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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Futurama: “Game Of Tones”

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How effective does a moment have to be to make up for an uneven episode? Can a few minutes of affecting sentiment make up for some not-so-great plotting? This is an issue that’s come up more than a few times in Futurama’s later seasons; the writers’ gift for finding just the right way to break our hearts hasn’t faded much, but their knack for tightly plotted episodes has. That means that, with a few exceptions, the most moving reveals and character beats haven’t been well-supported by the stories around them. The show will be moving through a reasonably clever but not hugely thrilling sequence of events, and then all of a sudden, it’ll bust out a quiet song and some hugging completely out of the blue, and it just kind of guts you. How do you rate something like that? The average would raise the dull parts unnecessarily, and diminish the strong parts too much, but you can’t really grade a show minute by minute. The end result is imperfect, frustrating, and, at its worst, disappointing; but it also has enough grace that it can’t be forgotten.

“Game Of Tones” is a fine example of this, as fine as anything we’ve seen in this final season. The main story is passable, mostly serving as an excuse to get Fry into a machine that will let him dream his way through his last day on Earth. An alien ship is flying toward Earth, emitting a sequence of tones that blares over the entire planet. Out of all the main characters, Fry is the only one to recognize the music, but he can’t place how he recognizes it. A quick scan of his brain reveals that the memory comes from December 31, 1999, and then it’s just a quick jump and a massively painful injection into a dream sequence that takes up most of the half hour. If that sounds like an excuse to revisit past references, you’re pretty much dead on. As so often happens with long-running shows (especially ones that are closing out their final year), there’s a fair amount of self-cannibalization going on, although thankfully, the results go down easy enough.

The worst element of the episode is the tepid “mystery” that drives the plot. The Close Encounters Of The Third Kind nods are cute, but there’s a lot of arbitrary decision making going on, and the whole thing threatens to fall apart completely when the answer is finally revealed. It turns out the mystery ship is driven by a Nablonion friend of Nibbler’s named Digby, and he’s trying to track down the ship he’d left on Earth back in 1999. The tones everyone’s hearing is the sound his key chain makes when he sets (or unsets) the ship’s alarm. Or when he unlocks it, I guess. This is dumb, and it’s a lazy kind of dumb, trying to make a joke out of how all that suspense was for nothing. Why does the key gadget suddenly make an incredibly loud noise when it didn’t in the past? Why did Digby destroy Planet Z-7 in the first scene? There are ways to explain it, but there’s no real reason to bother. Shaggy dog stories have their place in comedy, but this one serves only to distract from what really matters.

Because the things is, there are elements of “Game Of Tones” which work well. The fact that Fry can’t do things he didn’t already do because he’s simply reliving his past is clever and creates stakes in the one part of the story that really, really sings: his efforts to reconnect with the family he left behind. Fry’s past has led to some of Futurama’s most richly emotional pay-offs, and this one doesn’t disappoint, blending the absurd (Fry and Yancy’s bathtub fight is, um, something) and the heartwarming without compromising either. Fry’s growing desperation to get a few more precious seconds with his loved ones, even if those seconds aren’t real, even if that time means putting the whole world at risk, is something tangible underneath all the silliness, something that can’t be undone even by the sudden distracting appearance of President Nixon. The brief reunion with Seymour helps to take away some of the sting of “Jurassic Bark” without mitigating that episode’s tragic conclusion, and not even the brief gag of a talking dog with Seth MacFarlane’s voice can ruin the sincerity.

Fry’s conversations with his mom are just… Look, the plotting is loopy and soft. Digby’s arrival is the kind of “Ha ha, you thought this was serious” joke that hardly ever works (partly because these days, audiences are always half-expecting it), and the fact that Fry earns the Nablonians’ respect by helping them find a lost ship that somehow survived in an alley for a thousand years is that kind of Futurama half-assed that takes just enough work to be stupid. But Fry getting one last chance to hug his mom in her dreams? It’s devastating. I’m tearing up a little just remembering, and while I’m an easy mark, I don’t think it’s going too far to say the scene works, and works beautifully. Underneath all the madness, all the sci-fi parodies and death robots and genetically mutated girlfriends and heads in jars and Star Trek wars and grandma-fucking and space bees, underneath the best episode and the worst episode of the show, there’s still the simple fact that Fry lost his family. The science of the future is magic, but he can’t go back to where he used to be, and as awful as his parents and his brother sometimes were, he still loved them. And tonight, he got to say goodbye to his mom.

Stray observations:

  • Another “lazy plot moment we’ll pretend is a joke”: Fry’s first dream session somehow lasts 13 days, yet his last session, which goes on just as long in his head, only lasts a few hours in real time. Sure, dream-time can fluctuate, but c’mon.
  • Like any sensible person, I was horrified at the thought of Seth MacFarlane doing Seymour’s voice. In practice, it was just a single line (“Phillip, have you lost weight?”) and perfectly fine, if inessential.
  • Also, why the hell didn’t Digby just call Nibbler? Is that rude?
  • “In my day, sound didn’t travel through space!” -Farnsworth
  • “Why am the only one whining?” -Fry
  • “I always forget that he can talk.” -Amy on Nibbler, speaking for us all.
  • Good to see the old breakdancing crew again.
  • “Gorbachev that head up good.” -Fry’s dad
  • “I can’t stand to see him like this. I’ll push him off the roof.” -Bender
  • “I’ve dreamed about you a lot since you disappeared.” -Fry’s mom.