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Futurama: “My Three Suns”/“A Big Piece Of Garbage”

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“My Three Suns” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 5/4/1999)

In which Fry shouldn’t drink the water…

Just how stupid is Fry? It’s a question that comes up in both episodes this week, and I don’t think there’s an answer. Like Homer Simpson, Fry’s intelligence levels shift to meet the demands of the moment. If he has to be a competent, functioning adult for a story to work, then that’s what he is. But if there’s a potential joke to be made at his expense, he’s capable of doing things even a toddler would scoff at. If you watch Futurama expecting a specific, and rigid, level of consistency, you’re going to be disappointed, and Fry’s IQ is just a part of that. It doesn’t matter if, in some episodes, Fry seems so stupid it’s amazing he knows how to breathe. What matters is that a fundamental core remains to the character, that, regardless of what it says about his intellect, Fry’s actions make sense based on what we know about him. On the whole, he’s a good guy with poor impulse control, who often makes bad choices because those choices seem easier than doing actual work, or because someone with a stronger personality is ordering him around. Whereas Bender creates story possibilities simply by existing, Fry makes things happen by acting first, and waiting for Leela to ask questions later.

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That’s the dynamic in “My Three Suns,” a fun episode that shows Fry at his best and worst. Mostly for the worst, as this is a goofy story, with liquid aliens, inadvertent (and unsuccessful) assassinations, and strained friendships. Also, we end with the brutal beating of the protagonist, which is always nice. (One of the reasons it’s easy to be sympathetic towards Fry even when he’s at his most selfish is that he gets the shit kicked out of him a lot.)

We don’t start with Fry, though: We start with Bender, first seen getting an automated Robot Wash (to the tune of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” with Bender singing his own version of the lyrics), and then back at the Planet Express lounge, watching a cooking show. When Hermes demands that Bender start pulling his weight, Bender gets it into his head that he wants to be ship’s cook, despite not eating food, not understanding the basics of cooking (directions matter), and having a general disinterest in the comfort and well-being of organic life forms. This is typical of Bender: If Fry’s bad decision making mimics the short attention span and inability to grasp consequences of a toddler, Bender has a young child’s knack for becoming intensely, and inexplicably, obsessed with an idea. Even more than Fry, Bender has no filter between impulse and action, and it’s only the fact that he never sticks with anything for long that keeps him from being a super-villain.

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Bender’s cooking storyline has no real pay off in the episode’s conclusion. As with The Simpsons, Futurama has a knack for out-of-left field first acts that only tangentially relate to what comes next. But what becomes clearer with advance knowledge is that the actual thematic through-line of the story is happening in the background of Bender’s quest for culinary perfection. While walking through Little Neptune in search of special ingredients, Fry sees an organ salesman, and not once but twice almost makes a horrible mistake. Both times, Leela has to save him from his apparent lack of a survival instinct, and both times, he resents her efforts. By now, the “Leela has to save Fry’s dumb ass” relationship is a familiar one, so watching it play out here doesn’t seem like a set up. Most of the focus is on the creepy/funny organ seller guy. (I especially like his assistant’s pre-surgery monotone “Let’s do this.”)

But that relationship serves as the emotional core of the half hour. Which isn’t to say this is a particularly moving episode—the core is played largely for laughs, although that doesn’t make it any less sincere. We’re reminded early on that Fry makes dumb calls, has to get rescued, and then doesn’t appreciate Leela’s help. Later, when he becomes emperor of the planet Trisol after inadvertently drinking the planet’s ruler, he ignores Leela’s advice on the mistaken assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong. When things later do go wrong, and Bender asks Leela for help, Fry shows real regret when the robot leads him to believe that his friend was killed in the act of coming to save him. So we have a simple, self-contained arc, something so straightforward that it wouldn’t be out of place in an ‘80s’ children’s cartoon.

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Thankfully, there’s cleverness in the plotting. While Bender’s cooking never really pays off (apart from being funny in and of itself), the salty sea slug and salt water he serves for dinner dries out Fry to the point where he’s willing to drink anything, which leads him to downing the Trisolian Emperor. Also, the script spends some time establishing two different potential threats (Trisolian leaders get assassinated a lot; also, Fry has to recite an oath on his coronation, and he has to do it from memory, and if he messes up, he gets executed), and neither of them come to pass. The real threat comes when the planet’s three suns set, and the old Emperor is revealed to be still inside Fry’s stomach, alive and glowing through the skin. (This doesn’t explain why the Emperor waits until we can see him to start talking. Was he taking a “someone just drank me” nap?)

And then there are the usual small pleasures. The liquid Trisolians are gratifyingly fluid in their design, and the planet seems to be filled with over-the-top vaudevillian caricatures, which is entirely fitting. There’s enough sense of them as a consistent species to make the story work, and everything else is just silliness stacked on top of silliness, building up to a conclusion that provides closure to Fry and Leela’s story without sacrificing the show’s cynical edge. Realizing that the only way to save himself is to excrete the Emperor from his body, Fry tries to cry; and what finally moves him to tears is the idea that Leela has died on her way to save him. It’s very sweet, but the thing is, a single tear isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. So when Leela (who is not dead) finally arrives, she starts slapping and pinching Fry to get him to cry more. Soon enough, everybody is in on the fun, and even the Emperor is getting a few licks in. (With a chair. I mean, he’s beating on Fry with a chair. He’s not licking him with a chair.) Fry learned his lesson, but that doesn’t mean a few well-placed kicks won’t help him learn it more.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Presented In Double Vision (where drunk)”
  • First appearance of Elzar, the alien chef modeled just a bit on Emeril Lagasse.
  • Leela is wearing a lime green tank-top in her first appearance just to set up Bender to deliver an insult in the next scene. It’s ineffective, since the joke isn’t funny enough to justify the distraction, but points for effort.
  • We get more Zoidberg in this episode, as he (and Amy) comes along with Fry, Leela, and Bender for the delivery to Trisol. (Not sure why, but what the hell.) Zoidberg tries to offer advice on how to get the Emperor out of Fry, but he’s still struggling with human anatomy: “I always forget about the bones.”
  • Bender has a “To Serve Man” apron.
  • We’re only seven episodes in, and the writers are already mocking their own conventions. “Good news, everyone!” “Uh-oh, I don’t like the sound of that.”
  • Trisol is in the Forbidden Zone, which is in the Galaxy of Terror.
  • Bender: “I don’t like you, and you don’t like me.” Leela: “I like you!” (Quoting can’t really capture the sweetness of this exchange.)
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“A Big Piece Of Garbage” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 5/11/1999)

In which god that’s disgusting, smell this

I already mentioned Fry’s vacillating intelligence level, but “A Big Piece Of Garbage” has two moments that establish quite clearly how low this particular bar will go. Late in the episode, Fry tries to press a button to launch a giant ball of garbage into space, and he misses on the first try. There’s no other joke to it; just him jabbing out a finger, hitting the panel next to the button, and trying again. (You could argue this is more motor control problems than actual stupidity, but I’m including it under the umbrella of Fry’s basic competence/incompetence.) Worse, though, is his earlier confession: “Also, one month my toilet broke, and I just went straight in the garbage can.” It feels like lines have been crossed here that can’t be uncrossed. And yet, Fry still comes out of all of this his same old likable self.

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This story isn’t about Fry, though. “A Big Piece Of Garbage” feels like Futurama’s first attempt at an epic: a premise that endangers an entire city, and an excuse to get the whole team working together to save the day. Well, I say “whole team,” but that isn’t strictly true: Fry, Leela, Bender, and Professor Farnsworth do most of the work out of the main ensemble, but still, it feels like a group effort. That’s due in no small part to the size of the threat. Before now, storylines would focus on the immediate fates of one of the main characters. Even when an entire planet was involved, the focus was on Leela and whether or not she could come up with a way out of the crisis that didn’t involve asking Zap Brannigan for help. Epic style menaces were to become a stand part of the show’s arsenal; not necessarily every week, but routinely enough to feel normal. Here, we get our first test drive of the concept, and the results are swell.

Still, we need some way to get into the main story, and Professor Farnsworth’s fears of obsolescence aren’t a bad way to go. The Academy of Inventor’s annual symposium is coming up, as the group’s oldest living member, the professor is looking forward to showing off his latest doohickey: the Death Clock, which tells you when you’re going to die. Unfortunately, he invented the Death Clock last year, and his hasty attempt to design a “Smell-o-scope” meet with general derision from his peers, particularly the odious Wernstrom. So, Farnsworth is humiliated; but unlike Bender’s cookery ambition, the professor’s embarrassment actually gets a beginning, middle, and end. Plot-wise, the Inventor’s symposium is just an incredibly roundabout way to get us to the Smell-o-scope—which, much like the Death Clock, Farnsworth had already invented years ago and forgotten about. But that earlier loss, and the continued presence of Wernstrom, gives the story personal stakes in addition to the larger danger.

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There’s also a not-so-stealth environmental message in all the madness. The giant ball of garbages that’s on a collision course for Earth actually got its start in the year 2052, when New York, faced with a waste problem of truly disgusting proportions, dealt with it the only way they knew how: launched it into space. That laziness has come back home with a vengeance, but when all other options fail, Farnsworth concocts a plan to create another ball of garbage and bounce it off the one headed towards the city, sending both back out into the cosmos. Leela points out that this is basically just putting off the problem for another generation to deal with, but unsurprisingly, no one listens to her. It’s the American way.

But this isn’t a preachy episode, and while the episode manages a few quick jabs at our slovenly, irresponsible ways, the big ball of garbage also makes for a potent, and disgusting, source of comedy. There’s no effort made to undersell or gloss over the grossness of a giant mass of rotting everything, and that helps drive some of the best gags, from the various reactions of people who try to “smell” the ball through Farnsworth’s machine (I think my favorite reaction comes from Mayor Poopenmeyer, who acts like he’s about to get murdered by a monster in a 1950s science fiction film), to a quick trip to the ball itself.

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Farnsworth’s first plan is to have the Planet Express crew blow up the mass with a well placed explosive, ala Armageddon. It doesn’t go so great, mainly because the professor puts the detonator clock on the bomb upside (a nice bit of cartoon logic, that), but it does give Fry a chance to wax nostalgic about garbage from his own time. Even as he moons over Spock collector plates and Bart Simpson dolls (“Eat my shorts,” the doll says, and Bender does), the animation and sound design never let us forget that they’re standing on a miles and miles of crap. It may not be scientifically accurate to imagine that such a construction would’ve remained as fetid and moist as this one apparently did in the thousand-ish years since its construction, but, again, cartoon logic. It’s funnier if the big piece of garbage is gooey and gross, just like its funnier if the New New York has to build its own ball of garbage to save the day, so that’s what happens. The scene of Fry using his 20th century skills to teach everyone how to make trash is utter nonsense, but there’s enough internal consistency to the idea for it to work as both a story beat and a great punchline. (Plus, it’s neat to get to see him be competent for once.)

More than anything else, “A Big Piece Of Garbage” gives a taste (ugh, sorry, really bad word choice there) of what’s to come. Other episodes will have more challenging, mind-boggling plots, and still others will find ways to move us more deeply than we thought possible from such a silly, weird little show. But this half hour is proof that the show can tell big, legitimately exciting (if utterly ridiculous) adventure stories without breaking a sweat.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening Title: Mr. Bender’s Wardrobe by Robotany 500
  • Farnsworth, after relating the story of Wernstrom vowing to get revenge even if he had to wait a hundred years: “And here it is, slightly over 99 years later, and still no revenge. I’m essentially in the clear!”
  • Ron Popeil, inventor, entrepreneur, and infomercial star, is responsible for the technology that keeps heads alive in jars.
  • “This picture of your wife? Pure garbage.” -Fry, teaching the way of trash.
  • In the end, Farnsworth wins the Academy prize for saving the city. Huzzah!
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