“Bendin’ In The Wind” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 4/22/2001)

In which Bender gets two turn tables and a microphone

Bender is a free-flowing cyclone of consequence-free selfishness—mostly. He’s more impulsive than the rest of the show’s cast, and more prone to violent or theoretically off-putting decisions, but he’s not a complete monster. If he is, he’d be a lot less interesting. The writers have a few tricks to keep Bender contained. He’s physically vulnerable, as this episode shows; while his robot body can endure more damage than most other characters, he can still suffer and fear pain. Bender does, in his semi-arbitrary way, legitimately care about Fry and the others, not so much that the caring would necessary get in the way of his doing what he wants, but at least enough to make him pause a second. And Bender has things he desires that he can’t actually have. That’s a big one, for both of this week’s episodes. You give Bender a dream, and then you put that dream just out of his reach, and you got yourself a story.

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It’s not a story that’s played for much pathos (at least, not this time), but that’s not a problem. “Bendin’ In The Wind” follows Bender’s brief career as a crusading folk singer, starting with an unfortunate confrontation with a giant electric can opener. This is the second time the can opener has appeared on the show (the first: “I Second That Emotion,” which used the opener for a one-off gag designed to make Bender mad at Nibbler), and Bender’s fear of it is well-justified. Fry and the others shame him into using it, and things go immediately wrong, with Bender’s torso “opened” several times as he screams and sings. The accident leaves him (temporarily) paralyzed, he meets Beck at the hospital, and everything sort of goes from there.

“Robot paralysis” is another in a long line of ridiculous concepts that the show tosses out with a shrug and smirk and just expects you to accept it. Which is fine. The key moment comes during the conversation with the doctor at the hospital; after some ominous foreshadowing, he tells Bender the horrible truth (his “hydraulics are shot”), and then says to Farnsworth, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to get a new one.” The dynamic here is that Bender is as much a commodity as he is a sentient being, and while that’s a dynamic that could theoretically lead to some interesting conflict, the show typically plays it for laughs. It fits in with an overall tendency to portray society as a dehumanizing (and delegitimizing) force.

The idea that the future is full of robots that are treated essentially as slaves isn’t something that we’re supposed to dig too deep into unless it’s useful for the joke at hand. Making Bender into disposable property helps to drive his feelings of loneliness and isolation, which then gives him another reason to go on the road with Beck’s head; it also, however briefly, gives him a cause to fight for when he sees other damaged robots being turned into paperweights. Yet we’re never supposed to take it that seriously. The scene of a bunch of friendly robots cheering Bender on before being destroyed is another in a long line of dark Futurama gags that work better if you don’t dwell on them for very long. And while Bender’s desire to speak for his fellow broken ‘bots is sincere, it’s no more sincere than his greed and love for self-aggrandizement. The turning point of the episode has Bender singing a protest song he wrote, but the focus isn’t on the content of the song, exactly, so much as it is on the irony of him claiming to be paralyzed while he dances and grooves to his own music. The episode forgets those doomed robots as quickly as Bender does—which, given the show we’re watching, isn’t exactly a surprise.

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That makes sense narratively, since Bender is always more important to us than a bunch of one-off extras, but it does mean that “Bendin’ In The Wind” doesn’t really end up going anywhere by the end. Bender doesn’t learn any real lesson because Bender rarely does. There’s a nifty moment at the end when he puts a magnet on his head just so he can enjoy singing some “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and it’s funny and kind of melancholy at once, but it doesn’t land as hard as it should because Bender’s dream of being a folk singer never quite comes across. The “broken robots” runner confuses the issue, and Bender’s comeuppance is less a deserved fall from grace due to his own hubris, and more just this thing that happens. He can move again, but he still sings his song about damaged ‘bots, and that’s somehow bad, because reasons I guess? It makes enough sense to work, but not quite enough sense to really work, if you follow.

Still, this is a fun episode. Beck’s guest appearance is another great celebrity turn on the show, playing a version of himself that simultaneously captures and satirizes his public image, and the singer’s dry-as-bone line deliveries work especially well for this series’ style of humor. (My favorite is when he reacts to Bender’s sudden attack of the dance moves during their final concert. He just sounds so legitimately outraged about what’s going on.) Beck is just the right musician to help Bender achieve his dreams, too. He is, after all, known for being an eclectic performer, and the idea that he’d take on a washboard-playing robot is actually pretty damn plausible.

As for the rest, the episode’s subplot (and the story that actually gets the main plot going) has Fry discovering an old Volkswagen bus, cleaning it up, and taking it on the road to follow Bender on tour. Leela, Amy, and Zoidberg go along for the ride, and it’s really just a fun excuse to throw out some jokes about scrounging and hippies, and give Zoidberg a chance to win a few rounds. Like the main plot, this doesn’t really add up to much, but it’s enjoyable enough that you don’t really mind. At least, I didn’t.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Federal Law Prohibits Changing The Channel”
  • While Bender’s in the hospital, he’s visited by “Patchcorn Adams,” a Patch Adams parody that does a good job of punctuating that movie’s cheery, self-satisfied foolishness. Still, it was oddly disquieting to hear someone doing a Robin Williams impersonation. That’s not the episode’s fault; it’s a good gag, and Patch Adams is a worthy target. It’s justweird how these things can twist on you sometimes.
  • Olestra joke! Remember olestra? Actually, don’t, you’re better off.
  • In the future, they don’t use gasoline, they use whale oil.
  • “Bender, that was the best 40 minute washboard solo I’ve ever heard.” -Beck
  • “Hand me the Becktionary. No, no, the rhyming Becktionary.” -Bender (I’ve found myself quoting this line a lot over the years, which is bizarre because it makes no sense out of context.)
  • One of the bands at Bend-Aid is Cylon and Garfunkel, which plays out like you’d expect. (Provided you’re at all familiar with the original Battlestar Galactica.)
  • “Thank you! That song usually doesn’t last three hours, but we got into a serious thing, and then I forgot how it ended.” -Beck

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“Time Keeps On Slippin’” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 5/6/2001)

In which [] and that’s something you could never say to a bishop!

Fry and Leela’s relationship never really makes sense, at least not when you view it in the aggregate. If you try and piece together their back and forth over the run of the show, it creates an uneven portrait of a seriously dysfunctional pairing, one which makes Leela come off worse than I think anyone ever intended her to. Fry’s constant pursuit is tricky enough, because he runs of the risk of looking like a clueless stalker, forcing himself on a friend who doesn’t share his feelings. To avoid this, the writers make Leela’s rejections perpetually lukewarm; she’s not interested, but then she’s sort of interested, but then she isn’t, but then maybe?

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We’re getting into a tricky area here, and I’m not really interested in debating issues of consent in this review (in the real world, Fry would be a creep, let’s leave it at that), but I do think Leela’s constant waffling on the issue is damaging to her character because it plays less like a woman uncertain of the currents of her own heart, and more like a contrivance designed to extend a conflict long past it’s sell-by date. Where other will-they/won’t-they scenarios throw in obstacles to keep the characters apart (sometimes the obstacles are physical, sometimes they’re psychological, but they always interfere with the presumed platonic ideal of the dreamed of relationship), Fry being Fry is the only real obstacle here, and Leela’s weird “Ehhhh, nah, but maybe I don’t know”s don’t make a lot of sense when you watch the series as a whole.

Normally I’d argue that in that case, the writers would’ve been better off chucking the entire conceit. The problem is, when you pick up individual episodes to look at, the Leela/Fry dynamic yielded some of the series’ most affecting emotional moments. Both of the show’s finales use the pair as their lynchpin, and in both cases, that’s the right decision to make. Maybe the problem is less that Fry and Leela can’t work, but that the writers were much more comfortable working them as a potential pairing rather than an actual one. It’s like that old saw about Moonlighting not working once the two leads hooked up, only in this case it’s self-inflicted and actually true.

The point being, Fry’s badgering of Leela in “Time Keeps On Slippin’” is kind of off-putting, but it leads to a heartbreaking ending, the sort of ending that elevates an already great episode. Fry’s discovery of what he’d done to woo Leela serves as a fitting conclusion to a story all about missed opportunities and arriving too late. It helps especially that Fry’s knowledge doesn’t change anything. He pines for Leela, he tries to win her affections through various means, and the one ploy that’s actually successful ends up happening during a time jump; and when he finally sees the stars he arranged in the sky to spell out “I LOVE YOU, LEELA,” he does so right before those stars are sucked into a black hole, erasing them forever.

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There’s enough pathos in this to ease over a lot of potentially creepy gender politics. And while Fry’s story serves as the emotional arc for the half hour, the central premise is so cool that it’s almost not even needed. When the Harlem Globetrotters land on planet Earth and challenge the citizens to a basketball game, Professor Farnsworth is up to the task. Namely, he’s up to the task of using this challenge as motivating action to get us to the actual story. The Professor creates some mutant supermen to serve as his basketball team, but they’re all babies, so he sends Fry and the others to get time particles (“chronitons”) to age the team before the game. The team of super mutant men nearly defeats the Globetrotters, (Fry ruins everything.) but Earth has an even bigger problem than losing its cool: thanks to Farnsworth, everyone starts jumping forward in time for hours or even days.

It’s a terrific conceit, and the show makes the most of it, giving us several rapid fire smash cut gags, some of which are intentionally obvious (Fry wants to jump into the basketball game while the Earth team is ahead several points, says “What could go wrong?”; one cut later, and they’ve lost), and the delightfully surreal. Of the latter, the weirdest is probably Hermes’ attempts to fix the situation. He tells Ethan “Bubblegum” Tate, leader of the Globetrotters, that he knows how to solve everything—one jump later, the Planet Express crew are in a naked congo line, and naked Hermes is playing the steel drums, with no idea how he get them all into the situation.

Admittedly, this doesn’t exactly make sense—even though the characters don’t have any memory of what happens between time jumps (while still acting normally during the time we don’t see), Hermes would’ve at least had some kind of plan when he talked to Ethan in the set-up for the joke. But that doesn’t really matter, because the funny is what matters most. The “rules” are generally consistent, but not always consistent. Sometimes characters remember things in ways that don’t make sense, and sometimes they clearly don’t behave in normal ways over the course of the jump. This is only something that becomes clear after several viewings, though, and the gags are all strong enough to justify the cheats. (Well, more or less. I’m not sure I needed the bit about the weirdly political eight year-old bemoaning social security, only to jump forward into an old man and start demanding money.)

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There are jokes about characters saying one thing and then immediately being contradicted, and jokes that winkingly nod at the inherent limitations of the narrative, using time skips to pass over seemingly impassable obstacles. What makes it all so satisfying is that the writers manage to use the gimmick to its fullest without exhausting its potential, and without rendering the episode incoherent, or reducing it to a series of cut-away bits. The quest to solve the chroniton problem (which ultimately has Ethan and the Professor teaming up) serves as the spine, and Fry’s efforts to first win Leela over, and then to figure out how he managed to briefly win her over (only to lose her again), serves as the heart.

To pine after someone who isn’t interested in you (or worse, who likes you but doesn’t feel that romantic spark; I don’t believe in the “friend zone,” but I do believe it’s possible to want to spend time with a person without necessarily wanting to fuck them) is one thing. To pine, and then briefly succeed, and then lose what you had without understanding any of it, is worse. I’m not sure Fry and Leela’s romance necessarily works if you expect every episode that mentions it to be telling one big unified story. But if you treat all those episodes as showing different angles on the same basic idea, it gets a lot easier to take. So this week, we see Fry as the owner of a lonely heart who realizes what it’s like to trade down for a broken one. Maybe next week, things will look better.

Stray observations:

  • Opening captions: “For Proper Viewing, Take The Red Pill Now.”
  • The Harlem Globetrotters still exist, but I like to think that their primary impact on popular culture is in this episode, and their team-up with Scooby-Doo.
  • Another dark joke: the mutant human cannon accidentally kills the spider mutant. What makes this even darker is that the episode makes some effort to make sure that spider mutant has some personality before its demise.
  • The other sad story of rejection and loss in this episode? Bender’s doomed quest to become a Globetrotter. Bender is regularly the coolest character on the show (an alcoholic anarchic robot who wants nothing more than to kill all humans? Doesn’t get much cooler than that), and to see him utterly at a loss around someone is great. And the fact that the episode plays his desire to be Globetrotter straight makes Ethan’s on-going, ruthless refusals all the funnier.
  • “Maybe you’re just a fantastic lover.” “…no.”
  • Billy West regularly does fantastic voice work for the series, and his “Nothing.” at the end of the episode makes sure the final emotional beat hits and hits hard.

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