“The Luck Of The Fryrish” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 3/11/2001)

In which Fry remembers he’s a long way from home

When I was a kid, I tried to strangle my sister. One second she was saying something, and the next, I was choking her. It was awful. I’m not sure I feel much guilt about it now, but it was an awful, scary thing I did, and in the moment, I hated her more than I thought I could hate anybody. I doubt she thought too highly of me, either.

Jump ahead a couple of decades (and in the jump, pass by a lot more fights, and a lot more conversations, and that time we tried to choreograph a dance to “Time Of Your Life” don’t you dare judge), and we’re fine. She’s got an amazing family, we talk semi-regularly, I’m incredibly proud of her, and she seems to be generally okay with my presence. If the strangling incident comes up at all, it’s as a joke—neither of us pretend it wasn’t creepy, nor is it treated like a defining moment in our relationship. We’re siblings. Siblings fight, especially when they’re younger, and then you grow up and you move on. Except when you can’t.

What always gets me about “The Luck Of The Fryrish” no matter how many times I’ve seen it—and I’ve seen it half a dozen times now at least—is how confidently and easily it tricks us. Part of that is in the episode’s structure, which has several flashbacks carefully designed to nudge us towards certain assumptions. But it’s also in the way the script puts real life against the fictional. In real life, plenty of people have contentious interactions with their brothers and/or sisters, but that’s just part of a larger story. In fiction, we’re taught that everything we see is there for a reason; and especially on television, we’re taught that people don’t change. “Fryrish” presents Philip J. Fry’s brother Yancy as a jealous jerk, and fools us into thinking that a jealous jerk is all he ever was or would be. Discovering otherwise catches you off guard in a way that a more straightforward approach might not have.

Another element that makes all of this work is that the final reveal feels like the first time Fry’s really had to reckon with the loss of his old life. There have been stories in the past about him dealing with what he left behind, but those stories tended to be thin, meant more to generate jokes and plot than to deal with any serious grief. Season Three is when Futurama really takes off, and episodes like “Fryrish” are a large part of why; there’s a richer sense of character even in entries that don’t have this one’s emotional impact. One of the most effective ways to build character is to take a persona’s backstory and treat it seriously, as something that might have a lingering emotional impact. Up until now, Fry’s old life was such a wreck he had no reason to mourn its loss (which is something the flashbacks are playing off of). “Fryrish” doesn’t undo that backstory, but it reminds us that life is rarely a simple matter of “good” and “bad.”

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The episode opens with a flashback to Fry’s birth, a birth during which neither of his parents seem all that invested in what’s going on. Mom’s listening to a game on the radio, Dad’s worried that his new son’s red hair might mean he’s a communist. Then Yancy gets upset when he hears that his new brother’s first name is “Philip,” which sets up the false conflict. When Fry remembers his brother, he remembers someone who was always stealing from him: his mobile spaceship, his basketball shots, his breakdancing moves. This ultimately drives his actions in the present, when he learns about a “Philip J. Fry” who was the first man on Mars, and who also happened to have a seven leaf clover—just like our Fry did in the past. So Fry in the present decides his brother stole his name and his clover, and, furious, decides to dig up the body to get his property back.

This all happens relatively late in the story, though, which means the flashbacks we see that set up Yancy as a thief (albeit a young one) serve to make us inclined to believe Fry’s assumptions before he even makes them. It’s neat trick. We’re conditioned to view Yancy as an antagonist, which means the writers are able to hide the (in retrospect sort of obvious) twist in the final few minutes before the reveal. Instead of thinking too much about why anyone would actually steal Philip’s name, or that it seems improbable that Yancy would end up on Mars (given that he was a young man in 1999), we’re thinking about Yancy the thief, Yancy the jerk, Yancy the jealous brother. Something still seems a bit off, and the degree of Fry’s anger implies that he’s not thinking clearly (though for Fry, that’s not unusual), but there’s just enough confusion to keep us from realizing the truth before he does.

What’s equally as impressive is how “Fryrish” manages to have its heart and eat it too. (So to speak.) This is a damn funny episode, from the ’80s flavor of the flashbacks (Fry and Yancy’s breakdancing group is heavily invested in winning a pair of parachute pants), to the journey through Old New York, to the video history of the other Philip J. Fry’s clover-enhanced adventures. Fry’s efforts in the present to reverse his bad luck give the episode a clear through line, and there’s very little hinting that any of this is headed in a serious direction. Even when things do take a final turn, there’s still time for Bender to make a joke about robbing graves. Amazingly, that joke doesn’t feel tonally inconsistent with everything that’s going on around it, and it also doesn’t undercut from the impact of Fry’s discovery of the truth. It just all makes sense together, somehow.

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As for that discovery… It still makes me cry. Even thinking about it gets to me a little. The whole thing is pretty simple: A final flashback reveals Yancy holding his newborn son, giving him Fry’s clover so he’ll have a better life—and then giving him Fry’s name, because he misses his brother. (Gah, now I’m remembering the framed drawing of Fry’s that Yancy has hanging on the wall. It’s just dusty in here, dammit.) Fry realizes the truth in the present, and then he starts crying. I’m not sure what else to say about that moment, beyond the fact that it’s perfect. In just a minute or two, it reminds us that, ridiculous as it was, Fry’s trip to the year 3000 left a hole in his family, and whatever else happens, that hole will never be filled. This isn’t really a happy ending, but it’s not really a sad ending either. It’s just an ending, and all an ending really means is that you can’t go back.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Broadcast Simultaneously One Year In The Future”
  • “No fair, you changed the outcome by measuring it!”—Professor Farnsworth, again making with the science jokes.
  • The horsemeat stand makes for some dark, dark jokes.
  • There’s a reference to The PJs, which is a show I never watched and barely remember, but definitely know existed at one point. (There are a few PJs/Futurama/Simpsons overlaps: Steve Tompkins, who co-created The PJs with Eddie Murphy and Larry Wilmore, was a Simpsons staffer in the mid-to-late-’90s. Futurama and The PJs also premiered on Fox around the same time.)
  • Fry is excited to be in Old New York again, because it gives him a chance to do things he always wanted to do, like shouting “Howard Stern is overrated!”
  • There are a lot of great gags to choose from, but for my money, the funniest moment in the episode is when Fry meets someone he knew in his past, who is now a head on someone else’s shoulder. Fry asks him what he’s been doing, and the response (“The short answer is: teaching,”) is just brilliant.
  • “All right, grab a shovel. I’m only one skull shy of a Mouseketeer reunion.”—Bender

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“The Cyber House Rules” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 4/1/2001)

In which Leela sees the truth, although she probably couldn’t catch it

Remember when The Cider House Rules took America by storm? Remember those heady days when we attempted bad Michael-Caine-doing-an-American-accent impersonations and pretended we were ether-addicted abortion doctors? Maybe we ran on the beach with Charlize Theron on our backs. Or else we’d ride around on Tobey Maguire. We had such fun back then.

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Dated references aside, “The Cyber House Rules” is another excellent entry. It doesn’t have the same knock-you-out ending as “Fryrish,” but not every episode needs to go that far; instead, this one does some interesting work developing Leela’s struggles to fit in with only one eye, and how maybe being normal isn’t the best thing to be in the world. It also has Bender adopting a number of utterly adorable orphans in order to make money off the government. At one point, when he realizes the setup isn’t cost effective, he tries selling the kids to a Chinese restaurant, and yet the story still manages to be so goddamn cute it makes your teeth hurt. I mean that in a good way.

The main focus, though, is on Leela, who gets an invitation to come back to the orphanarium where she grew up for a reunion. While there, she tries to impresses her former fellow orphans with all she’s accomplished, but can’t make much headway until Adlai Atkins (the great Tom Kenny) takes a shine to her. A perfectly average and utterly unremarkable shine. Adlai tells Leela he can “fix” her cyclops problem, and after some moderate consideration, she accepts the deal. Which means we get a montage of Leela enjoying the pleasures that a two-eyed existence has to offer, and then (after some light conflict) we learn a lesson about the importance of individuality.

It sounds didactic in description, and “The Cyber House Rules” is certainly never subtle about getting its point across. Fry, the only one who thinks that Leela’s transformation is bad idea, repeatedly insists how it’s better to be a weirdo than be average, and it’s not like decades of heavy-handed children’s programming hasn’t sold that message already. (Admittedly, given that we’re a social species and social groups don’t tend to deal well with weirdos, it’s not a lesson that’s ever going to take.) The end, which has Leela returning to her one-eyed original form, isn’t a shocker, and if this was a weaker episode, the trip from one eye to two eye back to one eye could’ve been tedious journey through the Land of Telling Us Things We Already Realize We’re Supposed To Know.

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But this isn’t a weaker episode, and the main plot works well because it steers into the skid. The writers don’t pretend they’re telling us anything new; instead, they exaggerate Adlai’s obsession with normalcy to the point of absurdity. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the character is intended as a satire of heavy-handed moralizing, but his blandness is so bland that it becomes unusual in and of itself (a fact which no one points out, oddly enough), and the result makes Leela’s arc play less like a lecture, and more like an excuse for some really funny jokes about average-ness. He’s never presented as a plausible romantic interest, so there’s no pretense that this relationship is going to have a lasting effect on the series. That frees the audience to just enjoy the character without having to worry about the inevitable other shoe-dropping. While Leela’s happiness matters, the stakes remain fairly low.

The stakes are also low in Bender’s storyline. I’ve already summed it up (cute kids, heartless scam, apparent attempt to market long pig), but the plot is a remarkable example of just how far into a cruelty a show can go with certain characters without becoming actually cruel. Bender is a monster of a father, indifferent when he isn’t being selfish, and it’s frankly amazing that all of his charges (presumably) survive their time with him. But because it’s Bender, and because this, being a cartoon, isn’t strictly speaking realistic, the sequence plays out less like a nightmare, and more like another iteration of the endlessly popular “grumpy bastard has his heart softened by adorable moppets” arc.

The writers clearly know it, too. Throughout, they push things just as far as they can, stopping short only of showing Bender actively abusing orphans (okay, offering to sell them by the pound to a restaurant is pretty active, but the sale never actually goes through). This could’ve gone too far, but the tension of seeing just how much of a jerk Bender can be and still have the kids (and the audience) love him helps add to the humor of the situation.

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It’s also smart to see the script pulling both Bender and Leela’s plot together: Leela doesn’t finally realize the truth about Adlai until they try to adopt a child from Bender; when Leela decides she wants to help a little girl with an ear in her forehead, Adlai says he’ll do it only after he gives the kid an operation to “fix” her, and Leela snaps. It’s a nice character beat for her (in that she doesn’t figure the situation until someone besides herself is being threatened with alteration; although I wonder if the little girl might not have had something to say about Adlai’s offer), and the dovetailing of the two plots makes for a tighter structure, one where everything feels necessary and each scene seems to build off the others, even when they don’t.

In the end, Leela goes back to her cyclopean existence, and Bender gives the orphans back to the orphanarium. It’s here that Bender’s story comes closest to sentimentality; the kids give him a drawing, and he crumples it up, only to stick it inside his front cover. (With a magnet, which seems to have no immediate effect on him. Hm.) This is a sweet moment, and it’s probably a necessary one, if only to give the arc a feeling of closure. Thankfully, before things get too saccharine, the orphans rush back and tackle Bender with their love, and he screams “I hate you!” before the credits roll, ending on a cheerful, but vaguely unsettling note that fits the show to perfection.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Please rise for the Futurama theme song.”
  • Starting things off right, Bender smashes a basket with what sounds like a crying orphan inside. It turns out the “orphan” is just an electronic card, but it could’ve been a baby! (That “could’ve been” idea is a fulcrum on which so many of the show’s best jokes turn.)
  • “Personally I try not to blink too much, because it seems flashy.”—Adlai, at this Adlai-est.
  • Zoidberg doesn’t get a lot to do this week, but what he gets his choice: “Actually, most doctors are rich.” “What? When did this happen? You’re joking right? That’s not funny!”
  • So there’s a joke during the date sequence at Elzar’s which references something that hasn’t happened on the show yet—at least, it hasn’t happened yet in the particular order of episodes I’ve been following for these reviews. I’m sorry about that. The actual airing order would’ve made more sense, but I didn’t realize it was all different until I was neck deep into things, and I made a decision to just stick with the Netflix order, even though I’d group the seasons in the way Wikipedia groups them. In retrospect, this was an idiotic choice, but it’s too late to change now.
  • “Daddy, how do I flush you?”

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