“Fry And The Slurm Factory” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 11/14/1999)

In which Fry visits a world of pure imagination, and does not like what he finds there

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As comedy trios go, Fry, Leela, and Bender are as good a team as one could hope for. Actually, let’s clarify that: as narrative comedy trios go, etc. Because the story part is as important as the joke part, really. I’m sure the writers could come up with a clever “Who’s On First” style routine for Fry, Leela, and Bender if they put their minds to it (and you could probably cobble together a fun, if lumpy, comedy sketch from their various conversations over the run of the series), but what makes them such useful characters in the context of the show is their ability to both generate and resolve plot in a variety of unexpected, and satisfying, ways. Fry’s stupidity makes for plenty of opportunities for premise, and the contrast between his free-wheeling, innocent selfishness and Leela’s common sense and need for order, is one of the most fundamental character clash concepts in fiction, comedy or drama. Add in Bender’s insanity, and you’ve got a potent cocktail for potential calamity. Better still, all three characters are flexible to varying degrees. Fry is a goofball, but he can also be charmingly loyal, and his fundamental sincerity allows for some of the show’s most potent emotional moments. Leela is the “sane” one, but the writers can push her sanity so it comes back the other way as madness—and she’s also capable of impressive emotional depth. And Bender… well, Bender is whatever it wants to be.

Both of this week’s episodes start as group outings but inevitably narrow their focus down to the main trio, with enjoyable results. “Fry And The Slurm Factory” is, like “A Flight To Remember” before it, a movie parody; this time, the target is the 1971 Gene Wilder horror movie Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. And before you correct me: yes, it’s a horror movie. Everyone pretends it’s a beloved children’s classic with catchy songs and important moral lessons about not being a greedy bastard, but we all know, deep down, that there is some dark shit going on in that factory. The horror Fry and the others discover deep in the bowels of the Slurm Factory is unpleasant, but so is Candy Satan tempting children into horrible, body-rearranging fates. At least Fry leaves with his shape still roughly intact.

As targets for parody go, Willy Wonka is even more out of date than Titanic, but the decades between the movie and the show work in the episode’s favor; whereas parodies of James Cameron’s Poseidon Adventure knock-off were a dime a dozen by the time “A Flight To Remember” aired, Gene Wilder’s manic chocolatier has been a pop culture staple for so long that riffs on his mysterious proclamations and army of orange slaves feel less like attempts to jump on a trend, and more like commentary on a fact of life. It’s entirely possible to see this episode without having seen or knowing much about its inspiration; the story is solid, and the gags are more than just “Remember this?” references. Yet the parody is often gratifyingly specific in a way that rewards viewers who are familiar with the film. I’m not sure this makes the episode a classic, but it does make for something better than just a lazy nod to the current zeitgeist.

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Willy Wonka’s story began with the announcement that the mysterious candy-maker was planning to invite a small group of people into his factory; the only way to get an invitation was to find a golden ticket inside the wrapping of one of Wonka’s various candy products. “Fry And The Slurm Factory” takes a similar route, streamlining the contest down to a single winner, and changing the “golden ticket” to a golden bottlecap. Also, instead of a candy factory, the Slurm factory makes, well, Slurm, a drink that Fry is ravenously addicted to. Also also, instead of winning the golden ticket through perseverance, faith, and good luck, Fry and Bender try and game the system by stealing an invention of Professor Farnsworth’s that allows them to x-ray cans while they’re still on the shelves. This doesn’t work, and Fry stumbles (or rather chokes) on the winning cap by sheer dumb luck.

This is one of my favorite Futurama tricks: finding a clever solution to a difficult problem, and then circumventing that solution by coincidence and contrivance. The smart/stupid mix feels like the sweet spot for what the show typical strives for in humor. Fry just happening to find the golden cap in a can of Slurm is the laziest kind of writing (Willy Wonka, the movie and the source novel, get around this with a fairy tale feel; stout-hearted heroes are always stumbling over incredible good fortune in fairy tales), but having him and Bender find the cap with the F-Ray is too obvious; if they just searched some stores and discovered the right can, it would be plausible, but not funny or satisfying. The answer, then, is for the writers to prove to us that there’s a rational way for Fry to win the contest, which makes the coincidence solution clever instead of sloppy. I find that neat.

Once the Planet Express crew arrives at the Slurm Factory, the Willy Wonka references begin in earnest, with Billy West voicing the planet spokesman (a giant alien slug decked out in Wonka dress), and a group of suspiciously familiar looking little people running around the background and singing songs about keeping your damn mouth shut. Whereas the original story spent much of its running time showing obnoxious children suffering horribly ironic comeuppances, this version cuts out all the other extraneous contest winners; there’s only one cap, which means we get no sci-fi equivalent of Augustus Gloop getting sucked up a pipe, or Veruca Salt expanding into a human blueberry. Which is probably for the best, given the short running time. Once Fry, Leela, and Bender find the real secret behind the source of Slurm, the parody is set aside in favor of something that’s pure Futurama: aliens being disgusting, and human beings (well, Fry) being disgustinger.

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Some episodes of this show are richly and unexpectedly moving. Other episodes make a token effort at an emotional arc—maybe someone learns to be a better person/robot/alien crab or something. These latter tend to be perfunctory; not bad, but the writers are so clearly not interested in the more “serious” bits that they feel disposable and ultimately irrelevant. Then you have something like this episode, which makes a pointed effort to subvert any possible lesson for anyone involved.

Fry is hopelessly addicted to Slurm from the first scene to the last, and he never triumphs over his addiction, or pauses in his obsessive quest for more sludge drink. Even after he discovers that Slurm is just the discharge of a giant slug queen, he can’t stop drinking. His most heroic action is to find a way to rescue his friends after the Queen has her servants chain him to a trough full of the purest discharge imaginable—he can’t beat the addiction, but he is able to work around it, which has to count for something. And while the episode doesn’t exactly condone his actions, it doesn’t judge them, either. In the end, Fry prevents Farnsworth from passing on the horrible secret of Slurm’s origins to a government official, all because he can’t bare to be cut off. Which should be unsettling, and maybe it is, but mostly, it just seems appropriate.

That’s not the episode’s saddest story, though. That particular honor belongs to Slurms McKenzie, the drink manufacturer’s party-loving mascot: a slug in a Hawaiian T-shirt who likes to surf, hang out with beach babes, and oh yeah, party. Slurms parties a lot, because he’s contractually obligated to party. When they try and escape from Slug Queen, Fry, Leela, and Bender find Slurms in the caverns behind the phony factory; he begs them to take him along, but ends up sacrificing himself to save the rest. He does this the only way he knows how: by partying. And to honor his sacrifice, the survivors remember him as they assume he’d want to be remembered: by partying. It’s a goofy bit that derives its humor from our heroes’ refusal to acknowledge the pain and suffering of another sentient being. Party on, Slurms.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “LIVE From Omicron Persei 8”
  • Finding out Slurm is made from royal discharge didn’t really bother me. Watching the Queen suck on her own anus in a moment of stress did, though.
  • Another key gag—Bender gets sick because he stole Amy’s watch, swallowed it, and the watch got stuck in his gears. Bender gives Amy back the watch, apologizes; then he steals her earrings, swallows them, and coughs. Nobody learns anything.
  • Bender shines the F-Ray on Fry. “Ow! My sperm!” Bender shines it on him again. “Huh, didn’t hurt that time.”
  • “They think they have a good union, but they don’t. They’re basically slaves.”
  • Quintessential Bender moment: he saves Fry and Leela (and himself), then expects them to pay him. (Quintessential Fry and Leela moment: they both do.)
  • The weird transexual robot joke was… weird. And not particularly funny.

“I Second That Emotion” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 11/21/1999)

In which Nibbler gets flushed

The introduction of a colony of mutants living in the sewer city under New New York is an important world-building moment, and it’s even more important for reasons that I can’t get into right now, because they’d be pretty spoiler-y. If I thought starting a spoiler-filled discussion in this review would help to illuminate some aspect of the episode, I’d do it (with a helpful warning in case you’re going through the show for the first time, because I like to be nice occasionally to throw people off). But while this colony will lead to interesting story developments later on, its presence here is not something that suggests a rich inner life. Futurama is in the process of creating its universe, but that creation still feels more interested in one-off gags and stories than any serious effort at a persistent world.

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And that’s fine! In fact, that approach is preferable to something more labored and self-conscious. One of the pleasures of watching a show like this—a genre show with an expansive world, comedy or drama—is seeing the writers start to put pieces together as they go. Sometimes a long-term plan can be useful, but there’s a lot to be said for just throwing a bunch of ideas at the screen, and then coming back to them a few months later and seeing what sticks. A lot of Futurama was planned in advance; in fact, the specific twist I’m referencing above was known before the series started filming, even though the reveal doesn’t hit until season 4. Yet the show’s writers were smart enough to be patient and develop things without needing to make sure the audience was aware that things were being developed, which leaves room for flexibility and improvisation.

Having said all of those nice things, “I Second That Emotion” isn’t one of my favorite episodes of the show, in part because it depends an awful lot on the Bender/Leela emotion chip—and too many of those jokes are stock bits about Leela having girl feelings and Bender not giving a shit. The latter is entirely in character for Bender, but the show’s understanding of women seems to have been gleaned from early ‘80s sitcoms. Leela spends all her time when she’s not sad about Nibbler’s “death” (Bender flushed him down the toilet, don’t worry, he’s fine) being sad she doesn’t have a date, and sniping at Amy for sleeping around. I don’t need everything on the show to be sunshine and rainbows, but Leela and Amy’s “friendship” always feels like a missed opportunity. As the series’ only female leads, it would’ve been nice if they weren’t so passive aggressively snippy at one another. The Hermes/ Zoidberg hate-offs (which haven’t really gotten started yet) make sense on a basic character level (Hermes is all about rigid control, Zoidberg is a complete mess), and feel specific to them. Amy mocking Leela for her weight is generic and unfunny.

Anyway! Enough of that. Because hell, while I’m not always a fan of what the show says Leela is feeling (her assertion that she wouldn’t be so upset over Nibbler’s death if Bender would just acknowledge her feelings shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Bender’s nature, and doesn’t make much sense from the Leela we’ve come to know), Bender’s struggles to deal with those new found feelings are pretty great. Hell, this is a solid Bender episode right from the start, as his jealousy over the attention Nibbler gets from the others brings out the worst/best in him. Bender is believably petulant, and the episode does a good job of making his frustration entirely understandable, even if it drives him to irrational behavior. The conflict between the two is necessary for the episode’s plot, but since this is the first time we’ve gotten any sense that Bender doesn’t like Nibbler (apart from his general apathy for organic life), it’s important to sell that animosity quickly and efficiently. And Bender is the perfect choice for this kind of brief flare of petulant rage. From Fry, it would’ve been a little too mean; with Bender, it’s just what he does.

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So: Bender flushes Nibbler down the toilet, and Farnsworth punishes him by installing an empathy chip that forces Bender to experience Leela’s emotions. That ultimately leads to the colony of sewer mutants, a cool idea with a lot of gross jokes. The mutants are friendly and funny enough, although the story flounders somewhat when it tries to come up with an appropriate climax; after being welcoming Fry and Leela and Bender with open arms, the mutants suddenly turn on them when they learn that they’re responsible for the dreaded El Chupanibre. At least, our heroes assume they’re responsible, believing Nibbler has to be the one running around eating crocodiles post-flushing. So Leela lets herself be offered up as a sacrifice to attract El Chupanibre (there are some jokes about her not being a virgin which, eh).

While all of this makes sense in retrospect (Nibbler is not El Chupanibre), it’s strange that Leela agrees to be tied up while she still believes Nibbler is the monster—does Nibbler have a history of kidnapping virgins? Or is Leela just going with the (ugh) flow? Regardless, we get a showdown between the an actual monster and Bender, who, after teaching Leela the power of not giving a damn (another staple of the show: finding a lesson in doing the wrong thing), is able to defeat the beast, save the day, and earn his redemption.

All in all, this is good, not great, and arguably only really memorable for the reason I alluded to above… which I’m not going to tell you about. Which means this is probably a pretty unsatisfying conclusion. Thankfully, I don’t have an empathy chip, so I don’t really give a damn.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening Title: “Made From Meat By-Products”
  • Bender is afraid of the giant can-opener in the kitchen. “You killed my father, and now you’ve come back for me!”
  • When Farnsworth removes Bender’s empathy chip, he finds out that it was operating at three times the normal capacity. It’s like if Dumbo’s feather was secretly a jetpack.
  • “A puppy? Nibbler loved to eat puppies!”

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