It’s hard to say goodbye, isn’t it? Especially when nothing ever goes away.
Oh, I know, I know. Firefly isn’t coming back any time soon, and Uncle Ben is still dead (although given the number of Spider-Man movies we’ve seen, who knows what the future holds). Reboots and remakes and returns don’t compromise every show and movie, and there are plenty of dumped franchises which haven’t had a chance to exploit deluded nostalgia for a return of market share. But when I was a kid—back when TVs were just cardboard boxes with faces painted on them, and when it was time for the season to end, we’d set them on fire and watch the faces bubble into strange and sometimes beautiful shapes)—when a series was cancelled, that was it. It was gone. Sets were broken down, actors shipped off, creative teams and their families brutally executed for failing to achieve greatness. You know the drill.
Now, though, things can come back. Not always (dammit, Hannibal), but it happens, and we’re usually excited when it happens, even though we know deep down we probably shouldn’t be. Despite having seen the last season of The X-Files and the last movie, which had Mulder and Scully tracking down Russian body modification scientists with the help of a psychic pedophiliac priest, I am excited about a new X-Files show. I want to see more Twin Peaks. I kind of hope they make another season of Arrested Development. I am even, god help me, a bit keen on more Star Wars. (Heroes Reborn can die in the garbage fire that birthed it, though.)
It’s an understandable response, born out of selfish optimism (“Because I want this, it can definitely probably not suck!”) and, oh, let’s just say a subconscious desire to avoid death. (“If they can make more episodes of Coach, I will live forever!”) But in actual practice, as we’ve seen so many times, results have been mixed. Which brings us to Futurama, and Bender’s Big Score, the first in a series of four direct-to-video movies intended to serve as the show’s fifth season. It’s okay. Occasionally it’s inspired! But all too often, it’s held back by the same sloppiness that’s plagued the show since the start of its run. Worse, here that sloppiness is magnified by an extended running time, one which underlines bad structural choices and uninteresting subplots to an excruciating degree.
Yet it also isn’t completely terrible. There are good bits. One of the big questions facing the post-Fox era of Futurama is whether or not the new seasons are able to live up to the glory days of the original run. The other big question is whether or not the new seasons are able to justify their existence. I’d say the answer to the former is a definitive no; while the first four seasons had their problems, these DTV movies (and the subsequent seasons on Comedy Central) can’t match them for consistency. But as to whether or not the post-Fox stuff should exist at all… sure. I mean, I dunno, people whose work I enjoy got paid, and some of the episodes were pretty good, so, why not?
I realize I sound more wishy-washy than usual here, but I’m trying to get at a specific point. Watching Bender’s Big Score, I wanted to have a strong opinion about it one way or the other. It’s easier to write a review when I feel strongly about something, but it’s also just easier to think about something when you decide how you feel about it one way or the other. It’s easier to dismiss the resurrected Futurama out of hand, or to say it was an unqualified success, than it is to exist in some sort of uneasy gray space between the two, because picking one or the other means choosing a side you can argue for. Saying, “Well, there are some bits I liked and some bits I didn’t, and I honestly don’t know what it all adds up to” just isn’t very satisfying.
“Not very satisfying” is a pretty much dead-on description for this movie, though. It’s badly paced throughout, with structural choices that make me bang my head against the wall in frustration (metaphorically) and lazy jokes, but some of it isn’t awful. There were some jokes that made me laugh, and the writers manage to use the central concept—a binary code that generates a time bubble allowing anyone who steps inside to travel to whatever time in the past they choose—in some well-considered, clever, and even moderately moving ways. The movie isn’t consistent enough to be something worth recommending, but it has just enough that work to keep it from being completely disposable.
What definitely does not work: a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Hermes subplot, that has our favorite Rastafarian accountant losing his head in a limbo-related accident. Hermes is a potentially great character, but his struggles to defend his marriage against the lascivious intentions of Barbados Slim are not great in any conceivable way. None of this is shining a new light on the character, or reframing old information in a new context. Hermes’ family has never been particularly well-developed, especially poor LaBarbara, who barely rises above the level of a sight gag; she exists solely to provide an object for Hermes’ insecurities. The fact that she’s willing to divorce him the instant they learn he won’t have his body back for a few days is sort of funny in a cruel kind of way, but it’s also so deeply stupid that it renders her irrelevant as a character, and thus uninteresting. Why should we give a shit if Hermes saves his marriage if it’s this flimsy?
So yeah, that’s basically a wash. It doesn’t take up a whole lot of screentime, but any minutes spent on Hermes bemoaning his fate is wasted time. This would be a bad subplot in a normal 20-minute episode. Stretched out, it becomes even more interminable, as well as being indicative of one of the movie’s biggest (and most obvious) problems: The writers have no real clue how to put together an hour and a half’s worth of material in a way that engages the audience for the entire running time.
Ninety minutes is a different sort of challenge that twenty, so some rough spots are to be expected. And to everyone’s credit, this isn’t three separate stories smooshed together to form one big one, at least not in an obvious way. While all four of the direct-to-video movies were meant to be chopped up for syndication, there are no painfully obvious “Oh, and that’s where that episode would end” moments. Occasionally there are scenes that would make for obvious cliffhangers, but it’s doubtful that anyone could see just one segment of this and be satisfied without seeing the rest.
Instead, the writers have just stretched out a plot to fill the time. In theory, the plot has enough going on that this could’ve worked. The alien villains (Nudar, Fleb, and Schlump—Nudar is their leader) who trick Farnsworth into handing over Planet Express are a decent threat, and the time travel mechanic they discover tattooed to Fry’s ass suggests all sorts of possibilities. In its best moments, the movie exploits those possibilities, getting into the logistics of how it’s only possible to travel backwards through time with the code (which means that Bender ends up doing most of the really long distance stuff, since he can wait), and how each trip will create a temporal duplicate, which raises all sorts of paradoxical possibilities. It also creates Lars, one of Fry’s other selves, whose story is a clear attempt by the writers to find some pathos in all of this.
Unfortunately there just isn’t enough cleverness to sustain the running time, so we get all kinds of jokes. Some of them are decent, but there’s a disconcerting impression throughout of some gags getting stuffed in simply to make sure the movie is full-length, which means including material that a shorter episode would’ve left on the floor. I get it that the writers wanted to do a victory lap after being brought back from the dead, but I’m not sure it justified an entire five minute scene of gloating, even if a fair amount of it is funny. I’m also not sure we needed to introduce the main characters twice.
Stuff like this abounds, and it’s not really surprising given that, even at its height, Futurama was rarely a show with a firm grasp on pacing. But it’s frustrating, because good ideas are buried in all of this. I’m not sure if Lars’ arc works even without fractured storytelling—it leans too hard on sentiment, and the Fry/Leela pay-off at the end of “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” was so sweet that it’s annoying to see the writers returning to the same ground again—but its done no favors by crosscutting that continually robs the Other Fry’s backstory of momentum and impact.
The whole thing just repeatedly shows the limitations of the creative team behind it. The show’s writers can be lazy, but usually in ways that are over quickly. Here, the laziness gets rubbed in your face. We’re treated to repeated guest spots from familiar faces, which at least sort of makes sense, but then ideas are repeated multiple times without any variance, as though we’re going to forget something just because it happened 20 minutes ago. Worse, while the time travel mechanic itself is deployed in nifty ways, its origins are a explained with a lame causality loop. Also, and this is petty of me I know, but cryogenic tubes do not have enough room for multiple people. Especially multiple people who somehow go undetected when the tube opens.
As is so often the case, I’ve managed to talk myself into liking this even less than when I started, but it could’ve been good. I sincerely believe this: There’s enough raw material that with some revisions and maybe a few extra writers in the room, this could’ve legitimately worked. Those scammer aliens were delightfully loathsome bastards, and they presented something pretty rare for the series: a legitimate threat. The time travel concept was cool, and the idea of Lars—a Fry who lives and gets older on a separate timeline—raised a lot of fascinating questions. But the execution sinks it. I’ll give it a passing grade because I laughed a few times, and I was nearly moved. I’m dreading the weeks ahead, though.
- I don’t know why Bender sometimes had normal, black pupiled eyes while he was still under the control of the scammer aliens. I thought it was setting something up, and felt clever for noticing it, but now I just feel lonely and betrayed.
- Oh hey, Seymour. That’s definitely a character that I need to have brought back and see die.
- The aliens use they’re “sprunjers” to “sprunje” for information, which they’re obsessed with. As convenient narrative devices to generate plot go, “sprunje” works.
- Zoidberg has a gland that emits a horrible smell when he’s bored.
- “I’m science-ing as as fast as I can!”—Farnsworth
- “I can do more than talk! I can pontificate!”—Nibbler (Man, the Nibblonians are hella useless.)
- In order for Lars to happen, Fry has to go back in time to the year 2000. They justify this by having Fry shout, “I hate the future,” because aliens are chasing him and Leela is in love with some other guy.
- Oh, Al Gore makes an appearance. Which is kind of funny, although by this point, the surprise has worn off. (I wouldn’t have minded spending a full half hour watching Bender trek through America in 2000 trying to hunt Fry down, though.)
- The two musical numbers aren’t really catchy or fun. They seem to exist mostly because, again, there’s 90 minutes to fill, and singing eats up some of those minutes.
- “Well, we’re boned.”—Bender
Next week: We make “The Beast With A Billion Backs.”