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“Insane In The Mainframe” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired 4/8/2001)

In which Fry has a few screws loosened

I like it when characters suffer. This isn’t an opening statement designed to ease us into some intimate detail about my personal life, or a particularly insightful critical insight. When you get right down to it, characters suffering is a large part of what stories really are. But I get an especial kick out of narratives that force their protagonists through the proverbial wringer, for reasons too obscure to really parse out; I only mention this because it might be why I have such a soft spot for “Insane In The Mainframe.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m confident enough to say this is a good episode without fear of contradiction. It’s not a great episode though—at least, I suspect it isn’t. But I love it. I love it because Fry suffers.

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The thing is, Fry suffering is really only the middle section of the episode. The beginning has him moping over his empty pension fund, and deciding the best way to ensure his financial security is to invest his last hundred dollars in lottery tickets. This goes as well as you’d expect, so it’s off the bank to lose his last six bucks in an ill-advised attempt to open a savings bank. All of this is relatively familiar, from Fry and Bender making stupid choices together, to the various settings they make their choices in. Things get more interesting when they run into Roberto, a crazy robot who robs the bank while Bender and Fry are inside, and then gives them both a bag of money, framing them for the crime. But then we’re back inside a courtroom, where the rooster lawyer gives his predictably terrible defense.

It moves along at a good clip, and I especially liked Bender’s casual efforts at small talk while Roberto waves his knife around. But things don’t really get interesting until Fry is sentenced to a robot insane asylum. It’s a terrific premise: science fiction, Kafkaesque absurdity, and cartoon logic all wrapped into one. We haven’t seen this particular part of the show’s world before, and while it’s essentially “sanitarium with cyber-trimmings,” the result is just well thought out enough to be specific. From the conveyor belt entry to the plasma globe-headed psychiatrist, the place feels distinct, which makes it more interesting to watch.

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The concept would be terrifying if the tone was off (Fry is, after all, being sent by an uncaring system to a facility where he’s beaten, starved, and perpetually on the verge of death), but it’s not off. And really, the underlying awfulness of what’s going on helps to make the jokes land stronger. Fry never winks at the audience, or acts casual about what’s happening. He’s frightened and stressed and begging for someone, anyone, to listen to him. Because this is a comedy show, and because we know what kind of comedy show it is (one that can be mean, but not cruel—at least, not cruel with permanent consequences for the main characters), we don’t have to worry that Fry will actually die. That means his struggles have stakes that are high enough to make the story work, and give the gags bite, but not so high as to be distracting.

So, Fry is stuck in a place where he doesn’t belong, and one of the strongest elements of the episode is how the writing, animation, and sound design work to make sure we’re always aware of just how unpleasant that place is for him. There’s a real visceral feeling to the scenes in the asylum, a sense of sharp angles and cold, unyielding surfaces, and the effect is to both make his plight more thrilling and funny to watch, and also to make his eventual crack up much more believable. The sequence touches on plenty of familiar “insane asylum” tropes, most of them swiped from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: there’s a Nurse Ratchet (get it?), and an inmate who introduces Fry to the other inmates (including poor Franky, a robot who thinks he’s a cafeteria worker who was put to work in the cafeteria.). Malfunctioning Eddie makes a return appearance as Fry’s roommate; he gets treated to a point where his explosions are minor, and can be controlled by medication.

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The asylum section is such a fun, creepy, bizarre setting that the episode loses some steam when Fry is released. After the various pressures become too much for his poor, squishy brain, Philip J. cracks and decides that he really is a robot after all. Which means the asylum actually drove him crazy, which is just a stunning indictment of the way our criminal justice system is designed to transform fledgling idiots into hardened criminals. You know Futurama, always making with the brutal social commentary. This show and The Wire: people have seen them both.

The gag of Fry’s transformation is that he doesn’t make for a particularly good robot, just a frustratingly consistent one. That makes sense with Fry’s character, and it’s easy to sympathize with the frustration of the others at having to deal with a Fry who’s aggressively incompetent, instead of just affably incompetent. Watching them try and convince him he’s human is amusing, especially Leela’s efforts to win him over with the power of smooching. But it’s something of a letdown from what came before, mostly because Fry-as-a-robot is the same bit repeated several times with minor variations.

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Eventually Roberto breaks out of jail. Bender takes him to Planet Express, and Fry is able to both save the save and regain his humanity. As conclusions go, it has a pleasing symmetry (Roberto started this mess, he inadvertently helps clean it up), and the writers manage to let Fry be the hero without making him do things an actual human being couldn’t do, which is quite satisfying. Admittedly, this is a show with head transplants and multiple de-limbings, which never seem to cause more pain than a minor bruising, but that’s the fun thing about cartoons; the rules are a lot more flexible.

Stray observations:

  • First, an ad Thompson’s Teeth, which are so strong they let you eat other teeth. Then, Opening caption: “Bender’s Humor by Microsoft Joke.”
  • The hundred dollar bill in Fry’s sock has a genial Ben Franklin on it, but we later see a hundred dollar Nixon who’s much less friendly. (“Shoot ‘em in the back! Quick, while they’re not looking!”)
  • “Your honor, I move that I be disbarred for introducing this evidence against my own clients.”
  • Fry and Bender are sent to the HAL Institute For Criminally Insane Robots.
  • “I do other human stuff! I age! See!” -Fry, failing.
  • I love the Mad Hatter robot in the cafeteria.
  • “We’ve petitioned the governor, but he doesn’t want to seem soft on people who’ve been falsely imprisoned.” -Leela, failing
  • “Hooray! I’m helping!” -Zoidberg

“I Dated A Robot” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 5/13/2001)

In which Fry finds a love machine

When “I Dated A Robot” originally aired, Lucy Liu was a star on the rise. Her recurring role on Ally McBeal had made her something like a household name, and her part in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels solidified this. Liu’s star image was clear enough in the public eye that it made sense for Fry to have a major crush on her; it also makes sense near the end of the episode when Nappster, producer of robot celebrity sex robots, sends a horde of Lucy Liu kill-bots to protect its secrets. In the early aughts, Lucy Liu was both a sex goddess and a potential warrior of fearsome power, and her supposed coldness just made her all the more attractive.

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What’s interesting is that for thechunk of time between this episode airing, and me writing this review, Liu faded from, and then returned to, popular view. She never entirely left, but after the Charlie’s Angels franchise died, and Ally McBeal went off the air (and after the awesomeness of Kill Bill, Vol. 1), the actress became less of an icon. Her credits turned into a hodge-podge of TV and lower-budget movie work, and, while I’m not exactly the sole arbiter of fame in the world, there were a couple of years where I honestly wondered what the hell had happened to her. But then she popped up on CBS’s terrific Elementary, playing one of her best roles to date—a role that’s neither cold nor ruthless nor inherently violent. Lucy Liu, it turns out, is a lot more complicated than her initial image might’ve suggested, and knowing that makes this episode a more compelling than it might otherwise have been.

Not that much more compelling, though, or else I wouldn’t have spent two paragraphs theorizing about a relatively inconsequential point. “I Dated A Robot” is a decent half hour which is mostly worth watching for its increasingly crazed plot. The climax is Fry, Bender, Leela, a Lucy Liu sexbot, and Lucy Liu’s head (in a jar) fighting an army of Lucy Liu assassin robots in a movie theater. Maybe it’s some kind of meta commentary about how Liu was struggling to define herself beyond the sexpot, killbot image, but whatever the reasoning, it’s bizarre enough to be entertaining. And there’s a stab at emotional authenticity as well, but it’s more for joke purposes than anything else—the effect is sincere enough to be memorable, but not so sincere as to be actually moving. Very odd.

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So, the set-up: after another Scary Door episode (the Twilight Zone parody is on the lazy side here, as it’s just a bunch of regular twist endings crammed together), Leela decides it’s high time for Fry to get one more chance to do everything in the future he’s always wanted to do. This sets up a nifty montage of various futuristic activities, from planet-destroying to alternate universe spotting (it turns out there’s only one, and everyone dresses like a cowboy there), to riding a T-Rex and feeding a pig. (Also, your hands.) The final item on Fry’s list? Dating a celebrity. Which isn’t exactly a future-only idea, but it gets us to the main plot: Fry buying a Lucy Liu sex machine.

It’s the sort of idea which seems honestly inevitable; given the way human beings work, and given how technology tends to develop quickest when it’s servicing our most basic desires, if people are ever able to build convincing, sexually active robots based on celebrities, this is a thing that’s going to happen. And it’s a deeply unsettling thing once you start to think about it. So much of our culture is motivated by a desire to improve ourselves and win the attention and affection of a potential mate—who knows what the hell will happen if we’re able to create even-more-perfect-than-the-real-thing sexual partners. (This is a problem I always had with the holodeck. Even putting sex aside, the idea of creating virtual environments that will provide you with all the positives and none of the negatives of real life seems like it could raise all sorts of problems. In The Matrix, Agent Smith claims the computers couldn’t come up with a convincing virtual paradise; in real life, I’m pretty sure we’ll design our own.)

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The episode itself acknowledges this, once Fry and the Liu-bot start going at it. Farnsworth and the others are worried about the amount of time Fry is spending with his love machine, and they show him a video they all watched in high school: I Dated A Robot, an anti-robot-sexing instructional that mimics the style of ‘50s theatrical shorts. It’s pretty funny and weirdly specific to the issue at hand, and it also makes you wonder why Leela and the others introduced Fry to the Nappster service in the first place, if this was such a problem. But that’s sort of how the show works: the internal logic isn’t supposed to be airtight, just enough to get you through the thirty minutes. (And hey, since civilization hasn’t ended, apparently people having sex with celebrity robots wasn’t such a big deal after all.)

Still, Leela is determined to break up the pairing, and Bender is just offended as all hell over Fry having intimate relations with a robot. That last bit is arbitrary, but as we’ve discussed at some length, arbitrary is Bender’s thing, especially the arbitrary allows him to be irrationally angry. It gives the writers an excuse to do a fun nod to All In The Family, and sets up a gag at the end when Lucy Liu’s head falls in love with Bender and he, being a hypocrite, falls for her charms in return. And Leela, well, Leela meddles. This has also been established. None of this is particularly compelling until the kill-bots arrive, since Fry seems perfectly happy, and we already know that Liu-bot isn’t going to stay around forever. Once Nappster takes steps to defend itself, the true wackiness begins, and helps to save the episode from being just another weird attempt at topicality from a show set a thousand years into the future.

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There’s also the ending, when the real Lucy Liu asks Fry to deactivate his Liu-bot to prove his true devotion to her. This is right after the Liu-bot risked its life (existence?) and saved the entire group. It’s a weird moment that has the rhythms of tragedy, without any of the actual substance. While it’s sad that Fry is losing a machine that he liked to make out with, and which may or may not have had a will of its own, his crush on Lucy Liu isn’t exactly the stuff great romance is built out of; when he finds out that Bender and Liu are getting together, it’s hard to care much one way or the other, although it is funny. That’s the best way to view the episode as a whole, really. It’s funny, and gets fairly crazy, and that’s basically it.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: SCRATCH HERE TO REVEAL PRIZE
  • “Nappster” is a riff on “Napster,” the music sharing service that caused quite the stir when this episode first aired. Kids, ask your parents.
  • Fry gets the pig he feeds to the T-Rex out of a vending machine, and the pig is definitely not happy about it. There is a definite effort to make sure you are aware that the pig is a living being, and does not want to be eaten alive.
  • The funniest running gag in the episode is the way the Liu-bot switches to a loud monotone whenever she says a phrase that’s specific to the situation. It seems odd that a future capable of creating artificial intelligence would have sex-bots aren’t powered by AI; but then, I guess that could be some cutting social commentary about what we’re looking for in our sex-bots. Anyway, it’s hilarious.
  • “Read the jar, Evelyn Wood.” -Liu to Fry. Evelyn Wood was a teacher who helped popularize speed reading. Very deep cut.
  • “It’s amazing the way you NOTICE TWO THINGS.” Liu-Bot.

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