“I, Roommate” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 4/6/1999)

In which the first law of Robotics is KILL ALL HUMANS

Okay, so: we’ve got Planet Express, we’ve got our main ensemble, and we’ve established the connection between Fry and Leela. The romantic tension that would become one of the show’s most important story engines isn’t quite there yet; Fry has made (and makes in this episode) a few desultory passes in Leela’s direction, but those are clearly in-the-moment bits without much weight behind them. But the balance of Fry as a lovable doof, and Leela as the uber-competent bad-ass with a certain fondnesses for doofiness, is clearly present. That means it’s time to start building up the rest of the show’s relationships, which is good a reason as any to bring out Bender.

Bender was the first real friend Fry made post-cryosleep (he met Leela earlier, but they needed some time to get to know one another), which fits in well with the show’s deep love of all things nerdy; I don’t know about you, but if I wound up frozen for a thousand years and I got to make a new best friend, “robot” would be at the top of the list. But while their friendship made sense from the start, it’s a connection that needed to be tested in order to make the value of it more evident. You meet somebody in line for a suicide booth and you convince them to keep living, you know you have something special. But you don’t know how special. Thankfully, here comes some sitcom plotting to the rescue!

I’ve watched the first season of Futurama half a dozen times by now, and I’ve always had fond memories of “I, Roommate.” Rewatching it for this review, I still enjoyed it, but I also noticed that the central conflict—Fry and Bender find the perfect new apartment, but Bender’s antenna keeps futzing with the TV reception—is a little contrived. I don’t want to get into nitpicking an animated series with a talking humanoid lobster in a labcoat, but—oh, who am I kidding, I live for this shit. But the problems are less about the details of the conflict, and more about how clearly that conflict has been designed to generate the inevitable conclusion.

This is sort of of a pet peeve with me, but: I have no problem with forcing characters to make hard choices, and I especially have no problem when those choices ultimately end up with everyone learning a valuable lesson about love, respect, and friendship. Yet these situations are so valuable dramatically that writers often cheat on the set-up to make the math work out the way they want it to. Bender’s antenna interfering with the satellite reception sort of makes sense, but it’s strange that he and Fry had been living in their apartment long enough to settle into the place and yet had never turned on the TV before. It’s also strange that no one on their floor had complained about the interference until the dramatic airing of a plot-twist filled All My Circuits.

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None of these elements are impossible to believe, and, jokes aside, I have no desire to turn this into a “What Futurama Gets Wrong About” review series. This is a made up future world, and it has its own rules. But for the Fry/Bender drama to be really effective, both dramatically and comedically, those rules needed to be more consistent. Bender is sending his thoughts out via antenna? Why? Couldn’t Professor Farnsworth have just adjusted the frequency so that it wouldn’t disrupt the TV signal? The whole thing is just a bit too lazy; there are lots of great gags and character moments throughout the episode, and I still think it basically works, but the crisis is undercooked. Even the jokes about Bender’s antenna being a penis stand-in are too easy. About the only part that really lands is Fry’s initial indifference to Bender threatening to cut off his doohickey; we’ve seen Bender lose his arms and his head, so why should this matter?

That aside, it’s fun to watch the series discovering itself, starting with the revelation that owls, not rats, are infesting the city. It’s such an odd idea, handled so deftly throughout the episode, and it helps establish one of the fundamental precepts of the Futurama universe: the why-the-fuck-not approach. Not in a haphazard or even aggressively random sense, but in the way that the show’s creators used background details to constantly remind us that yes, this is the World Of Tomorrow, and yes, things are different in the year 3000. Not utterly different; I tried to explain (and did a mediocre job) last week about the series’ approach to prognostication, its embrace of the idea that science fiction is more about riffing on the present than getting worked up trying to realistically predict what the future might hold. At its worst, this leads to sloppy storytelling where present day pop culture is simply transplanted with some minor retouching into the show’s world. At its best, because the characters motivation remains grounded in understandable, familiar concerns, the writers are free to what-the-fuck everything else—to tweak things in striking and unusual ways, and create a perpetual sense of unfamiliar familiarity. So, no more rats. Now it’s owls. Maybe there’s a reason for this, but there doesn’t need to be. It makes just enough sense to be delightful.

This applies to Fry’s hunt for a place to live as well. Just because he has his dream job doesn’t mean he can ignore the other basic requirements of life. After working hard to make Fry a sympathetic hero, “I, Robot” sets to work pointing out his lesser qualities; the character is never willfully cruel, but he is casually selfish, turning the Planet Express building into a dorm room without any apparent embarrassment or awareness of the people around him. This pays off at the climax of the story, when Fry realizes that his selfishness has hurt Bender’s feelings, and makes an almost heroic gesture of friendship in sacrificing his own happiness for his friend’s. (The fact that this sacrifice leads to a surprise apartment in Bender’s “closet” feels like a necessary compromise; even on a show like this, it wouldn’t make sense for Fry to be stuck forever in a 2 cubic meter sized space.)

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Gah, and I’m still leaving out all the great side bits in this. Seeing All My Circuits for the first time means meeting Calculon, the great robot actor who serves as this show’s version of Troy McClure; the revelation that Bender actually needs alcohol to power his system, which leads to the great sequence of him going on a sobriety binge; Bachelor Chow; Amy’s pratfalls; and so on. While the story isn’t as sharp as it could’ve been, it does provide solid structure to support some great jokes, as well as solidifying Bender and Fry’s friendship as more than just a relationship of convenience.

Stray observations:

  • Title subtitle: “As Seen On TV”
  • While I wasn’t a huge fan of how the episode used Bender’s antenna, I did like seeing the writers draw attention to it in the very first gag; Fry hears his alarm go off, and mistakes the antenna for a snooze button. It’s cute bit (which is amusingly disturbing in retrospect), and helps to make sure we’re already seeing the antenna as more than just a design choice.
  • Bender: “That’s right, we want some money! Wait, what’s this about Fry.”
  • “Then you must know I’m-” “Metric? I’ve always known. But for you, my darling, I’m willing to convert.” -the romance of All My Circuits (beeping robot stares at you from the bushes)
  • “Yeah, but everybody’s a jerk. You, me, this jerk. That’s my philosophy.” Bender’s characterization is pretty much in focus now, I’d say.
  • “Hey, sexy mama… want to kill all humans?” Yup, that’s Bender.
  • “Well, how is his wife holding up? To shreds, you say.” -Professor Farnsworth
  • “You know Fry, of all the friends I’ve had, you’re the first.” -Bender
  • “Please, Bender, have some malt liquor. If not for yourself, than for the people who love you.” -Leela

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“Love’s Labours Lost In Space” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 4/13/1999)

In which woman… is the final fronTIER…

There’s a certain perception of Captain James T. Kirk from the original Star Trek that’s gotten locked into our pop culture memories. Kirk, this perception argues, was a womanizing, self-centered idiot, a sexist dinosaur who roamed the galaxy trying to force his will onto unwilling species because hey, that’s what straight white men do. This perception isn’t entirely unwarranted—there are more than a few Trek episodes that focus on Kirk “fixing” some backwards space idiots, even if that fixing means, say, robbing them of eternal life. (It’s okay, they got to have sex in exchange for immortality, I’m sure they’re fine with that.) But having watched and reviewed the entire series, I think it’s a joke that has outlived its usefulness. Kirk was comparatively progressive for the time the show aired, and his love of alien women never trumped the most important relationship in his life: him and his ship. While the initial parody did a good job mocking some of Trek’s failings, the bit has gone stale.

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That said, I fucking love Zapp Brannigan. The character is as direct a goof on Kirk as you’re likely to get, and it is a brutal, brutal gag; and I love the guy to pieces. It helps that Billy West’s vocal performance (the role was originally written for Phil Hartman; it would be great to hear Hartman’s take, but West more than holds his own) is clearly as much Shatner as it is Kirk, with all the odd… unnecessary pauses and weird EMPHASIS in the delivery. Shatner, whose pomposity and self-regard are legendary, remains an excellent target. The details surrounding Zapp may be thinly veiled Trek gags, but the character’s fundamental cowardice, self-aggrandizement, and bone-deep stupidity is a brutal take down of the two-fisted hero type, the dude who comes in, punches anything he doesn’t like, and fucks anything he does. But most importantly, he’s hilarious, and a perfect addition to the show.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; while Zapp is an important part of “Love’s Labours Lost In Space,” the episode’s central figure is Leela. She’s having a hard time meeting the man of her dreams. (She rejects a guy in the cold open because he has a lizard tongue. She really is way too picky.) We’ve gotten a chance to know Fry in the previous three episodes, and learn a bit more about Bender; it makes sense to shift the focus onto someone new, even while making sure to allow for plenty of time for Bender and Fry bits on the sidelines. What’s interesting is that unlike “I, Roommate,” this storyline doesn’t try and develop Leela by exploring her relationship with Fry. Her plot is pretty much a solo affair, albeit one that that involves a certain schmoozing space captain. While that plot isn’t hugely original (Leela is a woman, and therefore she yearns for a man), it’s still gratifying to see how easily the show’s perspective can switch around, even this early in season one.

It helps that Leela is such a clear, sympathetic figure right from the start. The “only sane person in the room” can be a limiting role, especially for a female cast member; done badly, and it results in a stern mother figure stuck lecturing the rest of the ensemble as they run around doing things we actually care about. But Futurama largely avoids this trap by making Leela way just as fucked up as everyone else. The key to her character is that she’s the only sane person in a world full of crazy people. (You could argue that it’s a Michael Bluth-type situation, where Leela only thinks she’s the sane one, but I think Arrested Development is far more critical of Michael than Futurama ever is of Leela.) That sanity doesn’t make her boring. It makes her very, very irritated, because hell, wouldn’t you be if you had to deal with all these idiots? Leela’s professionalism and maturity means its easy to frustrate her; it also means she’s lonely and vulnerable to the sort of stupid, rash decisions she’s always judging other people for. I just realized I’m talking about a cartoon character as though she was a real person. I should probably regroup.

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Anyway: Leela is smartly conceived, and Katey Sagal does a terrific job of making her plight seem more than just a convenient way to get her into bed with Zapp. Her behavior after their one sexual encounter (in one of the best jokes of the episode, Zapp’s seduction attempts—”Cham-pag-en?”—fail miserably, and it’s only after he starts sobbing at his loneliness that Leela lowers her guard) is a hilarious mixture of embarrassment and defiance, and it’s a credit to the episode that the jokes about Leela and Zapp never feel like slut-shaming. Which isn’t to say there’s some kind of progressive message buried in all of this, but it’s refreshing about how not-a-big-deal this all seems. Zapp will continue to be an irritant for the rest of the series, but there’s never a sense that his dickishness is Leela’s fault, or that she led him on. The only ones to judge her are Fry and Bender, and we’ve already had more than enough evidence that, lovable as they are, their judgement isn’t exactly reliable.

The other big introduction this week is a carnivorous alien that Leela, Fry, and Bender discover living on Vergon 6. (Vergon 6 is a planet whose core of dark matter has been mined to exhaustion, thus dooming the planet to collapse in, well, two hours ago; the Planet Express crew is there on a tax deductible mission of charity to try and save as many animals as they can.) The alien, whom Leela dubs “Nibbler,” makes quick work of every animal the crew had tried to save, a grim joke only somewhat lightened by Nibbler’s adorability, and the fact that a few of the animals actually survive the planet implosion. (In retrospect, it’s surprising to see the show pulling its punches even that much, but then, those animals are stranded on an asteroid floating in space, so they probably won’t last much longer.) Leela adopts Nibbler, and having a new pet helps to deal with her loneliness much more effectively than Zapp’s awful advances.

“Love’s Labours Lost In Space” is a stronger episode than “I, Roommate” for a few reasons. It helps to see the show finally exploring some place that isn’t immediately familiar; unlike apartment hunting or even the Moon, Vergon 6 is unusual enough to expand the scope of the show’s possibilities. The montage of the crew trying to capture various bizarre animals is inventive and clever, and the fact that the story has a legitimate genre feel to it is a nice change of pace from the previous two episodes. And the story is just better structured. The fact that Nibbler excretes dark matter (aka starship fuel) is maybe a cheat, but it’s an earned cheat; the actual crux of the plot happens when Leela, faced with a choice between dying on the collapsing planet and throwing her new pet out an airlock, chooses death. It establishes Leela as legitimately heroic, even if she doesn’t have a plan to save everyone, and it leaves Zapp the loser, which is as it should be.

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Stray observations:

  • Title subtitle: “Presented in BC [Brain Control] Where Available”
  • Given his role on Zapp’s ship, it seems entirely appropriate to save discussion about Zapp’s first officer Kif for the Stray Observations. (Kiff: “Ugh.”) In this episode, the character isn’t much more than a foil for Zapp, locked in a state of perpetually exasperated disgust at Zapp’s buffoonery. It’s a pairing that would grow slightly more nuanced over time, but the joke works well here.
  • Zapp is famous for defeating an army of killbots. His secret? Each killbot has a built in kill-limit. So he sent “wave after wave” of men in to be slaughtered until the robots shut down. Ah, heroism.
  • “The rotting carcass of a whale!” -Zoidberg, picking out places to meet people. (He also falls in love with a lobster. Zoidberg is slowly coming into his own.)
  • While out clubbing in a doomed attempt to improve Leela’s love life, Fry hooks up with a girl from the 21st century. Which is cute, but I love the idea that Fry’s long sleep wasn’t that rare an event. I’m not sure exactly why this appeals to me, but I think it has to do with that “why-the-fuck-not” idea; since no event is singular, anything can happen, but at the same time, because we care about these characters, what happens to them still matters.
  • This is a dumb question, but: are we supposed to believe that Nibbler is responsible for the planet core being made of dark matter? Or that Nibbler and others like him were? Because that doesn’t really make sense. It just seems like an odd coincidence.
  • “It’s not his fault he’s an unstoppable killing machine!” -Leela.

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