“Bendless Love” (Season 3, episode 3; originally aired 2/11/2001)

In which Bender can’t bend a broken heart…

Hey, Flexo’s back! Remember Flexo? Remember when I spent half a review talking about how he didn’t quite work as a character, and about how, while I appreciated the idea of him in theory, in practice it’s hard to make “the opposite of interesting” all that funny. And he wasn’t even that, not really. He was just Bender, but slightly less so, and where’s the fun in that? Anyway, he’s back, so we can all look forward to several paragraphs of me belaboring a point that wasn’t particularly insightful to begin with.

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Ah, I’m just pulling your chain. Flexo barely figures into “Bendless Love,” and, apart from the fact that his physical resemblance and overall similarity to Bender adds to the plot, he need not have figured in at all. Bender falling in love with a robot and then becoming paranoid that she might still be involved with her ex-husband could’ve had any character in the ex-husband role with largely similar results, story-wise. And Flexo spends most of his limited screen-time being oblivious to what’s happening around him. He gets the least agency of any character in the episode, and he still ends up with the girl(bot). The jerk.

Thankfully, this is an ideal use of Bender’s twin. Flexo doesn’t have much depth, but in “Bendless Love,” he doesn’t need any. His purpose is to be an obstacle who doesn’t realize he’s an obstacle, as Bender runs around creating his own problems. He doesn’t have agency because he doesn’t need it. Whereas his first appearance was built on an attempt at ambiguity (Who’s the real evil twin here?), in this episode, things are clear from the start. While it’s certainly possible the character could be more developed, if the writers are going to keep him relatively generic, this is as good a use of him as any.

With that out of the way, this is a lesser entry in the show’s third season—a season which is one of the show’s absolute best, and marks the point where Futurama jumped from “good” to “great” (which lasted through season four and then fell back a bit). There’s no harm in being average in an otherwise stellar run, but “Bendless Love” is one of the handful of episodes I’ve seen multiple times which I still forget exists. It’s got some good bits, but the scenario isn’t all that clever, not even when you add on the self-conscious irony angle. It’s not just that Bender is trying to test his relationship to see if it’s stable—the episode repeatedly draws our attention to how stupid Bender’s plan is. That’s part of the joke. An earlier sitcom would’ve pretended there was some legitimate reason for Bender to be jealous, but here, he’s just creating his own problems out of thin air.

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That’s not a bad joke, and it makes more sense coming from Bender than it would from Fry. (Although I’m pretty sure Fry has had similar storylines in the past.) Bender’s impulsivity means that he’d be more vulnerable to jealousy than someone with good sense, and his childlike enthusiasm for whatever game he happens to be playing means that it doesn’t matter if his behavior is obviously self-sabotaging. Sure, regular, non-robot people do dumb things all the time, but when Bender gets obsessed with an idea, he commits to the point where any logic outside the situation becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Angleyne tells Bender (as Flexo) that she really loves Bender more than enough times to satisfy any sensible doubts. All that matters is that he’s determined to seduce her while pretending to be her ex.

John DiMaggio does routinely excellent work as Bender, but it doesn’t hurt that he seems even more on his game than usual this episode. Bender goes through several different stages over the course of the half hour, and it’s important that all of these stages sounds legitimately sincere. Even a hint of self-awareness in lines like “So she’s falling for Flexo, eh? I better seduce her more, just to be sure,” and the whole joke falls apart. DiMaggio makes sure Bender’s motivations are clear even when the character is behaving illogically, and several of his line readings made me laugh on the strength of inflection alone.

As for the rest of the story, well, the most inspired narrative twist is the early discovery that Bender has been bending in his sleep, a neat idea that leads to some fine visual gags (Zoidberg’s poor straightened Slinky is my favorite), but ultimately serves only as a springboard for the rest of the plot. The love triangle between Bender, Flexo, and Angleyne has its moments, but never sparks in the way the show’s most successful material does. Jan Hooks is great as Angleyne, but like Parker Posey before her, she’s stuck with a character who doesn’t really have a whole lot to do. And while the mafia goons are a nice callback, the whole thing winds up fairly pedestrian. A few laughs, a robot that gets flattened by a girder, and some A+ bending. It doesn’t add up to a classic, but it’s not bad.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Torn From Tomorrow’s Headlines”
  • There’s a subplot about Farnsworth discovering happiness after Bender bends him. It’s cute.
  • Hey, a Ghost riff! Remember Ghost?
  • Zoidberg manages to re-bend his Slinky, but the toy bursts into flame when tries to use it. Poor Zoidberg.
  • “I finally meet a nice girl with a pair of legs that don’t quit unexpectedly…” -Bender
  • “Well, I don’t know anything about lifting, so that just leaves us the one option.” -Bender, preparing to be heroic. It’s one of DiMaggio’s best line deliveries in the episode. The line as scripted is a great joke, and the performance finds a way to sell the gag convincingly, and in a slightly surprising way. I’m not sure how best to describe it, because part of what makes it so effective is that he doesn’t call attention to himself. Great voice actors (great actors, really) are adept not just at being believable, but at finding ways to catch you a little off guard in the way they speak. Once you get to know a show, you get to expect the kind of jokes it tends to throw at you, so any way to keep those jokes fresh is a good thing.
  • “So Flexo and Angleyne had sex right there on the factory floor?” -Leela

“The Birdbot Of Ice-Catraz” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 3/4/2001)

In which everybody wants to save the world…

The hardest part of writing a character like Leela must be trying to keep her funny without violating her core self. Of the entire Planet Express crew, Leela is the sensible one, the responsible one, the only one of the bunch who deserves to be called captain. It makes sense to have someone like this around, to comment on the action and to serve as straight (wo)man to the absurdity, but done poorly, and she could come across as a scold. (There’s also kind of a whole gender thing at work here too, but since I think Futurama does pretty well by Leela, let’s skip it.) Ideally, Leela should have an aspect to her that’s just as absurd as Fry or Bender or the rest, but without discounting her fundamental decency. She can’t just do ridiculous things for silly reasons like the others. She needs to do ridiculous things for smart reasons.

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The show has found several ways around this so far, and “The Birdbot Of Ice-Catraz” has one of the best. Leela’s environmentalism leads her to join forces with a group of protesters—protesters the show mocks pretty thoroughly—and her ideals, and the way those ideals contrast against how the world actually works, makes for great humor. But crucially, the episode also sympathizes with what she’s trying to do, and the joke isn’t ever really on her idealism. Other entries have and will show Leela’s rationality pushes to absurd degrees, but here, everything she’s trying to do checks out. It’s just, well, life is crazy and complicated and it’s very hard to know what the right thing to do is when you can’t be sure about the complete impact of your actions.

Thankfully, Fry and Bender have found the perfect solution in not caring. (Well, Bender doesn’t really care, I think Fry probably just forgets he does.) When Leela refuses to deliver a tanker full of dark matter oil because the route passes by a Plutonian penguin preserve, Bender takes over as captain, and all hell breaks loose. While Leela is working with the environmentalists, Fry and Bender are squabbling over Bender’s rise to power, and the script does a great job of weaving the two plots between one another. It helps to keep either from feeling played out or stale, and keeps the pacing moving briskly throughout. Hell, we don’t even get to the story that gives the episode its title until about halfway through, and yet “Birdbot” is tightly constructed throughout.

It’s also unexpectedly insightful, in a way the show doesn’t always bother to be. As mentioned, Leela’s desire to protect the penguins from the destructive effects of dark matter oil is treated as a legitimate, and even laudable, goal, even if the people she finds herself working with are largely idiots. And the fact that Bender ends up crashing the supposedly uncrashable ship (all 6,000 hulls are breached) really just proves her point: this was a short-sighted, dangerous, and unnecessary accident, but the sort of accident that will always happen in the end because people (and robots) are stupid.

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Yet as disastrous as the crash is (the news footage of the incident has to add in comic sound effects to keep it from being too sad), the consequences are unpredictable. There are the usual desperate attempts to clean the oil off the animals, but it turns out that oil actually sends the penguins mating hormones into overdrive, which leads to an immediate overpopulation problem. (See image above.) This is exaggerated, given the time frame the episode covers (and, aside from that penguin mobbed window, the overpopulation never seems all that immediate a threat), but it’s still a problem that forces Leela to face the idea that nature isn’t always going to offer up easy to solve dilemmas. Protesting giant oil tankers to preserve the habitat of adorable animals is one thing—shooting those adorable animals to keep their numbers down so they won’t starve to death is another.

Futurama can occasionally border on the nihilistic in its efforts to snicker at just about anything, but here, it touches on a surprisingly crucial lesson. As much as we humans want to believe we can control the environment for good and for ill, our understanding only goes so far. Leela’s stuck in a situation where there isn’t an answer that will let her feel good about herself: either she murders the creatures she’s been fighting to save (whole families too, she knows what it’s like to be an orphan), or she lets them keep breeding, exhaust their resources, and die out. The closest she comes to a moral response is realizing that, whatever the solution to the problem, it shouldn’t be handled by people who are as eager to shoot penguins as the people at Penguins Unlimited are. But even that doesn’t solve anything. The final shot of the episode has a pair of penguins picking up guns. It’s hilarious and ominous, and it doesn’t suggest a satisfying conclusion in any meaningful way. As they say in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.” That isn’t necessarily inspiring.

This isn’t a lecture-heavy episode by any stretch of the imagination, though. I’m focusing on that element, but it’s really only a small piece in a overall hilarious half-hour. Bender’s brief time as a penguin fits both internal logic (in that he gets zapped, reboots, and, seeing only penguins around, decides that he must be one himself), and character logic, as it’s just another extreme example of him committing wholeheartedly to a role. Fry’s jealousy about Bender’s promotion is well-handled, a comedic idea that comes from a legitimate character response to a situation. And Zoidberg, as the eager-to-please third member of the crew, gets a chance to shine. He works best as a sort of scene garnish, I think, adding just that extra bit of flavor while the rest of the cast is moving the story around. I may have misplaced that metaphor.

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Overall, this is just an excellent entry; it lacks the emotional gut-punch of other classic outings, but more than makes up for it with gags, structure, and subtle but meaningful commentary. An annoying activist gets eaten alive by a mob of penguins, too, so there really is something here for everyone. You should probably not watch this with an actual penguin, though. They might get ideas.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Now With Chucklein”
  • Fry draws a regular comic of Leela letting him sit on her lap and be captain. (Zoidberg: “Oh, the new issue is out!”)
  • The Oreo making machine Fry uses in the beginning is both ridiculous, and something I’m surprised doesn’t actually exist.
  • Bender’s nickname for First Mate Fry: “Wiggles.”
  • “This man is over-gasped!”
  • “I’m sorry, but if it’s fun in any way, it’s not environmentalism.” -Leela
  • “But I do know the decision shouldn’t be in the hands of people who want to kill for fun.” -Leela (I like that this is, however briefly, a legitimately serious moment. It’s not over-stressed or anything, but the line isn’t a gag.)
  • “Oh right, they can swim. It’s all coming back to me now.” -Bender, who is not great at escaping

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