In which there is no Sigourney, only ship…
Sigourney Weaver guest stars in this week’s first episode, and she is very good. Great, actually. I mean, it’s Sigourney Weaver, so it’s not like that’s a surprise. She even managed to turn in a compelling performance in the imminently mediocre Avatar. As the upgraded A.I. personality of the Planet Express ship, Weaver sells the thinnest of characters—barely a character at all, really—and in doing so, manages to find an impressive level of variation and sincerity in a broadly drawn caricature. Without Weaver, this would be tolerable, mostly for its b-plot. With Weaver, it’s good approaching great.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: Bender’s romance with the Planet Express ship is a funny idea that doesn’t go far enough in either direction. The plot should be familiar, once you strip away the “robot/ship” part. Bender, a cad, woos a seemingly sweet-natured but fundamentally disturbed artificial intelligence program. When Bender (who is, as mentioned, a cad) does what Benders do best, the program goes mental and tries to take revenge. With the help of his two closest friends, Bender is able to defeat the psychopath, and in doing so, learns absolutely nothing about anything, except maybe that workplace romances aren’t a great idea.
The basics—woman treated badly goes crazy after jerkwad abandons her, thus ostensibly punishing the jerkwad who pushed her over the edge, although really it’s just a commentary on how nuts ladies are, am I right, guys?—have been done to death by now, and what makes “Love And Rocket” a mildly frustrating experience is that the episode’s writer doesn’t really do anything to subvert the central cliches. Yes, shifting the relationship from “woman and man” to “ship’s A.I. and robot” changes things, but the core sexism that drives the concept remains intact. Bender’s a jerk, but the lady program? Neurotic, obsessive, and ultimately homicidal, albeit in a haphazard, “I’ll turn off life support and whatever happens happens” kind of way.
There are signs of the script trying to underline this discrepancy by making Bender’s behavior as blatantly dickish as possible. Not only does he start cheating on the ship (okay, I’m just going to start using “the ship” to mean “the ship’s A.I.,” because I’m tired of typing all that out) the instant he gets bored, he decides to break up with it/her in the middle of a firefight, thus putting everyone at risk. This could’ve been a smart direction to take—we’ve had stories in the past which play on our assumptions of how Bender is the “good” guy simply because he’s a main character, and having Bender be the villain would upend the whole premise years before Gone Girl came along and spun things around.
But we still get clear signs of the ship being a lunatic, and that lunacy isn’t an appropriate response to Bender’s admittedly assholish behavior. So instead of something subversive, we get a storyline with an underdeveloped villain (Weaver makes it work, but as written, there’s no real personality to the character), with an inevitable ending that restores the status quo. Generally, I have no problem with status quo restoration, but it’s disappointing to see the show waste such a terrific guest turn on something that’s so undeserving of her. Of course, without Weaver, this storyline could’ve been a trainwreck, so I guess it does make a certain amount of sense.
Thankfully, the B-plot, which has Fry trying to find the perfect candy heart message to express his feelings to Leela, is much better considered. (In case I’m unclear, by the way: I don’t think the Bender/ship stuff is bad, exactly. Just a letdown.) Fry/Leela stories are often difficult because of the way the show keeps the two perpetually on the brink of… something. Fry has feelings, Leela doesn’t seem to reciprocate those feelings, but maybe she does? It’s an uneasy balance which could get old fast, but it works well a surprising amount of time, not in the least because the writers rarely overplay it.
Fry’s hunt for the right heart is a perfect example. It’s treated as a running gag through most of the half-hour; enough attention is paid to the idea that you know there’s going to be some kind of pay-off, but it’s never a distraction. The whole thing is reminiscent of Fry’s efforts to figure out how he won Leela over in “Time Keeps On Slippin’,” only here, the ending is heartwarming instead of heartbreaking. After the ship cuts the A.I., Fry hooks Leela’s face mask up to his oxygen tank to save her life, risking his own in the process; she brings him back with some CPR, and he coughs up a candy heart that reads “U Leave Me Breath-less.” It’s the sort of sweet, perfect moment that doesn’t have to lead to anything to be wonderful.
“Love And Rocket” is a love-themed episode, and this being Futurama, that theme gets a bit dark. In addition to the whole psychotic ship incident, there’s Romanticorp, the company who becomes Planet Express’s temporary new boss. Romanticorp produces the candy hearts which serve as a MacGuffin for much of the episode (before featuring prominently in a marvelously odd Zoidberg-narrated conclusion). Romanticorp also make Lovey Bears—cute stuffed animals vaguely reminiscent of Care Bears. The twist is, instead of just making the toy, Romanticorp genetically breeds adorable bears, raises them for a year, and then kills them and stuffs them.
This is a dark turn, and while dark turns are nothing new for the show, watching a Lovey Bear run for its life (only to be tranquilized by the ever helpful Professor Farnsworth) was more unsettling than it was funny. But I’m willing to chalk that up to a matter of taste—because it still was funny, at least a little bit, and I tend to be something a softy anyway. What’s especially amusing is that Leela’s decision to dump a ship’s worth of candy hearts into a quasar results in the destruction of several planets, which should, in theory, be a lot creepier than the tracking and implied murder of a sickeningly adorable little bear. Yet that didn’t bother me at all. Make all the dark jokes you want, show; just don’t make me look at them in action.
Criticisms aside, “Love And Rocket” remains one of show’s more memorable outings; the guest voice is inspired, the gags are sharp throughout, and the romantic-with-more-than-a-little-horror take on love seems pretty well thought out.
- Opening caption: When You See The Robot, Drink!
- Throughout the episode, Bender communicates with the ship via a small red light eye, designed to mimic HAL’s red light eye in 2001. There are 2001 references throughout: When plotting to disrupt the A.I., Leela and the others hide in the shower (“Everyone just pretend to shower.” “Same as every day. Got it.”) where the ship’s sensors can’t listen in—and the A.I. complains about not being able to read lips; Bender sings “A Bicycle Built For Two” during his falling-in-love montage; and when Leela and Fry go to shut down the system, they end up in a computer room just like the one David Bowman floats through as he pulls HAL’s memory core.
- “What’ll it be: My place, or you?”—Bender
- Bender still has Lucy Liu’s head in his apparently infinite chest cavity.
- The fact that the Planet Express ship doesn’t have a name seems even more noticeable than usual here.
- “Why does Ross, the largest friend, not simply eat the other five?”—Lrr
In which Leela, Fry, and Bender fight evil for so long as it is convenient…
“Less Than Hero” isn’t Futurama’s most emotionally resonant episode. The premise isn’t exceptionally clever: Leela and Fry finding a miracle cream that grants them super powers is a decent starting point, but it’s no “we’re jumping through parallel universes” (we’ll get to that) or “we’ve fractured space time” (already been there!). This feels like something that would be more at home in a kids’ cartoon then one made for grown-ups, especially given how unquestioning our heroes are about the source of their powers. Theirs is a world with a seemingly limitless range of scientific study, but no one involved thinks to test the miracle cream for ingredients, in case they might want to make more.
That’s fitting for a kid’s show where such sudden gifts are to be expected and, at the end of a half-hour, immediately forgotten. And it’s fitting for this episode, too: Despite all those things I just said, “Less Than Hero” is really terrific. Just a pure joy from beginning to end—and given that it’s an homage to kid’s cartoons and good-natured superhero heroics (with just enough of the Futurama edge to keep it from being too predictable), that disinterest in applying practical responses to an absurd situation is entirely in keeping with the medium being addressed.
Besides, one of the story’s greatest charms is that it embraces the idea of being a superhero as a fun thing to do, and a perfectly natural response to getting super powers. There’s no tortured backstories, no pressing need for Leela and Fry and Bender to put on costumes and go traipsing around the city beating up thugs, no sense of great power necessitating great responsibility. New New York has enough crime to keep them busy, but this isn’t Gotham, yearning for a hero to save it. This is a lark plain and simple, and there’s something pretty goddamn refreshing in that. What I love more than anything about “Less Than Hero” is its sense of play. Everyone involved just seems to be having so much fun that the pleasure becomes infectious.
It helps that they get the details right. While the actual target of the parody shifts from moment to moment, the episode takes most of its cues from cartoons like Super Friends and the original live-action Batman TV series. That last was inevitable, really, as seemingly any television show or movie in the past 30 years that’s done a riff on the genre has drawn from the Adam West show. The nods here are predictable (a campy supervillain named the Zookeeper with a ludicrous theme; the visual sound effects), but specific enough to not feel lazy.
The Super Friends stuff feels a little more fresh—mainly because our heroes are treated to the luxury of a surprisingly long theme song which introduces them, their powers, and the source of their powers. (Actually, maybe the song is a nod to the old Spider-man cartoon?) This is a gimmick that could’ve felt shallow, but the detail of it, from the carefully chosen costumes (which are more references to how each character sees him or herself—Fry is Captain Yesterday, Leela is Cloberella, Bender is Super King—then gags on famous heroes) to the catchy song and lyrics, to Leela’s detailed explanation as to why none of them can reveal their secret identities, makes it feel fresh. Hell, there’s even a tribute to the classic “Oh no, we’re in our civilian clothes but someone in this room needs to talk to our super-hero identities” scene.
The story does find time for a little heart, using Leela’s relationship with her parents to complicate her efforts at crime-fighting, and also to give the story a third act with a moderate amount of stakes. The effort basically works, although the arc of Leela realizing her parents love her whatever she does is, while sweet, not a particularly impressive one. It’s not really new information, either. We saw in “Leela’s Homeworld” just how far Mom and Dad would go for their daughter, and the fact that she misses spending time with them (during their only allowed trip to the surface) isn’t going to change that. It’s sweet, but it doesn’t really develop anything new, apart from showing how scared Leela is of breaking her parents’ hearts.
Thankfully, Morris and Munda also give the episode its climax. After lecturing Fry about the importance of maintaining their secret identities, Leela blabs to her mother and father, who in turn blab to other sewer dwellers. Eventually the Zookeeper finds out; he kidnaps Morris and Munda, and demands the New Justice Team steal the quantum gemerald they earlier prevented him from stealing himself. Just as the trio gear up to go a’robbing, they discover they’re out of the miracle cream that gave them their powers. Now they’re just two regular humans and Bender, who is still a robot.
Typically this sort of setback would lead to a suspenseful final sequence in which our heroes managed to pull off the heist, foil the Zookeeper, and rescue Leela’s parents. Two of those things happen. They manage to steal the gemerald with a few nods to their not-limited power set (Bender being a robot comes in super handy), and Leela’s parents make it out okay. But the Zookeeper gets what he wants, and no one acts like they’re much bothered by it.
It’s a low-key sort of ending that basically works as a twist on our expectations of superheroics. Since Fry, Leela, and Bender just got into this gig for the fun of it, they have no loyalty to the law or property rights. And since the Zookeeper isn’t a murdering psychopath and plays fair by their arrangement, they have no real reason to hunt him down, especially not now that they’ve run out of cream.
This is a perfectly acceptable conclusion. But, as is so often the case on this show, the intentional deflation of earlier stakes leads to something of an anti-climax. I’m not sure it’s really relevant to critique the episode for that anti-climax, given that it’s exactly what the script is aiming for, but everything that precedes it is so engaging and thrilling (in a way that’s at once mocking and utterly sincere) that I wish someone involved had pushed a little harder.
That feels like an unfair criticism to make, though, especially considering how much fun I had rewatching this. Seeing Leela, Fry, and Bender work together as a team nearly always makes for something grand, and on the whole, “Less Than Hero” doesn’t disappoint. Its ambitions are modest, and it makes the most of them. Plus, it offers the rare chance to see super-heroes being ridiculous for no other reason than they want to. We could use more of that, really.
- Opening caption: Soon To Be A Major Religion!
- Fry and Leela discover their powers when a mugger tries to rob them. His weapon? A small robot holding a smaller gun.
- Fry: “When you were a kid, what was your biggest fantasy?” Leela: “To have parents.”
- Oh God, the Zookeeper’s animal helpers are the best. “A badger with a troubled past and nothing left to lose, an elephant who never forgets… TO KILL.”
- “The value of the gemerald you saved is slightly more than the cost of the damage you caused saving it!”
- “It’s like we wandered into an off-Broadway play!” “No, there are way too many people here.”
Next week: “A Taste Of Freedom” and “Bender Should Not Be Allowed On TV.”