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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Futurama: “Decision 3012”

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You ever want to get scared? I mean really soul-sucking, knees-shaking, pants-wettening terrified? Think about politics. Think about the sheer number of incredibly complex, critically important issues facing this country today, and then try and figure out the odds of any of those issues receiving the kind of weight and attention they deserve in a system that actively rewards disingenuousness, blind loyalty, and obfuscation. “Nothing changes,” the saying goes, but really all “nothing changes” means is that “everything gets worse so slowly we don’t really notice.” There are global crises in effect right now that could significantly change the course of human existence, and because that’s challenging and depressing, the warning signs are pushed to the side as we guzzle and gulp and guffaw our way into oblivion step by thoughtless step. Really, I’d welcome a robot uprising at this point. At least the robots would know what they were doing.

“Decision 3012” is as good a response to despair as anything else; if you can’t save the world, you can at least laugh while it burns. (Fiddling is really, really hard.) Nixon plays the bad guy once again as Earth approaches its elections for World President, and the jowly jar-head seems destined to take the top spot once again. But Leela, despairing at the thought of another four years of assholery, decides to get involved in the political process. No one else at Planet Express chooses to join her, of course; Leela is Lisa Simpson in a world of varying degrees of Homer, which means she’s the only one who ever seems adult enough to make the responsible choice. Sometimes, she’s mocked for this, but in this episode her efforts actually carry a bit of dramatic weight to them. Nothing to get too worked up about, but it’s nice that her need to fulfill her civic duty isn’t really the punchline here. Instead, the half hour focuses its attentions on the easily amused stupidity of the electorate, as Leela first finds an actual honest to god worthwhile candidate, and then struggles to get him ahead in the polls.

But even the struggle isn’t really what “Decision 3012” is about. The episode uses the election to get some fun jabs in at Sarah Palin, debates, and, most importantly, Birthers. Once Leela takes over Senator Chris Travers’ campaign, the candidate begins to rise in the polls, and Nixon (teaming up with Bender) decides he has to find some mud to sling. The problem is, Travers is cleaner than clean, and not even Bender’s horrible sacrifices raise any usable dirt. I’m not sure if we’ve ever had Bender and Nixon team up before; Nixon was first introduced buying Bender’s body after the ‘bot sold himself for cash, but while that would presumably put them on bad terms, this is Bender we’re talking about. He’s up for anything, and all that it takes to get him on Tricky Dick’s side is a giant keg of free beer. The two make a fun pair, and it’s great to see the more villainous side of Bender coming to the forefront. He’s never going to have the focus or patience to be truly evil, but casual cruelty suits him, and it pays off in the episode’s big twist. When Nixon realizes that Chris’s middle name is “Zxar,” he decides the best way to smear his opponent is to demand Travers produce an Earth certificate to prove he’s truly human. Bender will then deny the certificate’s veracity, putting Travers in the impossible position of proving the truth to someone who has no set conditions for ever accepting that truth.

Except it turns out that Travers won’t produce his certificate. He angrily tells Leela not to pay any attention to the rumors, but the issue won’t die down, so Leela decides to break into the Kenyan hospital (wink wink, nudge nudge) where Travers was born for the proof that will shut up the idiots. Only she doesn’t find the proof, and here’s where Travers reveals his big secret: he’s from the future, the year 3038, sent to the past to stop Nixon from getting re-elected and building a Dyson fence (heh) across the solar system. Chaos ensues, and humanity is defeated by a robot uprising led by none other than Bender B. Rodriguez. So, all those “Kill all humans” jokes can be legitimately seen as foreshadowing now! It’s a decent twist, which gets better as Leela decides to televise Travers’ birth in order to once and for all win the skeptics over. (Travers really was born in Kenya, it just happened tomorrow.) The fact that an even more complicated solution to an already ridiculous mystery wins the population over makes a twisted kind of sense, and Travers wins the election, only to be erased from existence by paradox: since he’s president now, he can stop the fence from happening, which means humanity is saved, which means there won’t ever be a reason to send the 16 year-old Travers back in time, which means he disappears, which means we’re all doomed.

This held together well, I think. We can argue the logic of the time travel plot, but it makes just enough sense to feel smart and appropriate for the show, providing an easy out for the writers (Nixon is just too good a foil not to have as president), without feeling like a cheat. It’s great that Travers never turns out to be an imposter or a villain, making his eventual fate all the more unsettling; he doesn’t just vanish, he’s erased from existence, to the point where Leela and everyone else quickly forget he ever lived. (Of course, the baby Travers is still alive, but who knows how he’ll turn out.) Plus, Earth is still doomed, and I’m sure we can all get behind that. “Decision 3012” hits the sweet spot between cynicism and hope, because it suggests there are ideals worth standing up for, and that with enough patience and perseverance, those ideals can win through—right up until a temporal collapse means that nothing you did ever actually happened. That seems a good fit for this show. It seems to be saying something, only it isn’t really, but you still kind of care a little, and also there are robots.

Stray observations:

  • Nice continuity nod: Travers uses the time travel code in Bender’s eye to go back to the past. (Remember Bender’s Big Score?)
  • Series regular Phil LaMarr does Travers voice; I’m not sure if this was an artistic choice or a budgetary one (Travers seems like he could’ve been a guest spot), but LaMarr has a good Obama impression.
  • Nice use of the opening sequence to tie in the rest of the episode, and Bender’s fall from the ship looked great.
  • There was a Panem sign at one of the rallies. Reference!
  • Travers urinates in Bender. All together now: ewwwwww.
  • “Earth, the greatest planet in the world!”
  • “We have a saying in Alaska. [pause] That’s all.”
  • “Question two: the environment. Yes or no?”
  • “I feel a jowl movement coming on!”
  • Okay, the shot of Nixon glaring at a squirrel crossing a wire and angrily demanding it fall off was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. (Also great: Bender’s horrified gasp was so strong it sucked Leela’s hair into his mouth.)
  • “Aw. He’s got his own eyes.”
  • EDITED TO ADD: I changed the grade from an A- to a B+, so no, you aren't hallucinating. In retrospect, while I liked the fact that the story was held together, the episode lacked a certain spark, and didn't justify getting up in the echelons of A-dom.