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Futurama: “Murder On The Planet Express”

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One of Futurama’s great gifts has always been the show’s ability to undercut sentiment without entirely sacrificing it. Every so often, the writers will decide to go for the waterworks, emotion-wise, and the effect is nearly always powerful because the show is so regularly cynical about, well, everything. Like last week: a lot of goofiness, and then Fry says goodbye to Mom, and it’s almost shocking in its naked feeling. “Murder On The Planet Express” doesn’t have a whole lot of heart to it, and you’d be hard pressed to find a scene that would make anyone cry. (Unless you’re really disturbed by that bit where Leela eats Fry’s kidneys, and you cry when you’re disturbed.) But it does have that weird balance of sweetness and bitterness that helps elevate it above a lesser series. A lot of the half hour’s humor revolves around the Planet Express team being angry with each other (generally for no good reason), and yet, when they finally start to make up their differences, the rapprochement feels sincere. Then a shape-shifting alien starts devouring the cast whole, which is funny/scary. Then Fry and Bender bond over Bender’s ass and the shininess thereof, and it’s nice. Then they commit murder together. None of this comes across as being outside the show’s wheelhouse.

The episode splits neatly into two parts, but for once, that first part is actually important to want happens in the second. Through a series of one on one conversations, we find that Fry is mad at Bender for using his toothbrush to shine his ass; Leela’s mad at Amy for messing with her punching bag, and Amy’s mad at Leela for bending her golf clubs; and Hermes is mad at Zoidberg for eating his lunch. It turns out the whole thing is just a series of misunderstandings that end with Farnsworth getting a Manwich where a kidney should go. The truth is revealed through a series of spy camera recordings (all stored on giant floppy discs), and the whole sequence is enjoyable less for the jokes (although there are a couple of good ones; Scruffy’s grief over killing a fly is fun) and more for the clever, elaborate construction that ends with a beef-and-bun resting under Farnsworth’s rib-cage. After the sloppiness that’s dogged some of the season’s earlier episodes, “Murder On The Planet Express” is well-constructed throughout, playing off of viewers’ expectations in ways that are effective and even a little unsettling.

This comes into play in the second part, when inspirational team-leader business guy Dan McMasters takes the Planet Express crew out into space for a team-building exercise that quickly devolves into a fight for survival against an unstoppable foe. And I mean quick: McMasters has Leela stop to pick up a hitchhiker, and the new guy devours Dan as fast as you can say, “misguided trust fall.” While the last twist of the episode has Dan coming back to reveal that the whole thing was part of his plan (which is pretty obvious once main characters start “dying”), his getting eaten early on is a nifty shock, as it seems to jump over a whole lot of bad jokes about business speak and forced teamwork exercises. That the episode soon turns into an excuse for those exercises, albeit in a seeming life-or-death context, is another fun idea. We get little skits with Bender and Fry and the others pairing off and learning how to appreciate each other again, and just when it’s all starting to be a bit obvious, Farnsworth eats Hermes.

Shape-shifting aliens are a familiar science fiction trope; what makes this work is how the script keeps finding ways to trick us. As with the opening, it’s not always funny, but it is exciting, and even suspenseful, to watch, especially once it becomes clear that everyone is up for grabs. That tension heightens what few laughs there are (the alien’s irritation when Amy points out that Bender doesn’t have ears was a good one), and it also helps justify the ending, when, after Fry and Bender have proven they are who they say they are, they team up to murder Dan McMasters. There aren’t a lot of shows that could end with their heroes zapping a guy into ash and have those heroes still be lovable, but I’d say this is one of them. Because really, what the hell did McMasters think was going to happen? After the near-death experiences and the hours (I’m assuming) of paranoia, it’s not surprising at all when Bender and Fry kill to protect themselves. Nor is it surprising when they glare at each other suspiciously after hearing of a $1 million reward for information on Dan’s killer. That’s the kind of show this is: Nobody hugs anyone without checking their wallet after.

Stray observations:

  • I am still a sucker for Alien parodies. (I like how Hermes’ motion detector was actually much better designed than the ones used in the movies.)
  • “So you’re all gonna die? Who’s gonna ghost write my autobiography?” -Bender
  • “The name of the game is Candyland.” -Scruffy
  • “Let’s call ourselves Frender!” (I wonder if this is another riff on Adventure Time? Finn occasionally wears a Jake suit.)
  • McMasters idea of a good team-building exercise is terrible. Sure, everybody works together at first, but once the alien starts changing shape and eating the crew, all they’re learning is to never trust anyone.