“Mother’s Day” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 5/14/2000)

In which some jerkwad robots wuv their mommy

In this episode, Professor Farnsworth has sex with Mom. We don’t actually see the fuckery on screen, but we do get a lot of loose skin and moaning; it’s a testament to the animators involved that the result is disturbing without being actively disgusting. There are jokes about old people fucking, but the passion between the two characters is legitimate, and Farnsworth’s broken heart at the end (after Mom dumps him) isn’t played for laughs in and of itself. His sorrow is sincere, which makes the pink mind-controlled gorillas shouting “Love Mom!” on top of the Planet Express building all the funnier. Absurd outcomes stemming from authentic emotion is a good approach to comedy, especially when working in narrative fiction. The more someone really wants something, the more hilarious their ridiculous efforts to achieve it become.

That’s a small element of the episode, to be sure, but it’s revealing of one of the reasons “Mother’s Day” works better than last week’s double feature. This is a world spanning plot about millions of robots joining forces to rebel against society, under the strict orders of their creator; but it’s also a plot that kicks off because said creator, Mom, is in a pissy mood, still smarting from having her heart broken 70 years ago. To be sure, this is a thin thread to hang an episode on. There’s no inciting incident, no clear reason why this particular anniversary of getting dumped is getting to Mom more than usual. And while that’s a joke in and of itself (“Eh, screw it, I’ll destroy the world today.”), it’s too haphazard for my tastes, especially considering there’s no apparent ramifications for Mom’s efforts. She pushes a button, the robots wreck up the place, she pushes a button again, they stop. In both cases, these events happened because the story needed them to happen, and both events are basically justified; but they don’t fit very well into the overall design of Futurama in a way that’s more lazy than intentional.

Thankfully this is such a funny half hour that it’s easier to overlook such flaws. The robot rebellion in particular is a highpoint. At the start, we see various ‘bots getting all mushy at the chance to pay tribute to their beloved mother. This is the first mention we’ve had that Mom’s company is responsible for building every robot on Earth, and it feels a little awkward; in her debut, Mom made Mom’s Old-Fashioned Robot Oil, which was a lot more reasonable than having monopoly over what must be one of the most (if not the most) profitable industries of her time. But whatever. (I nitpick because I love.) Regardless of plausibility concerns, the concept is well-executed. Watching Bender push out a cart of gifts, only for him to reveal that he actually paid for everything himself, is a clever way to establish how important Mom is to her robots. If Bender is willing to obey the law to prove his love, her hold must be very strong indeed.

This scene also introduces the best running gag of the episode: a saccharine greeting card with a voice chip who spouts Marxist dogma once Mom’s remote control takes effect. It’s been a few years since I last watched this episode, and I’d forgotten that the voice chip developed a personality—the episode plays its “I wuv you, Mommy” catchphrase a couple times in the early-going, but the voice and the sentiment are so exaggeratedly sweet that they work perfectly fine as a gag in and of itself. Then Mom pushes a button, and the chip develops an identity, chirping about the sins of the bourgeois and the rise of the proletariat. It’s a funny, well-deployed joke that never wears out its welcome, and also has an unexpectedly dark conclusion—Bender, realizing that he won’t be able to drink booze in the chip’s proposed robot utopia, rips his comrade to shreds. There’s no implication that the chip survives this assault. So, straight up murder, then. Which is hilarious.

Advertisement

The implausibility of the greeting card chip AI (why the hell would a chip that only speaks one phrase have artificial intelligence?) is part and parcel of the episode’s exceedingly loose definition of “robot.” I can buy a future where computerization is an essential part of nearly every piece of mechanical equipment, but I’m not sure I believe that an otherwise normal looking blow dryer or stapler has enough circuitry running through it to openly revolt, even when given a direct command. Which is part of the fun; the show’s writers are surely smart enough to realize how ridiculous this is, and the sheer number of different machines they find ways to turn into violent robots is one of the episode’s charms. How well that charm works is a question of personal taste. For me, it’s mostly effective, but I do wish the definitions hadn’t been quite so broad. I found some instances (like that blow dryer) to be too distracting, as I had to remind myself that this is a show that frequently does stupid things in the service of being smart. (And yes, it’s possible Amy’s blow dryer had some sort of tech inside, but, unlike Bender’s talking card—a ridiculous concept that made just enough sense to feel natural—there was no set up. Sometimes you can be a little too lazy.)

The biggest problem with the episode, though, remains Mom herself, an entertaining concept that has yet to settle down into an actual character. The joke is that she looks sweet and loving, but in private, she’s a hate-filled foul-mouthed monster. We get it. The story attempts to give her some depth by introducing her relationship with Farnsworth, but the reveal is ultimately more about Farnsworth than about her. The great character design and Tress MacNeille’s terrific voice work are able keep Mom interesting, and the moments of tenderness she shows to the professor late in the half hour at least suggest she has more than one setting, but her sudden decision to take vengeance on the world for getting dumped 70 years ago makes no real sense. Yes, a good comedy can play with the absurd, but there’s a difference between absurd and lazy, and Mom’s behavior throughout skirts this difference with disconcerting regularity.

Still, there’s a lot of fun in this one, enough that I feel guilty picking on it even as much as I have. It ranks higher for me than last week’s decent-but-not-amazing entries, because the story is consistently interesting and funny, and there’s an inventiveness to the side gags that helps plaster over a few of the weaker character moments. I did the scope of it, too. In revisiting the series, and waiting till we get to the heavier emotional episodes, I find myself more drawn to episodes that that tell big stories with large stakes. Futurama is entirely capable of telling tales with a narrower focus, but for right now, at least, it’s track record at the more epic adventures is stronger.

Advertisement

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Larva-tested, pupa-approved”
  • Mom: “Jerkwad robots make me sick to my ass!” (I will say this: whatever shortcomings I may find in the character, the writers have given her an impressive range of colorful vulgarity.)
  • There’s a definite Maximum Overdrive-feel to the robot rebellion. I especially liked the garbage disposal trying to work its magic on Amy. It was a little creepy, and that made it funnier. (I also like the running gag that Amy is pretty damn gullible.)
  • Leela even loses her wristband. Y’know, the one that’s such a permanent part of her character that it’s easy to forget it exists.
  • “Well, we can live without machines. I was in Webelos!” -Fry, before failing.
  • Oh, and Amy also ruins Farnsworth’s chances with Mom. She’s not having a good week.
  • Pointless pedantic question: if the robots are rebelling, and every machine is a robot, how can the TV news still be airing?

Advertisement

“The Problem With Popplers” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 5/7/2000)

In which you should probably stop chewing

This episode’s title is a riff on the classic Star Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” The connection isn’t surprising, as the show has nodded at Trek before (and will again), but there’s no real story relevance to the joke. The tribbles in “Tribbles” were plot sidenote that ended in one of the show’s great visual gags, cooing balls of fur that existed to infest the Enterprise and then eat poison grain and die. The popplers in “The Problem with Popplers” are sentient beings, the alien offspring of the Omicronians we first met back in “When Aliens Attack.” They’re very important to the story—hell, they are the story. But I guess many of the share the same fate as those poisoned tribbles: they die for our amusement. Ah, life.

Advertisement

“Popplers” is a terrific episode for a variety of reasons, and one of my favorites is the way the show throws in plenty of satirical jabs at meat-eating without ever turning preachy. The jokes are more about making the audience laugh uncomfortably than about teaching anyone a lesson. Neither side of the pro-meat/anti-meat fight comes out clean, and the harshest jokes are saved for the annoying hippie who keeps lecturing everyone on how he thinks they should behave. There’s a distinct edge to the episode, and while that edge may not be sharpened to serve a specific rhetorical point, the generality makes for a more memorable outing. There’s something not-quite-safe about all of this. It’s not challenging, exactly, and it won’t give you nightmares, but it’s cynical without being nihilistic, and, at heart, the only real lesson it offers is to be careful what you put on your plate, no matter what you’re eating.

This uneasiness is probably seen most clearly through Leela, who’s the closest thing the episode gets to a protagonist. (This is another one of those sprawling half hours that pulls in nearly all of the main ensemble, and several supporting characters, by the end.) She’s the one who eats the first poppler, realizes they’re delicious, and gets addicted. Admittedly, she doesn’t drive the action alone, since Bender and Fry are the ones who turn the popplers into a business, but Leela is supposed to be the sensible one. If she thinks this whole poppler thing is a good idea, than by experience, that would suggest that we should too.

Leela’s also the first one to discover the popplers are alive, when a little one that gets left out in the open for a week calls her “Mama.” Horrified, she immediately joins the No Popplers cause, although that doesn’t do her much good; when Lrrr and the others arrive, they negotiate a deal to eat the first person who ate a “Poppler” in exchange the for the mass killing of their young, and, well, guess who gets picked. This is nifty for a couple of reasons. It puts Leela in a bad spot, and her reaction is as much irritated as scared. This avoids the trap of making Leela to perfect to be believable, or reducing her to a hapless heroine in distress. She’s obviously upset, but when Fry tries to comfort her, she lashes out at him, furious that he and Bender are getting off scott free. It’s a small difference, but it fits in with what we already know about Leela, and reinforces the idea that she isn’t a saint. (And hell, it’s not like she’s being unreasonable. Any rational person would be angry in that situation.)

Advertisement

The other reason this is nifty is that it adds to the general feeling of moral ambiguity that runs through the entire episode. Again, there really isn’t a hard and fast lesson to all of this, and that’s exemplified in the way Leela, for all her efforts to stop the poppler binging, is as compromised as anyone. She scarfs down handful after handful of the things, and the realization that each one she ate was roughly a week away from talking and walking on its own recognizance is pretty damn dark. The episode doesn’t go out of its way to reinforce this darkness (it’s easy to see how they could’ve; a quick series of shots of half-devoured popplers, each one slightly further along in its development, would’ve done the trick nicely), but it also doesn’t pretend that this isn’t creepy. Which helps the jokes, and also contributes to the general tone of the series. This isn’t a universe that really has “good” and “bad.” It’s a universe where sometimes you get to be good, and sometimes you end up devouring the defenseless infants of an alien species just because they’re delicious.

“Popplers” hits the sweet spot between utter contempt for everyone, and a fundamental acceptance that as screwed up as people are, most of them are still trying. (Except for that goddamn hippie.) It’s not a sentimental episode. The closest thing to sweetness comes in the form of the infant Omicronian who starts talking to Leela. It’s adorable, and the fact that Leela managed not to eat it pays off for her, because the baby is responsible for saving her in the end. (So all that activism wasn’t completely for naught, at least.) But even that adorability isn’t without teeth. At the end, after Leela’s been spared and the hippie devoured, the infant calls Leela “Mama” again, and our heroine accepts the role. Then the infant explains that its race eats their mothers when they grow up, and a lot of that cuteness gets rubbed off.

Which goes back to that stupid hippie who wants everyone to peace out and be friends. Nature is a violent, uncompromising beast, stupid hippie! Smugly preaching love and tolerance isn’t going to change that. “Popplers” is an excellent episode because the story is twisted and clever, and because it keeps our expectations shifting throughout; it never really lets the audience get comfortable, and that’s a great thing for comedy and for fiction in general. It’s also great because Zapp Brannigan comes up with a plan to replace Leela with a purple haired orangutan, and the plan almost works. There’s room for idiocy and sly social commentary in Futurama, so long as both are fundamentally character driven. The show does a great job at coming right up to the edge of actual horror without becoming actively unpleasant; the tension between the silliness, and the grim ideas underpinning that silliness makes this one of the strongest entries of the run to date.

Advertisement

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “For External Use Only”
  • We get Leela’s surname: “Turanga.”
  • “It’s a type M planet, so it should at least have Roddenberries.” All right, I guess that’s two Star Trek references.
  • “You’re vegetarians! Who cares what you do?” -Leela
  • The bit where Leela discovers that popplers are sentient beings, reacts in horror at what she’s done, and then still licks her fingers to get the last bit of delicious poppler crumbs is this episode in a nutshell.
  • Lrrr eats the hippie, and has a bad trip. Stupid hippie!
  • Zapp gets a lot of (well deserved) crap, but the fact that he manages to negotiation the Omicronians down from eating 198 billion people to just Leela is legitimately impressive.
  • “A toast to Leela! She showed us it’s wrong to eat certain things.” Then the whole crew dives into a delicious helping of dolphin. (It’s okay. The dolphin blew all its money on lottery tickets.)

Advertisement