“The Deep South” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 4/16/2000)

In which Fry goes under the sea, and discovers a horrible truth

Both this week’s episodes are solid but unremarkable, following through on goofy premises with good gag-writing and structure—nothing too mind-blowing, but pleasant enough to watch, and nicely observant in the character writing. Of the two, “The Deep South” has the catchier core, following Fry’s adventures in the lost city of Atlanta (get it? get it?) with a mermaid voiced by guest star Parker Posey. “Bender Gets Made” isn’t significantly worse, but its reliance on overused mafia jokes (would you believe there’s a character who’s a bit like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas? You would? Oh.) diminishes the novelty. Thankfully, the script has a few twists on expectations, but hold off, I need to save something for the other half of this review.

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Once again, we have an opening sequence that’s disconnected to what will ultimately be the main storyline, but for once, that disconnect isn’t all that sharp. The trip from Hermes getting a mandatory fishing license in the mail to Fry batting eyes at the sweetly naive Umbriel is practically a straight line. There’s time for some goofing around as the Planet Express crew try and out fish one another (Leela is woefully incompetent, which is a running gag this week; her best catch is a crate full of boots), and then Bender catches a “colossal mouth bass” with the Professor’s diamond filament towline, and the ship is sucked down to the bottom of the ocean.

It’s goofy as hell, to be sure, with the usual smattering of Futurama twists. (The “mandatory” fishing license is great, as is Farnsworth’s observation about how the ship, designed to be used in outer space, can withstand “between one and zero” atmospheres.) But the whole thing plays out more conventionally than usual. That’s not a good or a bad thing, exactly, but it does make for a story that’s a little less expansive than the show usually gets. There’s no freewheeling lunacy—even lost Atlanta largely sticks to a single theme (it’s the deep South, like the title, which is a pun, I say boy, I say, do you understand what I’m telling you, a pun)—and while the meat of the plot is a more interesting than the robot mafia, it’s not so interesting that it feels like all that attention was really warranted.

Yet this isn’t a bad episode. There’s a sequence where the folk-singer Donovan narrates a story about how the city of Atlanta, in its doomed attempt to become one of the world’s cultural hubs, transported itself out to sea, only to sink under the weight of its hubris, and also a lot of buildings. That alone is worth the time, and there are plenty of great gags throughout. I was especially fond of the subplot involving Zoidberg building a home under the ocean in a large shell. The sight of him puttering around like a housewife tending to her garden makes no sense in the best possible way, and it’s great every so often to see the world’s worst doctor in his element, even if his brief happiness is inevitably doomed.

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Actually, it’s worth pausing to examine that doom. His shell burns down. Zoidberg: “How did this happen?” Hermes: “That’s a very good question.” Bender finds he left a lit cigar in the shell. Hermes: “That just raises further questions!” I’ve noted this before (and I’ll noted it again), but this is one of Futurama’s favorite moves—to do the impossible, draw attention to how it’s impossible, and have that acknowledgement be a kind of doubling down on the original joke. It feels very Looney Tunes, except Bugs Bunny et al existed in a universe that wasn’t supposed to be a persistent comic creation; those cartoons never lasted long enough to require us to invest more than the most basic emotions in them. (We are not going to talk about Space Jam.) Futurama wants something more complex from its audience, so it has to use gags like this sparingly. Zoidberg’s shell is a good example of how to do it right.

The problem with “Deep South” is that the main plot, with Fry and Umbriel falling in love, only really exists for the punchline. Parker Posey does fine work in the role, but the mermaid is never more than a sweet, slightly spacey fantasy object. (Although her civic pride is admirable.) This pays off when Fry, having decided to stay in Atlanta, tries to have sex with his new girlfriend. It’s an explicit actualization of the fundamental absurdity of mermaids as sex symbols. She’s half fish. Her idea of intercourse is to lay her eggs so Fry can spread his seed over them. Realizing this, Fry runs screaming from the house, with one of the show’s signature lines: “Why couldn’t she be the kind of mermaid with the fish part on top and the lady part on bottom?”

It is, no question, a very good punchline, and that, along with Donovan and the rest of the episodes side jokes, mostly justifies “Deep South”’s existence. But it doesn’t go beyond that. Lost Atlanta is clever idea that never gets beyond its most obvious riffs, and even the jokes about Southern culture underwater are pretty much just “Southern culture, under water.” It’s a decent half hour with one really great moment. Nothing wrong with that; but not a lot to say about it, either.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “A Stern Warning Of Things To Come”
  • This bugged me: Zoidberg samples Hermes’ buckets of bait, and one of the buckets is full of sardines. Wasn’t there a whole episode about how sardines are extinct? I demand answers. (EDITED TO ADD: Answers discovered! It’s anchovies that were extinct, not sardines. My sincerest apologies.)
  • Farnsworth calls Bender “the Mechano-Man.”
  • We’ll get into this more in the next review, but it’s cool seeing Leela relegated to the supporting cast where she’s allowed to be much more fallible. Aside from her boot-catching, she also dismisses Fry’s encounter with Umbriel as “ocean madness,” and has no role in resolving any of the half-hour’s storylines. It’s a small thing, but it makes her more interesting than the automatic “sane” one.
  • The jokes about Fry peeing underwater (there are three of them) are well done, and nicely subtle.
  • Bender gets high on electric eel. Now that’s continuity.
  • Farnsworth is disturbingly into suppository. Worse, he’s into other people taking them.
  • “Where’s Fry?” “I didn’t kill him! Professor?” “No, I’ve been busy.”

“Bender Gets Made” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 4/30/2000)

In which Bender, well, see the title.

So: Leela. In this episode, she gets zapped in the face by a spice weasel early on, and has to wear an eye-patch while her eye heals. The writers could go a few different ways with this. A blind Leela could’ve stayed on the sidelines, worried that her handicap would keep her from doing her job well. Or she could’ve turned out to be an amazing bad-ass even without the power of sight. Instead of either of these, we get a Leela who’s still blithely certain of her competence, even as she makes mistakes left and right that injure people and nearly get her and Fry killed.

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This is a fun choice, because it makes sense in Leela’s character—her faith in her own abilities is one of her defining traits. Given what we see of the world around her, that faith is nearly always justified, which means that her behavior here, while comically inept, never plays as forced or contrived. The sight of her trying to use Nibbler’s food dish to steer the ship is funny, and the fact that her discovery of her mistake actually puts her and Fry in even more danger is even funnier. Leela’s stubborn refusal to admit a weakness helps make her a more fully fleshed out character while creating the opportunity for humor, which is pretty much the ideal, writing-wise.

This episode is actually about Bender joining up with the Robot Mafia (all three of them—the Donbot stresses that what we see here is the whole bunch), but I gotta be honest: it’s a so-so idea that’s only partially saved by the execution. Unlike “Deep South,” “Bender Gets Made” takes a convoluted path to get to its destination, and while the path is fun, the end result is a little too pedestrian. The mob jokes are, well, mob jokes. None of them are awful, but this is all too reminiscent of the Simpsons episode where Bart takes up with Fat Tony. The plots are different, but it’s still the show’s wild card joining up with a group of stereotypes to do some stereotypical things. At least Fat Tony felt like a character independent from Bart. Here, the Donbot exists to force Bender to try and save his friends and pull of a heist without getting discovered by either side in the process. The robot himself is just your standard “I’m kind of doing a Marlon Brando thing, but I’m not going to commit to it” riff.

At least the other two robots are more interesting. Joey is fun, but Clamps is the real star of the show, Joe Pesci parody or no. He just goes around wanting to clamp things. The word “clamp” is automatically fun, and over-using it in a threatening context, through a character who defines himself (to an obsessive degree) by his clamping, is an effective way to build a distinctive minor character. We also get the return of Elzar, the chef Bender is obsessed with, and Joey, the Tiny Tim robot who keeps up his good spirits through the endless stream of life’s miseries. Neither set the world on fire, but there’s something pleasurable about having certain familiar faces return in small roles—someone like Joey has such a clear and immediate joke behind him that he gets funnier every time he comes back.

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As long as I’m finding positives, the end of the episode is swell, because Bender gets away with everything. He tricks Fry and Leela, saves their lives, avoids the Donbot’s wrath (and a clamping), and even gets a cut of the Zuban cigar robbery that served as the story’s climax. There’s no final reveal, and Bender never has to turn to his “real” friends to ask for their help to get out of a jam. While this doesn’t make for the most exciting conclusion, it’s far more appropriate to the show’s world, and to Bender himself, than a more traditional forced moral would’ve been.

For someone like Bender to be convincingly sordid, he needs to occasionally succeed in his criminal activities. No one was seriously hurt here, and none of the Planet Express team acts all that broken up over the loss of the Zubans, so it’s a minor tragedy at worst. If Bender’s plans were foiled every time, he’d look inept, and that would make him less funny—or at least, a different kind of funny. (And there are already enough inept comic figures on the series as it is.) I’m not sure I’d calling this a subversive resolution, but it is satisfyingly confident in its unwillingness to compromise itself to fit the usual standards.

That said, I still don’t love “Bender Gets Made.” There’s something frustratingly unexamined about the Donbot and his associates. They’re just mob stereotypes that happen to be robots. Occasionally the episode exploits that fact in clever ways (Clamps’ clamps, the non-fatal ventilation of a poor robot who can’t pay his bills), but on the whole, this is the work of a creative team spending the day at the Orchard Of Low Hanging Fruit.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Simulcast On Crazy People’s Fillings.”
  • “You trying to steal from the Donbot?” “I’m trying, but he’s not making it easy.”
  • Rare moment of competence from Fry this week: he briefly manages to hold off the mafia robots and steer the Planet Express ship. For once, Leela taking over is actually a downgrade.
  • Bender has a “king” setting for his voice. It’s everything you could imagine.
  • “Look into your hard drive and open your mercy file!” “File not found.”

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