“Roswell That Ends Well” (season 3, episode 19; originally aired 12/9/2001)

In which Fry climbs his family tree..

In “Roswell That Ends Well,” Fry fucks his grandmother. Oh, there’s a lot of other stuff that happens, and all of it is great, but that’s the bit we tend to remember, right? It sticks in the memory. She’s not technically his grandmother at the time, since she hasn’t had any children yet (That we know of.), but that’s not the point. The point is that Fry fucks his grandmother, and in doing so, becomes his own grandfather. Which sounds like the punchline to a sick joke (and it basically is), but it’s also a key part of Futurama lore. Great storytelling often relies on breaking rules we’d assumed were so inviolable that they’re barely even recognized as “rules.” “Don’t fuck your ancestors” is pretty high up on that list, and yet here we are. And it works, too.

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Fry’s breaking of temporal taboo isn’t the only great thing about the episode, but the philosophy behind itthe boldness of taking assumptions ingrained into the genre and saying, in effect, “Eh, why not”is what makes this story so great. Because the joke isn’t just funny because it’s disturbing. That’s part of what makes it work, no question, and no one’s shying away from the unsettling implications; as soon as Fry hooks up with Grandma Mildred, his Planet Express co-workers are disgusted with him, and Mildred (who until this point had been doing a milder variation of Lea Thompson’s Back To The Future shtick) starts old-ing it up, knitting in bed and wearing a shawl and making sure Fry can’t ignore the fact that he just screwed a lady who once will have fed him ginger snaps. Or something to that effect.

That’s funny, no question. But what makes it transcendentally funny is how it serves as subversive commentary on the entire time travel genre. Soon after arriving in the past (the “past” in this case being 1947 Roswell, New Mexico; there’s an incident with a super-nova and microwaved tinfoil that makes just as much sense as it needs to), Farnsworth is insistent that nothing they do should change history. He says this repeatedly throughout the episode, and most of what drives Fry’s behavior is his complete misunderstanding of what the professor means. Farnsworth says, “Don’t interact with your grandfather Enos, because you could screw up the timeline and cease to exist.” Fry hears, “Don’t let anything happen to Enos, so by all means keeps interfering with his life in your misguided and doomed efforts to protect him!”

Which is delightful in and of itself, because it means Fry spends most of his time inadvertently throwing Enos into danger in the name of keeping him safe. Causality is a tricky concept to explain even to a clever person (try watching Primer)(no really, it’s great, you should watch it), and Fry, lovable as he is, is not clever. He translates the professor’s words into their most digestable form, losing the nuance and thus losing their intention. Which, in the first of the episode’s big shifts, leads to Enos’s death in an atom bomb explosion. That’s a dark moment, especially considering Enos is a thoroughly likeable guy, but the tone saves it. Things move too quickly to mourn, and the script somehow manages to acknowledge the legitimate sadness of Enos being incinerated, use it to lead into the big twist, and allow the character a kind of hapless, sweet dignity. It’s a neat trick; you can’t cry over his death because you’d miss too many jokes.

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So: Enos is dead, and Fry, after spending so much effort trying to obey the professor (and in doing so, breaking Farnsworth’s rules in the worst possible way), fucks his grandmother. After seeing this, Farnsworth is so disgusted that he says “Screw you” to history and allows Leela to do whatever the hell she needs to do to get them back home. Fry’s actions aren’t just about him; they lead to a revolutionary approach to time travel narrative in general, throwing off decades of story logic and fears of paradox because why hell not.

There’s something gleeful in watching the Planet Express ship attack the Roswell army base, in seeing Leela and the others use future technology in blatant disregard of who’s watchingbecause it’s a fun, well-directed sequence (this episode in general is just terrifically well-made), and because it’s freeing to see all those guidelines and restrictions tossed aside. Traveling to the past is appealing because it has a power fantasy vibe to it; the ability to go back to before and know more than everyone else around you is like playing a cheat code in a video game, or being a sort of localized god. But most times, stories that use it know that they need to balance the fantasy. “Roswell That Ends Well” both pays homage to and parodies such balance.

It also has one of the most perfect Zoidberg storylines the show has ever done. He gets grabbed by the army soon after the ship crashes, and they put him through the “we’ve just discovered an alien!” wringer, subjecting him to interrogation, various tests, President Truman, and, eventually, an alien autopsy. Zoidberg reacts to all of this with his usual friendly obliviousness, and the contrast is sublime. Thematically, it fits with Fry’s storyline, in that both are fundamentally about taking familiar narratives (time travel, close encounters) and deflating the mystery around them: in Fry’s case, it’s learning that he can mess up history to a shocking degree and still come out fine; in Zoidberg’s, his nonchalant response to the stolid army types makes the self-importance of “first contact” absurd. The two plots co-exist without ever becoming overly schematic, and the result is a routinely inspired half hour of comedy that never flags in its invention.

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Really, it’s hard to oversell just how marvellous a piece of work this is, and how well it hits just the right balance between cynicism and optimism, the Futurama sweet spot. Fry’s behavior is transgressive and bizarre, but it’s a big universe, and it has room for just about everything. This isn’t one of the show’s more emotional outings, and I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it has a message (nor should it need to have one). But it’s hard not to watch it and end up in a good mood. There’s an inherent grimness in so many stories about time travel, the way they remind us that our lives are chained to the seconds and minutes as they pass, and that each choice we make will be trapped forever, a fixed and unmovable point in a cosmos full of shifting statues. What “Roswell That Ends Well” presupposes is, what if we weren’t?

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Fun For The Whole Family Except Grandma And Grandpa”
  • Bender also gets a storyline in this one, although it’s surprisingly small for something so potentially mindblowing. After various indignities are performed on his body in the name of science, his head gets left behind when the Planet Express ship travels back to the present. So he waits buried in the sand for over thousand years till Fry comes to dig him out. He and Data should talk.
  • That All Purpose Spray looks hella useful.
  • Pity the poor Lone Conspiracy Nut.
  • Enos doesn’t get much in the way of characterization (he’s Gomer Pyle, which is a reference I only really know because of other shows that referenced it), but his apparent homosexuality is a joke that could’ve been awful, but works pretty well. The trick is that the humor isn’t Enos’s desires, but Fry’s terrified reaction to hearing them.
  • “I could feel myself fading away, like Greg Kinnear!” For all the time travel, this is the most dated joke in the episode. Well, this and the Jiffy Pop.
  • “How about these cookies, sugar?” Mildred is frisky in her drunken grief.
  • General: “Why did you come to Earth?” Zoidberg: “Not a day goes by I don’t ask myself the same question.”
  • “Ooooh, a lesson in not changing history from ‘Mr. I’m-my-own-grandpa. Let’s get the hell out of here already! Screw history!’” -Professor Farnsworth

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“Anthology Of Interest II” (season 3, episode 20; originally aired 1/6/2002)

In which several things happen you can’t unsee

If “Roswell That Ends Well” is Futurama at its finest, then “Anthology Of Interest II” is… an episode that exists. I dunno. It’s not “best” or “worst” anything, really, and while the first segment has the novelty of following an idea through to its logical endpoint, and the second segment has some clever references, some of the surprise of the original “Anthology Of Interest” is gone. The advantage of anthologies, be they in series or book or episode form, is one of novelty; each new entry is free from continuity, and so on and so forth. Look, I’ve already talked about this the last time it came up. I’m not saying anything new. Which, really, is the problem here. Without the surprise factor, the episode has to rely on the quality of its parts to justify the whole. “AOIII” manages that, but not so well that it’s anything to write home about.

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“Wizzin’”

The weakest of the bunch comes last, so just for novelty’s sake, let’s do these in reverse order. Maybe it will cover my inability to function as a non-fiction writer unless I’m clinging to a structure provided by an external source. (Probably not, though.) When it’s Leela’s turn to use the What If machine (as dictated by Farnsworth’s who-goes-next machine), she asks to see what it would be like if she ever found her homeworld. Since this is a mystery that the writers have no intention of answering just yet, instead of seeing what pops up on the machine, Leela hits her head and dreams about traveling to Oz with Nibbler. It’s an inspired set-up for what turns out to be a series of intermittently funny riffs on, well, guess.

Some of the gags are inspired (Scarecrow Fry getting hurt when people keep assuming he wants the wizard to give him a brain; Leela deciding she’d rather be a witch than go back home to Kansas), but the whole thing reeks of what would become more and more common in the show’s later years: taking lazy swipes at pop culture warhorses, with the assumption that people’s familiarity with the source material will be enough to get us through the rough patches. “Wizzin’” is stronger than it could’ve been, and it’s short, which makes it harder to get annoyed at. But the shortness means the satire isn’t in depth enough to have any bite, and when every joke is designed to remind you how stupid all of this is… it gets old. Even though it stops before really gets started, it gets old.

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“Raiders Of The Lost Arcade”

Here’s an example of reference humor done right. Or at least done with enough frequency and invention to make its shallowness irrelevant. Fry asks the What If machine what it would be like if video games were real, and the result is a mish-mash of nods to Atari, Nintendo, and classic arcade hits; while there’s mention of a planet called “Nintenduu 64,” these references are strictly old school. Which doesn’t quite make sense; given Fry’s age, you’d think he’d be more into NES and Sega games than Pac Man and Space Invaders. But it feels appropriate in a way more modern references might not have. Donkey Kong was, at least when this show came out, a large part of what people thought of when they thought of “video games,” and given that Adam Sandler’s new movie about video games invading Earth uses both DK and Pac-Man in its advertising, maybe not much has changed.

The plot is just enough to hang jokes off of. Alien invaders (from the aforementioned Nintenduu 64) hit Earth looking for quarters, and Fry manages to fight them off for a while, only to lose when he can’t kill the final invader. Really, it’s just a lot of silly nods to extra lives, pixelated cherries, Rush, and barrel-hurling. Whether or not the references appeal to you depends on how much you enjoy the subject, but since most everything here is surface level (the closest we get to a deep cut is when Lrrr, ruler of Nintenduu 64a pretty lazy development all things consideredgives Fry advice on where he should’ve been shooting), it’s not necessary to be a fan. I liked it more than “Wizzin’” mostly because the concept was more original than another take on The Wizard Of Oz.

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“I, Meatbag”

The best of the bunch, “I, Meatbag” benefits from both a clever premise and a thoughtful resolution. It’s gross and more than a little disturbing, but also oddly inspiring in its weird commitment to certain biological inevitabilities. It’s also the simplest of the three segments, at least on a conceptual level. Bender wants to know what would happen if he was turned into a human. The What If machine shows Professor Farnsworth invented a reverse fossilization machine and giving Bender flesh. In response, Bender is immediately seduced by all the physical pleasures of the world, running off on his own and essentially enjoying himself to death.

What’s smart about this is that it’s so obvious in retrospect, but obvious in a way that both fits what we already know about Bender (not great on impulse control) and what we know about ourselves. Being a human is an often miserable, grotesque, and painful experience; to compensate, we have all these pleasure centers, and it’s easy to imagine someone who didn’t grow up learning self-control (which, as Amy points out, is crucial to being a human) over-indulging to an ultimately fatal degree. There’s a climax at a science conference where Bender (now so hugely obese he can barely move) gives a speech about how well and thoroughly he’s lived in his short time in the flesh; said speech is later undercut by the fact that he dies seconds after making it. Really, it’s the only conclusion that would’ve made sense. As a robot, Bender drinks to excess and has been dismantled a dozen times or more. He endures because he’s basically indestructible; something which humans really, really aren’t.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Hey Tivo! Suggest this!”
  • The “Whoo!” sound dead Bender makes as the air escapes his corpse sure is something.
  • “We don’t have emotions, and sometimes it makes me very sad.” -Bender, on why he wants to be a human.
  • Bender, looking for his “antenna”: “Maybe if I wiggle it around a little.” Fry: “Bender, no! You’ll make God cry!”
  • “Hey, do you like grilled cheese?” -Bender, before doing something horrifying
  • “Quiver in fear at our three different kinds of ships!” -Lrrr
  • “And I’m the other guy. Courage. Not enough of it. Need some from what’s his name.” -Zoidberg
  • Leela wants to be a witch, “As long as I get to hurt people, and not just dance around at the Equinox.”

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