“The Lesser Of Two Evils” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 2/20/2000)

In which the writers make the most out of an airdate…

The Star Trek nods continue! Last week it was “Amok Time;” this week it’s a sort-of reference to “Mirror, Mirror,” the parallel universe episode that first introduced the world to the idea that somewhere, there is another version of you, only this version is meaner and wearing leather pants. “The Lesser Of Two Evils” doesn’t have Fry and company visiting any other dimensions, but it does introduce Flexo, Bender’s twin who may or may not be evil. We can tell we’re supposed to be suspicious of him because he has a goatee, and as Evil Spock demonstrated in “Mirror, Mirror,” facial hair is never a good sign.

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At least, that’s what we’re expected to believe. While Star Trek fans will most likely catch on the moment Flexo shows up (Fry runs him over with a replica of a 20th century car) with a distinctive soul patch, those not in the know should catch on quick enough. One of the main through-lines of the episode is Fry’s belief that Flexo is Bender’s Evil Twin, and it’s a runner that lasts right up until the climax, when Bender is caught trying to steal a special tiara (and its ornamental atom of Jumbonium). Turns out, Bender is actually Flexo’s evil twin. Which is funny, because it is not what you would have expected, see.

It is funny, honestly, and the smart/dumb mix is the right up this show’s alley. (Smart because it’s a clever, meta twist on what’s become a genre cliche; dumb because Bender being the “evil” one is so obvious that the surprise is predicated on us thinking we’re smart. If that follows.) But I’m not sure it’s enough to support an entire episode, and “The Lesser Of Two Evils” suffers to some extent because of its need to keep things ambiguous until the end. Some of that ambiguity is hilarious: after the tiara is stolen, Bender is constantly covering up his chin with sweaters and maps and scarves, to make us wonder if he’s Flexo pretending to be Bender.

But some of the ambiguity is less effective, most notably in the character of Flexo himself. In order for the final twist to work, Flexo has to remain a gray area—likable enough that we understand why the characters are still hanging around him, but with enough hint of a threat to make it plausible that he might turn out to be the thief. And that’s basically what happens here, but it happens at the sacrifice of specificity. The most we get from Flexo is that he’ll say mean, Bender-like things, and then laugh it off like he’s just joking. It’s not a bad bit, but it always feels forced, and there’s never any sense of him beyond that one gag.

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That’s a problem, because if Flexo isn’t a distinct character, it’s hard to get all that worked up over whether or not he might be a villain. It’s hard to get worked up about any of this, really, which is where Futurama’s smart/dumb approach kind of bites the show on its shiny metal ass. Comedy doesn’t need to be grounded with powerful drama to be effective, but it does need something like stakes, and the stakes here are painfully low: a tiara for a beauty pageant disappears, and Bob Barker’s head is pissed off about the whole thing. Leela has her usual determination to do a good job, and Fry wants to prove that Flexo is evil, but that alone isn’t enough to keep things interesting.

And it’s the indeterminacy of Flexo that really sinks it. The concept is fantastic, the punchline is swell, but in order to get to that punchline, the character can’t become all that distinct from the Bender we know and love, which leaves him ill-defined and disappointingly unmemorable. Although I suppose that’s inevitable. The reason the original “Mirror Mirror” episode worked (and the reason the Evil Double trope caught on) is that the crew of the Enterprise were straightforward goody-goodies—Kirk and Spock had depth, sure, but Kirk’s double never showed up, and Spock’s was basically just regular Spock with a heightened sense of self-interest. Bender definitely well-defined at this point, but part of his definition is his ability to feel and do pretty much anything. Trying to make a convincing, interesting opposite of that would be nearly impossible, so instead, we get something that’s neither here nor there.

Still, there are the usual good jokes and weird aliens to hold our attention. A Cops parody has a great gag about a centipede creature who can blur its own face, and the group’s trip to Past-O-Rama allows for some more “Man, the future people don’t get the past!” jokes. (Although that particular well is probably running a little dry.) Flexo and Bender’s brief attempt at friendship suggests that the episode might have been better served if it focused more on the two of them, and less on Fry’s suspicions. Parodying the Evil Double concept by presenting two robots who seem more or less equal needs a little more time to develop. But hey, we got a trip to a robot strip club, which was about as disturbing as one could expect.

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Plus, there’s a beauty pageant, and that’s always good for a laugh. Zapp Brannigan makes an appearance to hand out the tiara, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that Host Bob Barker’s Head is sitting (resting?) right there. Zapp is getting dangerously close to being over-used, and the only real reason he’s here is so he can say Leela’s name while he’s trying to announce the winner of the pageant, and we can get a brief gag of Leela (who said she thought pageants were stupid) thinking she’s a winner and feeling briefly beautiful. Which isn’t worth the effort.

I’m being harsh on the episode, and it’s not a terrible half hour by any stretch. There’s a lot of solid laughs, which is really all Futurama needs to manage to keep me watching. (Actually, I get paid for this, so Futurama could be 24/7 Hypnotoad and that’d be aces.) And it’s entirely possible that I’m judging too much on the potential of this concept, rather than on the execution itself. Still, a great episode of this show should be more than just some clever ideas scribbled in the margins.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “The Show That Watches Back”
  • Fry goes along with Flexo and Bender to the strip club, allowing us a chance for one of the darker running gags on the show—Fry getting brutalized by a robot. (It’s not “dark” in the sense that it makes you question your fundamental assumptions about life, but there is an edge to it, especially when Fry shows up at work the next morning all bruised and battered.)
  • “Fry, what have I told you about ending your stories one sentence earlier.” -Leela
  • “If I ever want to go back to the year 2000, I’ll just freeze myself again.” I think this is my favorite type of Fry stupidity. The “it sounds almost plausible until you think about it for ten seconds” kind.
  • “You mean Bender is the evil Bender? I’m shocked. Shocked! Well, not that shocked.”
  • The Flexo/Bender fight is swell.
  • Fry makes out with a radiator. This will be important later.

“Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 2/13/2000)

In which Fry almost has the worst Valentine’s Day ever

This was never one of my favorite episodes of the show. I like most everything in the first four seasons (yes, even the episodes that don’t get A grades), and I don’t hate “Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” I love the bit with Fry and Amy driving her new car on Mercury, as Fry keeps trying to balance the A/C and the heater without any regard for gas mileage. And any story that features one character getting their head sewn on to another character’s body has to be doing something right. But whenever I re-watched the series, this was one of the “eh” entries that I want through out of habit and completism. I was rarely disappointed with what I saw, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, either.

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Re-watching yet again, I think I’ve pinpointed my problem: I really don’t like watching Fry be this much of a jerk. Which is a weird criticism to make, to be sure, because having Fry occasionally act like a selfish twerp is essential to keeping him vital as a character. A well-meaning goofball who trips his way into a crisis is fine and all, but Fry is more interesting by far if there’s a side to him that can be actively obnoxious. Nothing too big, we don’t need to get into anti-hero territory here (and besides, we already have Bender), but by allowing Fry to be a jerk from time to time, the writers can generate more stories and make his moments of sweetness feel more meaningful. Call it the Homer Simpsons model, although I’m not sure if Fry ever went quite that far.

It’s just, Fry’s jerkiness in this episode seems to be beyond the pale to me—it’s not just “Oh, he’s complicated, but I’m sure he’ll learn his lesson,” it’s “Jesus dude shut the hell up.” And it’s not even as if he’s being actively evil. Fry and Amy briefly start dating after their drive on Mercury takes a turn down Sexy Lane, but when Amy makes even the slightest move towards making their casual hook up into something more, Fry freaks out. He complains that Amy is “smothering” him, but when he tries to break up with her, Zoidberg gets them into a car crash, and Fry ends up with his head on Amy’s shoulder. Ah, comedy.

The thing is, one of the big jokes of the episode is that Fry’s reaction is so obviously out of proportion to Amy’s behavior. She’s sweet, moderately interested in him, and there isn’t a single moment in the entire half hour when she acts in any way unreasonable or demanding. There’s no pressure coming from her whatsoever, and Fry’s freak-out is supposed to be funny because it makes no logical sense. We’re supposed to side with Amy, if we’re going to side with a character at all, and watching Fry treat a friendly offer to hang out as though shotguns and wedding rings were involved is absurd enough to be pretty funny.

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Yet Fry’s behavior is so exaggerated that it quickly becomes implausible, and our ability to sympathize with him is crucial if the episode’s third act is going to work. The only justification I can come up with is that Fry still isn’t willing to admit he has real feelings for Leela, and those unacknowledged feelings are driving him to over-react to a possible new romantic partner. Given that Leela ultimately saves him from having to watch Amy and her new lover hook-up, that sort of makes sense, but the series hasn’t done much to really sell Fry being interested in Leela as anything more than “Girl standing next to me,” which means his emotional response has no pathos to it. He’s just a twerp pushing away a nice girl and then panicking when it looks like he might have to participate in some kind of forced menage a trois.

Admittedly, it’s not hard to sympathize with that last bit, but it again requires character behavior that doesn’t quite work. Up until that point, Amy’s actions have been easy to follow. Lauren Tom does a wonderful bit when Fry breaks up with Amy—it’s subtle, but there’s just enough hint of sadness to make it clear that Amy is, if not devastated, disappointed. The fact that she immediately finds another date makes sense too. But the idea that she seems pretty willing to hook up with this new guy with Fry’s head attached to her shoulder (a fact which doesn’t seem to bother the new guy at all, which, okay) is bizarre. Putting aside the creepy “Oh, Amy has had a few drinks so she’s definitely goin to put out!” gag, the character is essentially forced to behave in an unbelievable way just so we can have some conflict in the final scene.

It’s possible she was doing this to get some sort of revenge on Fry for dumping her, but for that to be plausible, we’d have to have had some indication of any sort of at all that she resented him ending their not-really-a-relationship. And while she does sound a little disappointed, the only time she expresses any irritation in the entire story is when Fry forces her to sing to herself while he tries to arrange a cover date for Valentine’s Day. That’s a great gag, but it doesn’t make her later actions more understandable. She’s a prop, basically—Lauren Tom does what she can, and the writers don’t completely ignore Amy, but the final scene is all about Fry and Leela having a moment, at the expense of everyone else.

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Gah, I’ve spent way too much time talking about this. I didn’t even mention Bender’s hilarious efforts at a dating service (the smash-cut between “I think I have a scheme so deviously clever that I—” and the courtroom for his first run at the problem is great), or the trip to the car dealership with Malfunctioning Eddie. All fine, well-crafted Futurama goofiness. And yes, in all likelihood I’ve dissected Fry and Amy’s actions in this a little more intensely than was probably necessary. But it bugged me, and I think at heart, my concern is more an issue of structure than it is of not wanting to see Fry be a dick. In other stories, when Fry is jerky, he gets some sort of comeuppance. He learns a lesson about whatever and we all pretend that will last. Here, he’s mean to one of the nicest characters on the show, and the sequence when he should be forced to see things from Amy’s perspective—ie, when he’s literally seeing things about two inches to the left of her perspective—really has nothing to do with Amy at all.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Not based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper”
  • There’s a sub-sub-plot about Bender’s ass getting recalled. His ass explodes at the end. That ass changed a lot of lives.
  • “Also, there are some eagles under the floorboards.”
  • “Amy’s rich, she’s probably got other qualities…” -Bender
  • Y’know, it’s easy to get cynical about love these days, but I really think Petunia and Sal have a chance at something. Probably chlamydia.

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