“The Honking” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 11/5/2000)

In which Bender is struck by a horrible curse, and also a car…

“The Honking” is a very silly episode. Silly even by Futurama standards, mixing science and magic all willy nilly, throwing out robot ghosts and were-cars and Project Satan and strained friendships with little regard to common sense or plausibility. Thankfully, it’s funny and quite a bit of fun, so “common sense” doesn’t really enter into things. And the story does have its own sense of internal logic; if you just operate on the assumption that this is a mash-up of classic monsters movies and goofy science fiction, you’ll be fine. Looking back, it’s weird how the beginning has almost nothing to do with the ending, but so long as the ride is moving, it’s easy to keep your eyes focused forward.

“The Honking” is a Bender-centric episode, but it’s one in which he’s actually not responsible for any of the action. For once, he’s a passive victim of any and all wrong-doing; it’s technically possible that he murdered his Uncle Vladimir (an idea that Vladimir mentions in his will), but since the robot died in his bed of apparent old age, and since the idea of Bender being the murderer is only mentioned as throwaway joke, I’d say his hands are clean. This is unusual, and may account for a certain shrugging quality to the entire episode—without any instigating action or character arc, there’s no real core to the story. The closest we get to an emotional center is Fry’s sense of betrayal when Bender seems to pick Leela over him. Which is a great gag, but doesn’t kick in until the episode’s already half over.

Before then, it’s just Bender wandering from plot point to plot point like a pinball with a catch-phrase. In the opening scene, a robot we’ve never seen before dies, which raises several questions the episode doesn’t really get into. That sets the tone for the rest of the half hour: plenty of nods to monster movies (more specifically, Universal monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Especially that last one), a willingness to go for whatever jokes are immediately available, and not much thought to how this all makes sense in the context of the show’s larger world.

Whether or not that bothers you is dependant on how much of a pedantic nerd you are. I consider myself to be around a level 5—I’ll question plot holes, but I won’t make internet videos about them. In the case of “The Honking,” I mostly don’t care that having robots die of old age is weird, or how I’m not sure it makes sense for Bender to have an uncle, or how it really just plays like the thinnest possible excuse to break out the hoariest of horror cliches. I mean, you could justify all this if you worked hard enough, and I find fixating on inconsistencies to be a painfully unnecessary form of critique. (Even more painfully unnecessary than these reviews already are, I mean.) Yet it speaks to one of the writers’ main weaknesses, a weakness that’s much easier to overlook in these first four seasons because the jokes are sharper and the characters more surprising. There needs to be a balance between expediency for a joke, and consistent world-building. Funny is important, but too often, we’ll get low-hanging fruit gags at the expense of logic. Too many of those, and the series becomes less a collection of stories set in a persistent universe, and more an excuse for punchlines and references that exist almost entirely in isolation.

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That’s not really a problem for “The Honking;” I mention it here because it occurred to me while watching the episode, but there’s enough goodwill to hold this one together. While the plot is no great shakes, the execution has its share of inspiration. Any show that references The Car, a 1977 Jaws knock-off that has James Brolin facing down an actual devil car (it’s pretty good!) is going to win at least a few points. Throw in a few subtle Stephen King nods (the car that runs Bender down looks like a red Plymouth Fury, which will be familiar to anyone who’s read Christine), and I’m willing to overlook a lot.

Plus, there’s the subplot with Fry and Bender which starts off as a throwaway joke, lasts long enough to be a little tedious, but then lasts even longer to become brilliant. Bender gets the details of his “were-car” curse from a fortune-telling robot (as you do), and learns that if he isn’t cured, he’s destined to murder his best friend. This is an oddly specific detail which exists solely to set up a later scene when Bender, in car form, targets Leela instead of Fry. Fry believes this means he isn’t Bender’s best friend, and he’s not shy in telling everyone how much that hurts his feeling.

It’s a concept that could’ve worn thin or felt forced, but it works, partly because Fry’s complaints clearly come from a place of real hurt; it’s ridiculous, but the character doesn’t believe it’s ridiculous, which makes funny. The concept also works because it’s just so damn weird to briefly believe that Bender is closer to Leela than he is to Fry. It makes no sense from what we’ve seen of the characters, and if the joke had been a one-off—if Bender the were-car had tried to kill Leela, Fry had acted upset once, and we’d never heard of it again—it would’ve come off as humor at the expense of character. But because Fry keeps mentioning it, it’s clear that something’s going on, and when the bit finally pays off, with the were-car targeting Fry and him happily cheering on his imminent death, it’s both funny and emotionally satisfying.

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There are plenty of nifty ideas in “The Honking.” I was especially fond of the ultimate source of the were-car problem, a murderous vehicle built by a group of scientists for Project Satan. Only thing is, Project Satan doesn’t become relevant until the last five minutes or so of the episode, which is a problem throughout; all the cleverness keeps things moving, but the end result is something that’s no more (but no less) than the sum of its various parts.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Smell-O-Vision Users Insert Nostril Tubes Now”
  • Hermes has a remote control that can “mute” Bender. You think that would come up more often.
  • “I hope it was one of my enemies. Those guys suck.” -Bender, learning someone has died.
  • Uncle Vladimir and his robot-ghost filled castle seems like a perfectly reasonable start to a story. I can’t decide if it’s annoying or hilarious that the episode just chucks it to the side. (Farnsworth’s explanation for the “ghosts” is great, though. “Yes, that sequence of words I said made perfect sense.”)
  • Another great gag sequence: Bender needs to kill the machine that turned him into a were-car, which leads to a long train of various cursed robots. Even Calculon gets in on the fun.
  • “I’m gonna go make my dinners for the next month, and freeze them.” -maybe the most Leela thing Leela has ever said?
  • “I’ll kill you too, buddy. I’ll kill you too.” -Fry, before Bender strangles him like Homer choking Bart.

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“The Cryonic Woman” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 12/3/2000)

In which Fry learns why you should never re-date…

Well, here’s an episode that follows one story—actually, no, it starts off following one story and then shifts over to the real story about five minutes in. But still, unlike “The Honking,” there’s more of an effort to make everything feel connected, and there’s even a legitimate character arc at the center. Fry discovers that Michelle, his old girlfriend (voiced by Sarah Silverman, in a part that doesn’t really give her a whole lot to do), froze herself when she realized her life was going nowhere. Now she’s awake in the 31st century, and the two of them pick up where they left off. Slightly before they left off, even, since the last we saw of Michelle, she was dumping Fry for a new dude. This does not speak well of her as a character, and little in “The Cryonic Woman” exists to change that perception.

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The arc, then, is in Fry thinking that Michelle is the answer to all his questions. He abandons his friends and freezes himself with Michelle for what they think is another thousand years, only to wake up in a hellish post-apocalyptic hellscape where children in Road Warrior outfits rule the world. It’s all a goof—Michelle and Fry were only frozen for a few days, they’re just in LA—but Fry, after being dumped again, realizes who his true friends are in time to see Michelle ride off with Pauly Shore, who I had completely forgot existed before re-watching this episode.

So hey, arcs are good and what not. And there’s at least one authentically insightful observation that both drives the story along and helps to develop Fry’s character. When she wakes up in the future, Michelle has a hard time adjusting. Instead of settling into the year 3000, she gets increasingly nervous and shrieky over just about everything—and it’s hard to blame her, given that she’s suddenly forced to deal with a cyclops, sentient robots, and a giant talking lobster. Instead of making Michelle seem odd, this makes Fry look retroactively impressive by comparison. He had a few “whoa” moments in the pilot, but by and large, he’s adjusted to the future quite nicely; so nicely, in fact, that it was easy to take this adjustment at face value. Michelle’s struggles serve to both show Fry in a new light, and demonstrate that the two probably aren’t going to last long as a couple.

Unfortunately, that last bit is the major problem with the episode. While the story isn’t bad, the relationship between Michelle and Fry is doomed from the start. All we know about Michelle before “The Cryonic Woman” is that she told Fry she was breaking up with him as she was riding away in a taxi with a new man. It’s hard to look too kindly on a character who does that. Fry may have many faults, but at heart, he’s a sweet, decent guy. The opening of the pilot is designed to show him as a man who doesn’t belong in his own world (something Leela herself more or less observes in this episode), and Michelle played a part in that. It would take an awful lot of careful, empathetic writing to redeem her.

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The episode doesn’t bother. While she’s not a horrible monster right from the first, it’s also clear that she’s not particularly sympathetic or complex, and there’s no serious question of her as a long-term romantic partner for Fry. That’s not the worst thing in the world, as he’s had guest star girlfriends before; this isn’t a show that puts that much weight in romance. (Well, not yet, anyway.) But it makes the main story tedious when the outcome is already so obvious. There’s no tension in wondering how Michelle’s presence will change things, because it’s painfully obvious that she’s not going to be around for very long. This isn’t a relationship that seems possible even for a moment, so we’re left waiting for Fry to catch up with what we already know, and it takes a full fifteen damn minutes.

Worse, Michelle is such a dull caricature of a shrew that there’s no pleasure in watching her and Fry interact. Sarah Silverman is a talented comedic actress, but this role strands her with barely anything to work with. (Parker Posey suffered a similar fate in “The Deep South,” but at least there she got some good straight lines.) Once Michelle decides that she wants to jump into the future, all nuance is gone. She nags and prods Fry in the most predictable ways possible, and it’s not particularly funny or entertaining to watch. The concept of a demanding girlfriend/wife is a cliche that needs more creative effort to redeem it than simple regurgitation. While it’s amusing to see Michelle insist Fry prove his worth to a group of thuggish grade schoolers, it’s not amusing enough to make her compelling, or someone who’d be worth spending a whole episode on.

Putting Michelle aside, we’re left with… not a whole lot. “The Cryonic Woman” does bring back the career chips from the pilot, so kudos to whomever yelled at me in the comments when I said the chips would never be back. (I assume there was someone? If not, too late now.) After Fry, Bender, and Leela get fired, Leela mixes up the career chips, and Fry and Bender end up working at her old job. (She gets stuck as a pizza delivery woman.) So it’s nice to see that place hasn’t been completely forgotten. Oh, and Pauly Shore shows up, and the joke is that he’s an intense intellectual, which contrasts wildly with his public persona as an idiot. Shore handles the dialogue well enough.

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There’s something disheartening about the show bringing someone from Fry’s time to the future—a development which feels at once desperate and half-assed—and doing nothing much with her at all. We leave this episode with roughly the same impression we had of Michelle at the start, and that’s not just weak writing, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Not A Substitute For Human Interaction”
  • Zoidberg, after Bender, Fry, and Leela are fired: “Now Zoidberg is the popular one!”
  • Zoidberg, after visiting the fantasy planet where your dreams come true: “For one beautiful night, I knew what it was to be a grandmother.”
  • Weird Al is in one of the cryo-tubes, or at least someone who looks a lot like him.
  • Bender has sex with the Probulator.
  • “Michelle, I don’t regret this, but I both rue and lament it.” -Fry, having second thoughts
  • In the end, Fry begs Farnsworth for his old job back, and Farnsworth dumps him out of the ship. That’s it. The only resolution to him getting fired is knowing that next week, he’ll be back at the job without any explanation. It’s a gag I’ve seen on a few different shows, mostly animated; sometimes, the writers just assume the audience realizes that things are never going to change that much, and let us put the pieces together ourselves.

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