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“Hell Is Other Robots” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 5/18/1999)

In which aw crap, singing

“Hell Is Other Robots” is the first episode of Futurama I really loved. For some reason, the show’s vibe didn’t click with me right away, probably because I was a huge Simpsons fan and my standards and expectations for what this series could be were all wrong. (Even at its best, Futurama is not The Simpsons. That’s not an issue of quality. This series just has its own particular, nerdy vibe.) I thought the pilot was bland, and didn’t expend much effort getting caught up on the rest. But whenever it was that I finally saw “Hell Is Other Robots,” I was hooked. It has everything: the Beastie Boys, a futuristic version of drug addiction, a robot baptism, a robot grace, a robot preacher, and a Robot Devil, voiced by Dan Castellaneta. And he sings! I mean, you combine that with the concert at the beginning, and you have something that comes perilously close to a musical episode. I am a fan of this.

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I’m also a fan of Bender being Bender, and even more than “Fear Of A Bot Planet,” this storyline has our favorite mechanical maniac at his most purely unhinged, swinging left, right, and sideways however the mood takes him. Interestingly, while he’s the central character of the story and his actions drive the plot, the emotional arc (if there is of one) is more on Leela and Fry. They’re the ones who, after Bender’s addiction to “jacking on” damages the Planet Express ship, kick him out of the building, and they’re also the ones who, when Bender’s newly discovered love of religion makes him even more intolerable than he was before, tempt him into rediscovering sin. They come the closest to learning anything like a moral lesson over the course of the story, although that lesson is just “Maybe don’t try and manipulate your friends.”

Bender ends up basically where he started the episode, which is as it should be; he’s curiously passive throughout, which should make his actions less interesting to watch, but instead works as a kind of character development. Early in the story, he runs into an old friend (Fender, who he knows from school) who invites him to a “special” robot party, where a circle of ‘bots sit around a device and zap themselves with electricity. Bender’s reluctant to join in, but peer pressure drives him to take that first sweet hit—and from then on, it’s addiction and peer pressure that drive all of his actions. This reinforces the sense of Bender as a creature of pure id, a being entirely (and gloriously) enslaved to the whims of whatever impulse crosses his positronic brain. In someone else, this would seem hellish or terrifying, but for Bender, it makes sense. He is a robot with programming after all; free will is just one more subroutine. Occasionally, he’ll rouse himself enough to avoid murdering his friends, but for the most part, he goes where the wind takes him. It’s oddly spiritual, even before you bring in the church.

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While it may have a stealth moral, “Hell Is Other Robots” is at its best when it embraces the giddiness of its own invention, spinning from concept to concept without worrying too much about holding to traditional story structure. Which isn’t to say the story doesn’t make sense. The line from the Beastie Boys concert that opens the episode, to Bender, Fry, and Leela making their escape from Robot Hell, isn’t that hard to parse. But the rapid number of transitions needed to get to that conclusion generates a considerable amount of energy, as though the episode were stuck in its own first act, constantly taking off and putting on possible plot permutations before finally finding a solid conflict about five minutes before the whole thing wraps up.

Watching this again, I was surprised at how long it took for the Robot Devil to finally arrive. The Robot Hell segment is what gives the episode its title (a slightly altered quote from Sartre that also serves as the title of Robot Hell’s introductory brochure), but it’s only one segment. Before that, we get the concert, some trippy drug animation, some “hey, ‘jacking on’ sounds a bit like ‘jacking off’” jokes, a brief runner about Bender going to great lengths to get high, Bender’s conversion to a life of holy righteousness, some time at the church, Fry and Leela deciding enough is enough and bringing him to a strip club, some sinning, and then, finally, the Robot Devil shows up. All of this is of varying degrees of effectiveness, but it all goes by so quickly that it doesn’t really matter if its great; the episode maintains a perpetual feeling of novelty throughout, while at the same time making sure that each new shift in direction develops naturally from whatever came before it. As stuffed as “Hell Is Other Robots” is, it’s never clumsy or shoddily constructed.

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And there is, of course, the Robot Devil to marvel at. In just a few minutes, Dan Castellaneta creates an indelible character; admittedly, “robot devil” is such an immediately evocative phrase that some of the work was done for him, but the voice actor nails a mix of threatening, carnival menace that sounds a bit like Mark Hamill’s work as the Joker, only not quite as terrifying. (Castellaneta modeled the voice on Hans Conreid; if you haven’t seen The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T, you owe it to yourself to seek that one out.) The punishments in Robot Hell are horrifyingly delightful, and the whole sequence has the feel of a classic cartoon—something that you’d watch as a grown-up and wonder why anyone thought this would be appropriate for kids. (It’s less scary here because Bender, being a robot, doesn’t seem to be really suffering all that much.)

Also, there is singing, which is delightful. The snippet of the Beastie Boys which opens the episode is fine and all (I mean, it’s the Beastie Boys), but there’s something about a lavishly orchestrated, full ensemble musical number that really kicks things up a notch. So to speak. (Well, maybe not “lavishly” orchestrated, and it wasn’t the entire ensemble, but there was more than one guy singing, so I think it counts.) The lyrics are funny and clever, and the tune is catchy, and while there’s no immediate reason why the sequence needs to be expressed in song, the decision feels right. It’s a great number, and it also expands the possibilities of the show. This is now a series when, if the writers decide its relevant, people (and robots and aliens) can just burst into song, because why the hell not.

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That playful feeling of inventiveness gives us both the loopy, shifting script and its various artistic flourishes a sense of purposefulness and freedom. If early episodes of the show suffered to a degree from their limitations—from writers trying to decide which master to please (should this be nerdier? More vaudeville humor? Should there be more romance? More references to the 20th century?), “Hell Is Other Robots” shows a creative team starting to stretch its legs.

Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “Condemned by the Space Pope”
  • I think this is the first episode we’ve had to not feature a cold open.
  • Leela, at the concert: “They’re busting mad rhymes with an 80 percent success rate!”
  • Bender, on drugs: “Well, if jacking on will make strangers think I’m cool, I’ll do it!”
  • I like how Robot Hell has a logical explanation. Bender gets a Robotology symbol soldered to his chest, and when he starts sinning again, he throws the symbol away; it sends a signal to the Robot Devil, who shows up to claim him. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about any of it, although it does make you wonder just how long some of the robots trapped in Hell have been there.
  • Leela: “Bender, we don’t mind your drinking, or your kleptomania, or your pornography ring.” Zoidberg: “That’s why we love you!”
  • Bender: “They’re tormenting me with up-tempo singing and dancing!”
  • Bender’s commitment to religions is so total that it briefly appears to be the start of some new kind of scam. It isn’t, though, and that’s another key element in his character. When he falls for an idea, he falls hard.
  • Points to Leela for her brilliant-stupid solution to the classic fiddle challenge.

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“A Flight To Remember” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 9/26/1999)

In which Bender is king of the world

“A Titanic parody” isn’t the most exciting idea to conjure with. When “A Flight To Remember” first aired in 1999, the idea was more fresh, but it was still two years after the movie’s initial release and pop culture dominance, and I can’t imagine anyone being eager for a new hot take on the subject. But the jokes about James Cameron’s massively successful Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio/floating trunk romcom are limited largely to a single plotline in what turns out to be an ensemble affair. More than any episode we’ve seen so far, this one makes an effort to use every member of the show’s main cast, and while some storylines are more in-depth than others (poor Zoidberg), a sense of expansiveness pervades the half hour. To call it “epic” would be a bit much, but here is definite proof of a gratifyingly deep ensemble, one in which seemingly every familiar face has a tale worth telling.

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The most important character development comes at the edges. Amy subplot exists mostly to complicate Fry and Leela’s situation—actually, hold up, let me get the episode premise out of the way first. Professor Farnsworth has decided to give the Planet Express staff a vacation, and he’s booked everyone on board the maiden voyage of the spaceship Titanic, a fact which literally no one in the entire episode thinks is at all remarkable. (This is the best way to go, joke-wise. There’s a good gag about when Farnsworth mentions the name—the score gets foreboding and the camera does a series of smash cut close-ups—but no one in the context of the episode brings it up; not even Fry, who would be the most likely to remember the fate of the original Titanic. This is less a plot-hole than subtle acknowledgement that the writers realize there are a lot of obvious Titanic jokes to be made, and they’re going to avoid making at least some of them.) As if the name wasn’t bad enough, Zapp Brannigan is ship’s captain, which means everyone is doomed.

Before the doom comes, though, there’s plenty of time for hijinks, and so: Amy’s subplot exists mostly to complicate Fry and Leela’s situation. In order to avoid Zapp’s unwanted advances, Leela pretends that Fry is her fiancee. It’s a good bit, but gets better when Amy discovers her parents on board the ship; when Mom and Dad try and set her up with someone, Amy decides to pretend Fry is her boyfriend. Mr. and Mrs. Wong aren’t the most sensitive caricatures the Futurama writers would ever create, and their obsession with finding their daughter a husband is a joke that barely manages a single note. But it gives Amy something more to play with, and her last big joke—Mom and Dad set her up with Zapp’s put-upon second in command Kiff—establishes an important relationship. (The moment was designed as a one off gag, but the writers liked it so much they developed in future episodes. Uh, spoilers.)

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We also learn a bit about Hermes, and while his short arc (all of two scenes, really) is, um, short, it’s arguably even more important than Amy’s. Amy’s already had significant screentime, but until now, Hermes was more of the stay at home bureaucrat type. It’s a concept the show would later use to great effect, but it’s also good to see him getting layers. He has a wife (LaBarbra, voiced by Dawnn Lewis), and he has a tragic past: a former Olympic level limbo man, he quit the sport for life when a young boy tried to copy his style and crippled himself. But when crisis hits (Zapp goes off course, ultimately steers the ship towards a black hole), Hermes finds the courage to once again etc, etc. It’s a cute bit, and just knowing Hermes has a life outside of the office makes him automatically more interesting.

“A Flight To Remember” has two main subplots, both of which are tangentially connected by the over-arching storyline of the Titanic’s first, and last, flight. The first subplot is the one described above between Fry and Leela, as the two characters once again do some will-they/won’t-they dancing. It’s a relationship that would become a lot more interesting (and sad, and sweet) as the show progressed; right now, it’s more expected than heartfelt, a burgeoning romance that exists mostly because hell, there’s a guy character and a girl character and they’re both single so why not. (I’m not saying that’s unrealistic, just that it’s not all that interesting at this stage.) But Katey Sagal and Billy West do what they can with the semi-emotional moments, and the subplot is relentlessly self-aware of its own absurdity, which means we get a scene of Fry trying to think his way out of a farcical situation by trying to sing the Three’s Company theme to himself, and that’s just wonderful.

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The other major subplot is the only one to really take aim at Cameron’s film. Bender meets a fancy lady robot (the Countess De La Roca); he tries to rob her, realizes he has feelings for her, still kind of wants to rob her, they have a romance that repeats a few of the most famous sequences from Titanic, then she gets sucked into a black hole and he ends up with a phony diamond. There are some amusing gags, and the tension between Bender’s desire to rob and his legitimate feelings for the Countess is interesting enough, but there’s a certain laziness that keeps the storyline from ever really engaging. The Countess doesn’t really have much going on (although the discovery that she’s a class 3 yacht is impressive), and her death is neither moving nor particularly funny. Her last line, about their love being “shareware,” is a groaner.

Still, enough of these jokes land to keep the storyline moving (the Love Boat riff was a nice touch), and the advantage of an episode like this one, which has so much going on at once, is that nothing really overstays its welcome. That also means that there’s no time to dig deep into any single story, but given the general, genial shallowness of all this, that’s probably for the best.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “Filmed on location”
  • Okay, according to Netflix and the IMDB, this episode marks the start of the show’s second season, which makes sense when you look at the airdates. But according to Wikipedia, the first season still has three more episodes to go. Given that this is all a scheduling issue, and that this episode (and the three that follow it) were part of the first production season of the show, I’m going to stick with Wikipedia. I briefly considered coming up with a third system that would confuse everyone, but eh, too much work.
  • According to Zapp, comets are “the iceberg of the sky.”
  • “Tragic romances always have a happy ending!”

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