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Futurama: “Brannigan Begin Again”/“A Head In The Polls”

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“Brannigan, Begin Again” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 11/28/1999)

In which Zapp goes back to basics…

We’ve had stories about Fry, Leela, and Bender by now; and we’ve also had at least one episode that delved into Farnsworth’s history. We’ve gotten to know a bit about Amy, too, but not that much, and we still know very little about Hermes and Zoidberg apart from their most obvious traits. (Oh, and Hermes was an Olympic-level limbo athlete, that’s still a great bit.) These characters are all potential story goldmines, and, as the show goes on, the writers will develop each of them in turn, to often hilarious results. Yet here we are with Zapp Brannigan, making his fourth appearance on the series and getting what’s essentially starring role in a plot before several members of the Planet Express crew.

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I’m not sure the exact reasoning behind this decision (which I doubt was conscious or anything), but it’s not hard to guess. Zapp is a fun character, and he’s fun in a more obvious way that most of the people/aliens on the show; not because he’s better than them, but because his laughs come from a consistent, and never-changing, character type. While Fry and the others will never change too drastically over the run of the show, they need to have at least the potential of change in them for us to get invested in their emotional arcs. Even Bender needs to be someone with an inner life who can feel things and maybe (but really never) learn from them. But Zapp is not really someone with an inner life. We’re never going to learn about his past, or realize he’d hiding some deep well of sincerity or serious feeling somewhere in that sagging, puffy gut of his. The closest we came is when he cried when Leela wouldn’t have sex with him. That’s as far as it’s ever going to get.

Which means it’d be easy for the guy to wear out his welcome if the writers tried to make him a lead too often. But at this point in the show’s run, Zapp is a reliable ringer whose novelty is still firmly in place. “Brannigan Begin Again” even finds a new angle to tell the same sort of story about him: stripping of him his rank and seeing how he handles living on the street and taking orders from someone else for a while. It turns out he doesn’t handle this well at all. It’s a little reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Q loses his powers, only here, instead of being stripped of his godlike abilities to manipulate time and space, Brannigan loses his ship with all the lasers on it, and his crew that he can bravely sacrifice whenever the whim takes him.

There’s something almost impressive at the episode’s complete lack of actual conflict. After a few scenes with the Planet Express crew (which introduces the idea that Fry and Bender resent Leela for making them do their jobs), Zapp takes over as protagonist for most of the rest of the running time, and yet his actions are all those of the classical antagonist. His ineptitude and hatred of the Neutral Planet (a hatred that’s at once random and logical; given Zapp’s black-and-white view of the universe, any race that pointedly refuses to pick a side must automatically be plotting something) lead to him getting stripped of his rank; he blames everything on Kiff, so he and Kiff both end up on the street; he convinces Farnsworth to hire them, and then plots a mutiny against Leela with Bender and Fry; and finally, he gets his job back when Leela realizes she has to return things to the way they were, or else risk working with Zapp on a daily basis.

It’s an odd plot, because it’s smartly constructed (once Zapp takes over the Planet Express ship, he decides to go after the Neutral Planet again), but it’s also relentless about pointing out all its narrative shortcuts. During Zapp’s first trial, one of the better jokes is the judge’s willingness to allow pretty much anything, including Leela’s decision to call herself as a witness even though the trial is over, and she’s not a prosecutor. Fry and Bender’s willingness to go along with Zapp’s mutiny is resolved the instant there’s any danger to them, and she doesn’t hold it against them or punish them. And while Zapp is grossly incompetent, he regains his command for roughly the same reason he lost it: because why not. Leela decides to lie for him, and it parallels her earlier decision to get him fired, but that doesn’t mean there are stakes, exactly. I guess she learns a valuable lesson in not upsetting the status quo.

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This is another standard Futurama ploy, telling a story while at the same time mocking the idea of telling a story in the first place. It’s not unusual for comedy, but it fits in with this show’s aesthetic much the same way that last week’s “We have a way to solve this problem, but we’re going to go with random chance instead” did, a deconstructionist approach (he said, realizing he was probably not using the word correctly but bolding going forward with it anyway) that finds humor in undermining familiar narrative structures, while at the same time using those structures to to hold the episode together. It’s a mode that risks audience apathy (why the hell should we care what happens if even the writers don’t seem to give a shit?), but can also serve to catch us off guard, especially when the show takes a sudden left turn into legitimate sentiment.

That doesn’t happen here, but still, “Brannigan Begin Again” has some great gags, including what might be the lines from the series I quote most often. As oddly tensionless as the plot is, there’s still enough spine to hold up some solid scenes, and Zapp remains reliably entertaining asshole. DOOP never becomes quite as important as it sounds like it should, but it counts as world-building, and the visit to the planet with extra-heavy gravity allows the opportunity for some excellent science-based humor. Really, though, it’s all about the Neutrals.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “NOT Y3K COMPLIANT”
  • Cute Star Wars nod in the cold open.
  • There are only a handful Neutral jokes in the episode, but that’s enough to make me wish we spent the whole half hour on the planet. My favorites: “All I know is, my gut says ‘maybe,’” and “If I don’t survive, tell my wife ‘Hello.’”
  • Kiff gets a bit more development this week, turning to Leela to try and vent his problems. (He gets tiresome fast; since Zapp is the only thing in his life, Zapp is the only thing Kiff seems able to talk about.)
  • First appearance of Humble Country Chicken Lawyer.
  • I love the ending. Leela’s “Let’s mutiny” is a great way to undercut her presence as unblinking authority, and Katey Sagal’s line delivery is excellent.
  • Yarn people! I love it when the show gets goofy with its aliens.
  • Zapp and Kiff’s time on the town has some Midnight Cowboy’s references, but I’ve never seen the movie; I just recognize the outfits, and the nod to Jon Voight’s job as a gigolo.
  • Zapp: “You’re the only woman who ever loved me.” Leela: “I never loved you.” Zapp: “I mean physically!” (This feels like a have-cake-eat-too gag; the show needs at least some of Zapp’s delusional sense of self-worth to be confirmed by reality, because otherwise he wouldn’t be much of a threat. Yet the writers still want him to be a pathetic loser at heart for jokes like this to work. I’m not sure it makes logical sense, but it’s funny, so who cares.)
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“A Head In The Polls” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 12/12/1999)

In which we make a new friend…

Ah, Nixon. One the commentary track for this episode (I think it’s this episode; I don’t have the DVDs anymore), Matt Groening mentions with some pride how happy he is to still be getting paid to make fun of Nixon, and it’s not hard to blame him; a laundry list of Nixon’s sins against the country would fill a phone book, and the impact of some of those sins are still being felt today. Yet Nixon is arguably the most fascinating psychological study in the history of the presidency, because the very things that made him so loathsomehis paranoia, his rages, his lust for poweralso make him weirdly endearing. More than any other president, a history of Nixon reads like a Shakespearean tragedy waiting to happen: the ambition, the genius, the stunning rise to power, and of course, the ironic, utterly deserved collapse.

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“A Head In The Polls” has Nixon (now just a head in a jar) buying Bender’s body and running for President of the world, and to be honest, the Nixon we get here doesn’t exactly have the complexity of his real life counterpart. This is as it should be, given that we’re talking about Futurama and not, say, a television adaptation of Rick Perlstein’s terrific Nixonland (but a man can dream). And yet some of that weird anti-charisma charisma remains. Groening may exult in mocking the man who sabotaged Vietnam War peace talks to help him win the presidency, but the result is a villain so stubbornly, psychotically square that he can’t help but be lovable. When Robot Nixon (having replaced Bender’s body with a far more impressive death machine) tears down the fence in front of the White House, roaring that his time has come, it’s supposed to be funny-creepy, and it is, but it’s also kind delightful.

I’m getting ahead (ha!) of myself, though, because Nixon doesn’t actually show up for a while. (And god forbid these reviews end up anything but strictly chronological.) The script does a smart job of introducing a premise, then seeming to drop that premise for a while to focus on a new idea, and then finding a way to tie both premises together. To wit: it’s election season in New New York (and elsewhere), and Leela goads Fry and the others to checking out a symposium on potential political parties, even as Fry argues that his lousy single vote won’t make a difference. (This comes up a lot, just to make sure you’re aware that there’s a joke coming.) The political humor is a mixture of satire (Farnsworth is very concerned about his right to bear doomsday devices) and silly sci-fi gags, the pinnacle of which being the convincing arguments put forth by the Brain Slug Party. You know in your head they’re right.

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This all takes a left turn when a mine collapse leaves Bender a rich manor a rich head, since the collapse drove up prices of titanium, and Bender’s body is made out of titanium, so off to the pawn shop he goes. It’s an immensely silly twist, made palatable largely because Bender is just so incapable of thinking through the consequences of his behavior that his actions make sense. What’s impressive is that the story shift is so sudden and seemingly complete that for a while, it almost seems like the political element that started the episode has been entirely dropped. It isn’t till Bender winds up at the Head Museum and tries to find a spot in the Hall of Presidents that Nixon shows up, and even then, the presidential race doesn’t come back into the plot until Bender realizes he misses his body, discovers it’s been sold from the pawn shop, and Nixon gives a press conference showing off his new figure.

While Bender’s body-free antics are good for some laughs (and the animation of him driving around in a model car was pretty cool), Nixon is the real draw here, as the writers create an instantly familiar caricature and throw out a greatest hits series of cultural references to appeal to any fans of Nixonian lore. No deep cuts here, and the nod to Watergate is unsurprising, but they also worked in a Checkers gag and a bit about Nixon hating hippies, so I’m happy. This is a new kind of recurring villain for the show; like Zapp, he’s ultimately embraced by the system, but instead of Zapp’s self-serving bravado, Nixon is openly, comically evil, a monomaniacal loon who wouldn’t be too out of place facing off against the Super Friends. (Although his writing/animation would’ve made him stand out.)

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I suppose that’s Groening’s ultimate revenge, really. The episode makes it a point to give Nixon his due (Leela mentions him opening trade relations with China), and, as villains go, he’s a stand-out; I doubt it comes as a surprise to hear that he’ll be popping up semi-regularly as the show goes forward, although he never becomes quite as permanent a fixture as Zapp. So the joke serves the series, and doesn’t come across as distractingly mean-spirited. And yet it’s not hard to imagine what the real Nixon’s reaction to such an affectionately contemptuous portrayal might have been. Reducing a man obsessed with his image and dignity to a goofy cartoon psychopath is a perfect comic revenge—pointed without being mean-spirited, and with depth that’s only visible if you care to look.

As for the rest of the episode, Bender learns a valuable lesson (don’t sell your body, no matter how great the parties seem), and Leela’s exhortations to everyone to vote fail to have any real effect on the election, especially when she forgets to vote herself. So, the standard Futurama resolution, really. The status quo is ultimately upheld, except things get slightly worse; but the scale of that worse-ness is so large that it has no immediate impact on our heroes, so who cares, really. It’s about as perfect a summation of how politics actually works as one could imagine.

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Stray observations:

  • This episode marks the first appearance of the show’s goofy Twilight Zone parody The Scary Door. The episode being riffed on here is “Time Enough At Last,” in case you didn’t catch that.
  • “The United States is part of the world.” “Boy, I have been gone a long time.”
  • “That’s my style, I like to kick ‘em when they’re down.” -Nixon
  • “Please, Mr. Nixon, we’re appealing to your sense of decency!” -Fry (everyone shares a hearty laugh)
  • “I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies!” -Nixon
  • Bender dreams in binary, nice touch.
  • Stay away from beds with Thought Activated Tentacles.
  • “And I’ll go into people’s houses at night, and wreck up the place!” -Nixon. The whole monologue is great, but that’s the line I find myself quoting the most often. For, um, reasons.
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