“Parasites Lost” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 1/21/2001)

In which the saga of Fry and Leela truly begins…

This isn’t a huge step forward for Futurama; the show has been strong before “Parasites Lost.” Yet the episode signals a shift in the writers’ approach to character, and not just in the Fry and Leela relationship. Whether that shift was pre-meditated, or just part of a natural creative evolution, is unclear, but a change has been made. The show has had sincere emotional moments in the past, but the sincerity was always undercut with humor. We were encouraged to like the main characters and their world, but not to be moved by them. Yet the end of “Parasites Lost” is beautiful and sad, and there’s no last second snicker to break the mood.

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This isn’t to say that undercutting sincerity with humor is a bad thing. It can work very well, and in fact, it’s one of the reasons that this episode’s efforts at naked sentiment work so well. While the degree varies from person to person, on the whole, audiences have a certain innate resistance to caring about things. There are ways to trick through that resistance—using evocative musical cues, killing a character unexpectedly, anything to do with puppies—but in a narrative that’s going to last longer than a 30-second commercial, it’s necessary to find more permanent ways to get past the defenses we all have towards the risks of emotional involvement.

There are plenty of options here of varying degrees of difficulty. Futurama, by intent or accident, pulls off an impressive trick both here and later in the show’s run. At this point, you’d think you’d have a clear picture of what the series is and isn’t capable of. Clever-stupid bits about science, a cast made up of agreeable lunatics, and loopy storylines that frequently trade in pop-culture mash-ups—not every entry is a hit, but the tone and worldview that drives the series is agreeably demented. None of this suggests a work of fiction that could break your heart, and yet here we are. There will be more devastating endings to come, but the sudden discovery that buried in the middle of all that glorious foolishness is an actual beating heart comes as a shock.

Things start familiarly enough. While coming home from a delivery, the Planet Express ship (is it weird that the ship is never named?) stops at a truck stop to gas up, and Fry eats an egg salad sandwich from a vending machine. The sandwich (which appears to be about as old as he is) gives Fry worms, but not just any worms—these are super intelligent parasites who immediately set to work cleaning up Fry’s insides, making improvements and turning him into a kind of idealized version of himself. While Farnsworth and the others use virtual reality and tiny robots to try and take care of the problem, Leela distracts Fry and discovers that he (or maybe it’s the “better” version of him) is in love with her. Complications ensue.

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First, a moment to acknowledge the brilliance of taking “Fry gets super-intelligent worm parasites from vending machine food” and turning it into a Flowers For Algernon riff. And second, a tip of the hat to the way the episode plays around with expectations. When Farnsworth learns about Fry’s worms, he immediately concocts a plan to get rid of them; and since worms are, at least in our world, not a good thing to have (unless you’re fishing or they’re fried), this seems like the right idea. Yet it becomes more and more clear as the episode goes on that these particular worms are doing Fry a world of good; they save his life after a boiler explosion, turn him into a muscle man, and give him more brainpower than he’s had in, well, ever. Unless Fry was planning on renting out body space to some other external invader, there’s no downside here.

Well, not exactly. There’s no downside for Fry as a person, but there is one for a show that sticks more or less to a specific status quo. Fry can’t be a super competent smart guy because that’s not who he is—that’s not the role he fills. Robbing him of his cheerful buffoonery would require a level of character growth that violates the central integrity of the series. Besides, this sort of arc always needs some kind of downside. I mentioned Flowers For Algernon above; the downside there (the serum doesn’t last) would work here on a basic level, but it’s been done many times before. The worms could have turned out to be evil or overly controlling (like, say, taking over Fry’s body to prevent him from doing anything unhealthy), but that would take away part of what makes them so interesting, as parasites who live in perfect sympathy with their host.

Instead, “Parasites Lost” has Fry deliberately forcing the worms out of his body so he can be sure that Leela really loves him for himself, and not because he’s been transformed into an ideal. It’s a tricky twist to pull off, because it runs the risk of making Fry (the smart Fry) look foolish and Leela look heartless. Sacrificing your ideal self to prove a philosophical point is abstract to the point of absurdity, and rejecting someone whom you’ve professed strong feelings for just because they’re no longer perfect isn’t great either.

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I think the episode pulls it off, though. Fry’s decision is the harder sell, if only because the “rejuvenated” Fry doesn’t seem fundamentally different from the Fry we’ve always known. He’s better spoken and able to play a gorgeous holophonor solo, but he’s the same basic personality. Yet it’s not impossible to understand why he does what he does—love is ideally about accepting a person for everything they are, good and bad, and the idea that Leela might want to be with him more because of the internal parasites than his actual self doesn’t bode well for a long-term relationship.

Leela’s choice also makes sense in context. Honestly, the worst thing she does is decide to stop the rest of the Planet Express crew from getting rid of the worms, potentially endangering Fry (who knows what those worms will do to him long term) because he’s finally able to express his feelings for her. But it’s not like Leela’s ruthlessness is an unknown quality, and Fry’s transformation is, so far as we can tell, wholly beneficial. Later, when he comes back to her after de-worming himself, she seems more confused than angry or cruel, and it plays out less like a heartless rejection, and more like everyone—Fry and Leela—returning to normal. There’s something sadly resigned on Leela’s face in her final scene; as though she knew, deep down, this was too good to be true.

In the end, Fry is left alone in his bedroom, practicing his holophonor. It’s a lovely, melancholic moment, made all the more beautiful because there’s no effort to make us laugh. Fry briefly had what he wanted, and then sacrificed it because of a principle he may not even understand anymore. Now he’s struggling to figuring out how to play an impossible instrument, knowing there’s little hope of success, but trying anyway.

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Stray observations:

  • There’s a great series of Fantastic Voyage gags during the Planet Express crew’s descent into Fry’s bowels. The scenes with Fry and Leela near the end work so well in part because there’s no real indication that they’re going to happen; this doesn’t have “Very Serious Episode” disease. Instead, the comedy and the pathos are treated as equally valuable, and both serve to heighten the impact of the other.
  • This is the second time a simulated Leela murdered a simulated Planet Express crew. Once more and it’s officially a running gag.
  • So, the guy at the space truck stop who harasses Leela is also a construction worker? For a slob he sure keeps busy.
  • We never really get a sense of why they do what they do (apart from basic biological needs), but what little personality the worms have is great.
  • Fry’s first holophonor solo is gorgeous, and notable for being a long stretch of show without even a hint of a joke. I especially like Leela’s wordless reaction. They could’ve gone for a gag there (she basically yanks him into the bedroom), but instead, it’s very sweet and legitimately romantic.
  • “He’s bluffing! No creature would willingly make an idiot of himself!” “Obviously you’ve never been in love!”

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“Amazon Women In The Mood” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 2/4/2001)

In which the spirit is willing, but the flesh is spongy and weak…

Pulp science fiction is loaded with stories about men finding themselves stranded on planets dominated by women; stories that lean heavily into the “ooooo, let the wild rumpus begin!” angle, without stopping to consider the practicalities of the situation. Which makes sense—it’s easier to sell a male audience a vision of a magical place where the ladies actually need you more than you need them if you leave out the less erotic details. “Amazon Women In The Mood” features a planet (Amazonia) inhabited entirely by giant, half-naked women. These women are really keen to have sex (which they call “snu-snu”), which is great for Fry, Zapp Brannigan, and the hapless Kif—or it would be if the Amazonians didn’t demand to be serviced in quick succession, and if their size and muscle mass didn’t ensure bodily injury during the act of coitus.

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Actually, Kif wouldn’t be having fun even if the Amazonians were human sized, because Kif is in love with Amy, and that’s what kicks off this whole plot. There are a few elements that make this episode memorable; the term “snu-snu” is pretty valuable as nerd slang goes, and Bea Arthur’s appearance late in the story is great. There’s also Zapp’s turn at karaoke, a scene specifically designed to mimic an infamous William Shatner performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” (Zapp sings “Lola,” but changes the name to “Leela,” because he’s an idiot.) But the Kiff/Amy pairing is the most important element in terms of show continuity. It’s a relationship built on a tossed off gag, but it works surprisingly well.

The key, I think, is that putting these two together helps to add some depth to both characters. Before “Amazon Women,” Kid had been entirely defined by his interactions with Zapp. Even the few times he was given a chance to speak away from Brannigan’s blather, the only thing he was ever able to talk about was Zapp; just the act of trading one obsession for the other makes him at least twice as interesting as he was before (look, it’s math, you do the work), and the fact that it’s Amy he falls for makes him more likable than he’s ever been in the past. Earlier episodes gave us a withering Kif, a bitter Kif, a sarcastic Kif, a desperate Kif, but here we get a nervous, lovelorn Kif, and that makes him seem less like a walking punchline, and more like a sentient being with hopes and desires. And while Amy has been pretty well defined by this point, her attraction to Kif adds just a little more.

Kif’s efforts to woo Amy (he’s been calling her for months, unable to do more than dial and breathe) lead to Zapp offering his help, and that leads to Kif doing some stupid things to create a temporary conflict that will serve as the episode’s emotional arc. That Zapp is terrible at wooing women isn’t exactly a surprise, but Kif’s blind faith in a man he clearly knows is an idiot is a bit contrived. You could argue it plays into the their dynamic—Kif is constantly rolling his eyes and sighing at Zapp’s commands, but he still obeys all of them. But his behavior here (following all of Zapp’s advice, and even being dumb enough to try and use some of Zapp’s pick-up lines on Amy) is more like the behavior of someone who honestly doesn’t realize his mentor is a jackass. It works because it’s funny and because it doesn’t last that long, but the whole thing reeks of writers needing to find some excuse to keep Kif and Amy apart until the story’s climax.

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Okay, so date night goes horribly, and Zapp crashes the restaurant into Amazonia (which just sort of happens; one of the things that makes Zapp useful as a character is that it isn’t hard to justify just about any behavior from him, but that can be a crutch), which gets us to the story’s big hook: the titular Amazon women in the aforementioned “mood.” There’s a definite Star Trek vibe to all of this, right down to the giant talking computer that runs the whole show. Bender even defeats the computer—which is actually a fembot voiced by Bea Arthur pretending to be a computer—by seducing her. Captain Kirk would be proud.

Once the Amazonians are revealed, the plot quickly shifts into “battle of the sexes” territory, with the giant women describing their all-lady society, and Zapp, Fry, and Bender (the latter two having also crashed on the planet in their efforts to save Leela and the others) being sarcastic in the background. It’s a joke that’s not quite as funny as the writers seems to think it is, mainly because the concept of “womanhood” is so narrow, but it works okay because the ridiculousness of the situation is front and center throughout. There’s no real sense of anyone involved trying to make a serious satirical point about the differences between genders, or at least, I hope there isn’t. Instead, both sides are slightly exaggerated stereotypes, with the women inevitably coming out looking better than the men.

The “Femputer” (which, again, is just a robot with Bea Arthur’s voice pretending to be a femputer) sentences Zapp, Fry, and Kif to death by snu-snu, which gives the episode another of its saving graces. Without being overly explicit, “Amazon Women” deals with some of those usually omitted practicalities mentioned above; namely that as fun as the fantasy would be, there’s something bone-crushing and dangerous about all that fuckery. Especially when the fantasy is 8 feet tall with muscles to match. The mixture of joy and agony that crosses over Zapp and Fry’s faces throughout the latter half of the entry is a consistently funny gag.

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All that’s left, then, is for Amy to realize (thanks to a last minute confession from Kif) that Kif has real feelings for her, which inspires her to step and save him from an eager Amazonian. That leads to a final confrontation with the Femputer, which in turn leads to the discovery that Bender and the Fembot are canoodling behind the scenes. (Bender, inevitably, ignores her calls after their hook-up.) Amy’s heroism is a nice dash of authenticity in a relentlessly goofy half-hour of television, and while the end result isn’t as heartbreaking as Fry and Leela’s time to together in the previous episode, it still plays as something more than just a platform to hang jokes off of. Amy and Kif end up a couple, in spite of (or maybe even because of) his stammering. Also, Zapp and Fry had snu-snu. Happy endings all around.

Stray observations:

  • There’s also a secondary story about Zoidberg molting out of his shell, thinking of buying a new shell, and then ending up back in his old shell (which he mistakes for a new one). It’s so slight as to be more a C-plot than a B-plot, but Zoidberg’s delight along the way (and the sight of his grotesque shell-less body) sells it.
  • “You win again, gravity!”—Zapp
  • “Goodbye my friends. I never thought I’d die like this. But I really really, really hoped.”—Fry
  • Before Amy takes over, Leela tries to do some ass-kicking to save the men. It goes poorly for her.

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