whose don’t-give-a-shit levels are normally legendary, struggle to deal with the “threat” Robot 1-X poses is hilarious, and his counter-productive efforts throughout the episode are generally imaginative and unexpected. (I especially liked the the long message he writes on the beach when he’s trying to find help, only he can’t finish it because he runs out of stones: “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: I, BENDER, BID YOU HELLO! YOU DON’T KNOW ME, THOUGH YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF ME, BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT. LONG STORY SHORT… I NEED HELF”)

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Also great? The outmoded robots Bender meets when he makes a boat out of a No Boating sign and sails off to a seemingly deserted island. There’s a robot that uses various 8 track tapes as a speaking track, a robot without enough memory named Sinclair 2k, a wind-up cymbal crashing monkey, and Lisa, a robot who needs to keep the water-wheel in her torso perpetually running, or else she’ll die. 8-Track and Lisa get the most screentime, and I can’t decide which is my favorite. The various 8-tracks that 8-Track uses to speak allow for some inspired, creative absurdism, but the absolutely terror in Water-wheel’s voice every time she runs low on water is that perfect mix of clear motivation and utter insanity.

Maybe that’s why I’m so iffy on the twist. I liked all of these robots, and wanted to see more from them, and the twist basically makes that impossible. Yet even without that ending, this wouldn’t be one of the show’s greatest half hours. Bender’s assault on modern technology is the sort of loopy idea which, while plausibly in character, needed to either be bigger or smaller to be funny. As is, it feels a bit like a half-assed Fight Club parody. (Although the scene where he breaks a night light at an orphanage made me laugh.) Overall, this is an inconsistent, but generally decent episode, which suffers somewhat from an abundance of good ideas, and a dearth of follow through.

Stray observations

  • Opening caption: “You can’t prove it won’t happen.”
  • There’s a very real chance that I wrote the last sentence of this review solely to give myself an excuse to use the word “dearth.”
  • Robot 1-X is the sort of uber-competent creation that walks a fine line between bland and smug. It never really develops a personality over the course of the story (nor should it), but there is just a hint of bragging when it tells Bender, “However, I was able to do your job before I saved your life.”
  • Bender, looking for an outlet, sticks a plug into a boar’s nose: “Hey, I should be mad at you. Turn around.”
  • This week is apparently the week for Bender changing form. In “Bend Her,” he becomes a woman; here, he becomes all wood. It’s a neat visual, and leads to some clever sight gags later in the story.
  • “I am hideous triumph of form and function!” -Bender
  • “Oh lord, he’s made of wood.” -Leela
  • Kenny Loggins is one of Bender’s desert island discs. Also? Beethoven.

Next week: We get back to the classics with “The Farnsworth Parabox” and “Three Hundred Big Boys.”

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