“Raging Bender” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 2/27/2000)

In which Bender is ready to rumble…

The story of Bender’s rise and fall in the fine art of (staged) Robot Wrestling is a time honored comedy tradition. A self-contained tale of hubris and shenanigans, “Raging Bender” differs from, say, “The Homer They Fall” in that it doesn’t pretend to offer any kind of moral lesson or emotional depth whatsoever. Homer’s rise to boxing fame under Moe Syzslak’s managerial skills found in arc in the friendship between the two men, a friendship Moe briefly considers sacrificing at the chance to make some big money. He does the right thing instead (although he still gets a lot of money; season eight was a weird time), and we got an ending that was half silly, and half sweet. “Raging Bender”’s conclusion is pretty much all silly. Bender does show some of his trademark hubris, so I suppose there’s justice in watching him get knocked down a peg, and it’s fun watching Leela beat up a sexist bug alien who made fun of her as a child, but it doesn’t add up to much in the way of character development.

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Thankfully, this is funny enough that the lack of depth doesn’t matter, and while the characters don’t exactly grow, there is a clear sense of stakes throughout. The fact that this rise-and-fall model is so familiar is due in part to its self-contained nature, and the way that the fairly rigid structure allows room for a lot of comedic invention. The basic pieces are already well-established: through some means, the protagonist is discovered to be exceptionally good (or exceptionally convenient) at some sport or art; they get pulled in and quickly rise to fame and glory, usually the help with a friend; but since making Bender a champion robot fighter for the rest of the run of the show would require a substantial change to the series’ status quo, it’s necessary for him to have some sort of fall from grace. (And speaking in less practical terms, the fall also adds drama. I mean, if it was just “Oh hey, I just got famous and now I am famouser,” it wouldn’t be much of a story. Fun life, though.)

I’m belaboring the point here (who, me?), but I do think it’s worth noting that approaching a script like this one with a good chunk of the basic work done means that the writers are free to stuff in all kinds of goofy details and gags—the result isn’t the most inventive Futurama episode ever created, and it’s certainly not the best, but it’s satisfying to see a familiar tale told well, especially when the results are as funny as this. There’s all kinds of neat stuff to poke at here, from the subplot of Hermes’ brain-slug, to a trip to the movies that involves a brief shout-out to Mystery Science Theater 3000, to the designs of the robot-wrestlers themselves: comically exaggerated stereotypes designed to inspire hatred in the audience by their very existence. I think the Foreigner is my favorite. “I’m not from here! I have my own customs! Look at my crazy passport!”

There’s also Leela’s past history with Master Funog, the aforementioned sexist bug alien sensei who kept a young Leela from the karate greatness she so clearly deserved, all because she had lady-parts. This subplot is the closest the episode comes to having a legitimate emotional component. While Bender’s adventures are more an excuse to watch him be a jackass with a larger audience than usual, Leela’s rage at her former tormenter is sincerely felt, even if largely (and understandably) played for laughs. It’s the closest the episode has to actual weight, and the fact that it revolves around her showing up an asshole who once mocked her for being a girl feels unexpectedly progressive. Not “win any awards, or even doing more than the bare minimum of human decency” progressive, but still, at least she showed him.

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That flash of empathy is part of the reason why one of the episode’s big jokes falls painfully flat. When Bender starts losing ground with his audience, the head of robot wrestling tells him it’s time to change his act and turn heel. To do this, he must become something any audience would instantly hate: a male robot in drag.

Which, as gags go, is lame, and mean-spirited in a way that, say, Billionaire Bot isn’t. With the Foreigner, the joke is on our own ridiculous stereotypes about, well, foreigners, and even then, it’s mild stuff. But “Gender Bender” is apparently the most humiliating possible gimmick for Bender to have, to the point where he himself is disgusted by what he’s being asked to do. He wears a tutu and a wig, and somehow, this makes him loathsome; and unlike with the other heels Bender faces, there’s no sense that the episode is commenting on the audience’s distaste for the character. In order for the concept to work, we have to feel Bender is being humiliated, and there’s no real separation between his humiliation and the episode’s perspective on the costume. It’s a kind of casual transphobic humor that used to be far more culturally acceptable than it is today. That doesn’t make it excusable, but it does point to one of the deeper ongoing problems the series struggles with: a passionate, intelligent, but sometimes painfully limited perspective. I don’t think anyone involved in this half-hour was trying to humiliate anyone (except for the extremely moneyed and robotic), but what’s harmless to one group isn’t always harmless to everyone. The result is a gag that reads as more reactionary than it should (it’s a future that’s teeming with apparently limitless possibilities; why would anyone give a fuck that a robot dresses up like a ballerina), and that kills some of the fun.

Still, if you can put that aside, this is a solid episode. Leela kicks some ass, Bender gets crushed by a giant robot, and Fry starves a brain slug to death. So that’s cool.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening title: “Nominated For Three Grammys”
  • We never find out how Hermes gets rid of his brain slug. On another show, I might consider that a dropped thread, but it seems somehow fitting here. The punchline is that the slug dies when it tries to take over Fry. Anything else would be extraneous. (And given the nonchalant way everyone reacts to the slug, it suggests this isn’t the sort of life-or-death crisis that would dominate an entire episode.)
  • Some people would find the paperwork more exciting than the explosions at the special effects warehouse. Not me, but some people.
  • As long as I’m running the risk of being over-sensitive, I actually wondered if Master Funog deserves some criticism for being such a painful Asian stereotype. Maybe he does, but he seems more like a parody of characters from classic kung-fu movies than anything else.

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“A Bicyclops Built For Two” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 3/19/2000)

In which Leela briefly finds her horse and carriage…

Okay, so here’s a question for you: how many people out there are still familiar with Married With Children? I was never a huge fan of the show, but it was pretty much unavoidable when I was growing up, like Saved By The Bell for adults; to be completely honest (and why stop now), I used to watch sometimes because there was always a chance you’d see a pretty woman in a bikini, or… well, that’s about it. The show aired on Fox, so it’s not like you ever got actual nudity, but it was still raunchy and stupid and crass. Even if that never exactly added up to anything funny, the vibe could be idiotically appealing. Relax, it said: everyone is stupid and venal and all they think about is fucking, so what the hell, have at.

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It’s not absolutely necessary to be familiar with Married With Children to enjoy “A Bicyclops Built For Two,” an episode which focuses on Leela’s efforts to uncover her mysterious past. The character work is strong in this one, the story is well-paced and entertaining throughout, and it’s consistently funny from beginning to end. But a significant part of the half-hour is given over to a completely unexpected Married With Children riff, and if you don’t recognize what’s being parodied (and understand that Katey Sagal played Peg Bundy, one of the show’s leads), the whole situation is going to come across as so much nonsense. And not the good kind of nonsense, with rhino-aliens and shape-shifting conbugs. To me, the scenes work because I know the source material, and because I’m still a little astonished (and delighted) at how far the show goes with the reference.

Part of the reason that reference is so effective is because the script takes its time to break out the gag, and there’s no real foreshadowing of what’s coming in the early scenes. The Planet Express crew take a tour of the virtual reality Internet, which leads to a lot of the jokes you’d expect about the Internet: aggressive ads (the crew has to fight them off before diving into the web), filthy chat rooms, and nerds who are desperate to meet a lady, but terrified when one actually appears. For a while, the focus of the episode seems to be on Fry. When he learns there’s a virtual reality laser tag game on the web, he gets a rare chance to show off his skills, laying waste to his teammates with power-made glee. In doing so, he interrupts Leela’s (seemingly) chance encounter with a one-eyed male, earning Leela’s enmity and also giving himself a shot at a redemption arc down the line.

Fry’s bad behavior aside, Leela soon gets an invitation to the cyclops man’s planet, where she learns the “truth” about who she is and where she came from: a doomsday-type scenario that positions Leela in a Superman role, with her host, Al Alcazar, as a lowly pool cleaner who just so happens to be the only other surviving member of their species. Quicker than you can say “Adam and Eve,” Al seduces Leela into spending the night with him. It’s a scam, of course, and although the details of the scam don’t become apparent until late in the half hour, Al turns heel the morning after he and Leela sleep together.

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This is where the Married With Children gags kick in. Al has some scummy friends over to hoot and holler at his and Leela’s bad jokes (just like a studio audience), and immediately starts complaining about how much of a dump the house is, cringing at even the slightest suggestion that Leela might want to have sex with him again. It’s pretty spot on stuff (the episode even ends with a perfect dick joke), but what’s even more impressive is that ”Bicyclops” still finds time to treat Leela’s predicament seriously. As awful as Al is, if he really is the sole surviving male of their race, doesn’t Leela have some kind of obligation to stick it out? It’s a conflict that renders her somewhat passive (in that part of her still wants this to be true enough to keep her from digging for answers), but doesn’t betray the ugliness of her situation.

With Leela basically stuck, it’s up to Fry to make up for his earlier stupidity and find out the real truth. Which he does, with Bender’s help. (Bender spends most of the time stealing things.) Turns out Al isn’t a cyclops after all, but a shape-shifting alien with strange looking brides stashed all over the planet. (He scheduled the weddings for the same day, to save on the shape-shifting tuxedo.) So Leela is saved from a fate worse than loneliness, and Fry proves he can be a good friend after all. And the episode even finds time for an unexpected moment of melancholic grace. Trying to console herself at the thought that she still doesn’t know where she came from, Leela asks, “How many planets can here be?” The camera pulls outside the Planet Express ship to reveal a space crammed full of a near infinity of glowing dots. The truth may be out there, but it won’t be easy to find.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “This episode has been modified to fit your tiny screen.”
  • “They smell like burning rhesus monkey!” “Really? I guess when you’re around it all day you stop noticing.”
  • Al’s fictional backstory about how Cyclopia was destroyed is surprisingly funny. The Mole People attack by firing missiles in all directions, and the Cyclops are unable to defend themselves because of their poor depth perception.
  • “I hope you don’t think less of me because I live in a giant castle.”
  • The perfect dick joke: “If you could change form, why didn’t you change it in the one place that counts?”

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