“Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” (season 4, episode 9; originally 3/30/2003)

In which everybody was so much older then, they’re younger then that now…

Look, we’re not finished reviewing the run yet, and it’s possible I’ve forgotten something. It’s possible we’ll have an episode coming up that will change what I’m about to say, and it’s even possible that I’ve already reviewed (and, again, forgotten) an episode that stands in flat contradiction with this judgement. But even if that’s true, I still feel comfortable in the assertion that “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” is the most adorable episode that Futurama ever produced. Because holy shit is this episode adorable. It’s a full on assault of cuteness. It’s more lovable than a 20 minute Care Bear Stare.

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Even more surprising is the fact that all that adorability works, and works very well. Storylines featuring children in a show that doesn’t regularly focus on kids are bad enough, but ones that have the main characters regressing to their youthful selves offer all sorts of terrible possibilities, including but not limited to a lot of predictable jokes about puberty, adolescent behavior, and spit balls. Which is exactly the sort of thing that happens here, but it avoids being tiresome, in part because the plotting is pretty fleet throughout. We don’t even get to the youthening incident that gives the episode its title until seven minutes in, and yet the story manages to remain coherent and well-paced throughout. The show often stuffs as much incident as it can into a relatively short span, and that effort can, in weaker entries, come off as clumsy and muddled. Here, though, everything basically ties together by the end.

The other big advantage “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” has is its clear affection for all its characters. That’s an affection that’s been more or less a constant throughout the run of the series, and it’s what makes those emotional moments land. There’s cynicism, but the cynicism, no matter how thick, is always in protection of a sentimental soul. Here it’s especially felt, as the younger versions of the characters are good-natured and appealing, even if they occasionally feint at rebellion. The closest thing to a down note comes from Amy’s regression to a chubby adolescent, which leads to some unfunny fat jokes from her parents, but the general tone throughout is good-natured without becoming sacchrine.

It’s a neat balancing act, and the episode’s grasp of tone is most evident in Leela’s storyline. After getting sucked into a hot tar bath full of chronitons, Leela and the rest of the Planet Express crew are de-aged to their younger selves. As the Professor (who kicked off this whole problem by being so old that the rest of the team decided to “youthcize” him at any price) tries to figure out how to reverse the process, Leela sees it as a golden opportunity to go down to the sewers and get the normal teenage life she feels she was denied as an orphan.

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Which is a sweet idea, and entirely character-appropriate, given Leela’s feelings of abandonment and alienation that have been with the show from the start. What’s just as appropriate, and what makes the situation funny as well as poignant, is that despite their best intentions, Leela’s parents don’t quite understand what it is she wants from them, leading to scenes where she’ll ask for something, get permission, and then get upset at Mom and Dad for not being more strict. It’s a neat set-up that provides an arc for Leela (she has to decide at the end to sacrifice her chance at a second childhood in order to save her friends), and treats the character’s desires seriously while still poking fun at the absurdity of those desires.

The other character arc comes from Farnsworth, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever really grasped how much he’s driven by anger through the run of the show. That’s not a particularly bold insight or anything, I admit, but something about the way that anger is deployed here—how he spends so much time yelling at people and calling them idiots—really clarified his personality for me. There are certain automatic assumptions one makes when one sees a crotchety old scientist in a science-fiction story, and for the most part, Farnsworth stays true to those assumptions. He’s prone to mad fits of invention, he has little regard for human life, and his willingness to apply science to any given problem is as likely to create more problems as it is to solve anything. But the writers consistently push at the perception of such a figure. He’s everything we expect, only more so. Also, he was apparently a van driving hippy in his younger days, which is marvelous.

“Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” takes a potentially tedious concept (oh look, everyone is younger now, let’s all care about that) and makes the most of it, with some deft emotional touches and a consistent understanding of character. It fumbles a bit at the climax, if only because Leela’s decision to give up her youth in order to save her friends’ lives isn’t nearly the moral conflict the episode seems to want us to believe. (That’s a level of selfishness we’ve only seen from Leela on the What-If Machine.) But the fact that the episode’s final deus ex machina—the gargoyle that rescues Farnsworth from the fountain of youth—ties back to the very beginning of the story—which kicked off with Farnsworth trying to track the escaped gargoyle down—covers for the bumpiness. And hey, I’m a sucker for some sweetness, what can I say?

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Stray observations

  • Opening caption: Now Interactive! Joy stick controls Fry’s left ear
  • The gargoyle is named “Pazuzu,” a delightful nod to the demonic villain of The Exorcist. (Also The Exorcist II, which means I heard Richard Burton shouting “Pazuzu” in my head every time the name came up. I’m fine with this.)
  • Farnsworth has nuclear-powered false teeth. They seem peaceful enough, but once they taste human blood, watch out.
  • How could I not love an episode that has Farnsworth destroying an unnamed space station that looks an awful lot like Deep Space Nine?
  • I love how whenever Bender has to bend (or pump) something, he pushes up his “sleeves.”
  • “My old life wasn’t as glamorous as my web page made it look.”—Leela
  • Bender makes an adorable rebel: all bluster, no bite.
  • Okay, it’s also kind of weird that Leela finds about the Fountain Of Aging in kid’s book, but whatever.
  • When Bender is super young, he turns into a CD.
  • “And that, little one, is how Papa gained his freedom.”—PAZUZUUUUU!

“The Why Of Fry” (season 4, episode 10; originally aired 4/6/2003)

In which Fry learns a truth he can never forget—wait, did everything just taste purple?

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One of the (very minor) challenges of reviewing a show you’ve already seen in its entirety is trying to remember the appropriate context for earlier episodes. In a show that’s as continuity-free as Futurama is, that’s even less of a challenge than usual. The characters very rarely change much, and there are no ongoing story arcs to keep track of. Nobody dies, nobody changes sides—there are no sides, not really—and very little that happens is permanent, at least not in a “drastically changes the status quo of the series” kind of way. Avoiding spoilers is easy because there’s hardly any reason to bring any of them up.

Except, that is, what we learn about Leela’s parents; and, more importantly for this review, the story of how Fry got frozen in the first place. I generally assume everyone reading this reviews has already watched the show, and I think, even if they haven’t, I’ve managed to avoid giving the only real important secret away. But the strange thing is, I’d forgotten that it takes four seasons for the writers to actually give away the entire game. For years, I’d assumed we found out the “why” of Fry back in the first big reveal episode, when we learned who Nibbler really was, and discovered that good ol’ lovable idiot Fry was the only sentient being in the universe capable of defeating the evil giant space brains. But that episode didn’t explain anything beyond the immediately relevant.

Which means viewers didn’t find out what had really happened at the cryogenics lab until now. (And by “now,” I mean whenever you got around to watching this episode. Tenses are fun.) For a show that avoids mysteries, it’s impressive that Futurama held back on “solving” either of the big ones until the fourth season. Even more impressive is, as I’ve mentioned before, the fact that neither mystery (Leela’s Mom and Dad, Fry’s past) really seemed like things that needed to be solved. They were questions left hanging, but hanging in a way that you were never entirely certain if they were meant to be rhetorical.

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That worked for Leela’s story, and it basically works for Fry’s—but I think the discoveries of “The Why Of Fry” are more anticlimactic, and not necessarily in a good way. While the patience to wait this long before revealing information that had been built into the show’s core DNA is notable, the result isn’t particularly thrilling or emotionally impactful. That’s not to say the episode is a bad one, or that it isn’t satisfying to find out something you’d assumed was an accident was part of a plan all along, but this story would’ve been more effective if it had happened earlier, maybe somewhere around the second season.

The thing about Leela’s parents is that the longer we wait to find out the truth, the more we care about Leela than we do about the reveal, and the more interested we become in finding out what happens to her after she meets Mom and Dad. The last episode is a great example of how solving one mystery opened up a bunch of more story possibilities and relationships, and those relationships benefited from Leela having the kind of thorough development that comes over multiple episodes.

The “why” of Fry, however, doesn’t open the door to anything. We already know about the Nibblonians. and we already know about the big brains. We also already know that Fry was frozen cryogenically for a thousand years, and that he recently traveled back in time to have sex with his grandmother and become his own ancestor. Connecting all those pieces is a clever piece of showmanship, but it doesn’t add anything to our understanding of who Fry is. Finding out the Nibblonians are willing to throw someone a thousand years into the future makes them slightly more complex, but given how little screen time they’ve had on the series to date, that’s not really very impressive.

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The other big problem here is that the crux of the story depends on an emotional choice that isn’t anywhere near as challenging as it needs to be. The Nibblonians recruit Fry to destroy the big giant space brains’ latest effort to end humanity (once they know everything, they’ll destroy it), and, while trying to save the world, Fry discovers the horrible truth: Nibbler placed that prank call to the Panucci’s in 1999, and was even in the cryo lab when past Fry tipped his chair over and fell into an open tube. Learning this, Fry feels betrayed, and when he discovers there’s a nexus point in an alternate reality that will let him go back to the place and time where his life changed forever, he tries to stop past Nibbler from completing his mission.

I can see the ideas at work here. It makes sense for Fry to be angry that he was manipulated and used, and I suppose getting sucked into a null dimension with a bunch of nebbishy giant space brains would put anyone out of sorts. Yet the dilemma he faces never makes sense from what we know about Fry. While he’s mourned some elements of his past, for the most part, he’s preferred his life in the year 3000. He has better friends here, he’s treated with (slightly) more respect, and he has a home. The fact that Leela is the only thing he can think of from the future that’s worth saving is at once romantic and kind of horrible, and it’s something I suspect would’ve been a lot easier to accept earlier in the run, when Fry was still figuring things out. As is, it makes Fry sound uncharacteristically callous.

The basic emotions of this episode ring true enough. Fry thinks he’s a loser, finds out he’s literally the most important person in the universe (“How I feel when I’m drunk is correct?” “Yes. Except the Dave Matthews Band does not rock.”), then finds out he’s really just a pawn, but decides in the end that love makes things okay. Which, sure, that’s not a terrible arc. But the fun of the space battle and the idiocy of the giant space brains don’t entirely cover up the fact that this doesn’t really have the impact it should. It nearly does; Fry’s resentment of the Nibblonians is understandable, especially given that they screwed him over with his escape vehicle. But it’s hard to reconcile his rage at being betrayed against all the happiness he’s had over the years. Fry is prone to immediate, irrational judgements, and he’s not particularly bright, but it still rings false that he’d be willing to destroy existence; nor does it seem fair to him that all that stops him is the fact that Leela’s alive.

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I’ve spent an entire review largely focused on a single major criticism, but I should add that I still enjoy watching “The Why Of Fry,” and the end, when Fry (who doesn’t remember anything that happened) gives a flower to Leela, is a very sweet moment. I’m just not sure that moment, or any of the episode’s big moments, work in context. As an exercise in mythology development, this holds up well enough, and the explanations as to why Fry is the way he is, and how he got to be that way, are by and large satisfactory. But this information holds little dramatic charge in and of itself, and the attempt to create tension out of them feels forced. It’s fine, but I can’t help wishing it was more than that.

Stray observations

  • Opening caption: Dancing Space Potatoes? YOU BET!
  • Another tricky bit about TV Club Classic reviews: While I can’t remember how I felt the first time I watched this, I’d bet I was significantly more impressed. Not sure which reaction is more valid. I assume they both are, but past Zack doesn’t get to write the reviews. Suck it, past Zack!
  • There’s a subplot about Leela dating another jerkwad. It’s not really notable apart from the fact that Bob Odenkirk does the jerkwad’s voice.
  • The opening scene, which has Fry suddenly enamored of his own importance only to be brought rudely back to Earth by the fact that he doesn’t seem to matter to anyone (at least on a professional basis) does a good job to lead into Fry’s discovery of just how important he really is.
  • “Is there anything you can’t do?” “I can’t fail the mayor. Not ever.”
  • Leela asking Fry to walk Nibbler and pick up his poop so she can score on her date is a little much.
  • “We could sing ‘America Pie.’” “Go ahead. I deserve it.”

Next week: We revisit some familiar voices with “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” and fall into the mind-melting trickery of “The Sting.”

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