“Xmas Story” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 12/19/1999)

In which you better watch out…

It’s fun going back and revisiting the early episodes of a show once you’ve seen it all, but it can be tricky, at least when it comes to reviewing. Part of the emotional crux of “Xmas Story” rests on Leela’s belief that she is alone in the universe, an alien from some unknown race left to fend for herself in a world full of two-eyed strangers. The show is still trying to make its more emotional moments land, and this one works okay, but I can’t be sure it didn’t work better back when the episode originally aired—back before I knew about Leela’s real history. It’s not a huge deal, since the drama of the moment comes less from the fact of her isolation, and more from how she’s dealing with her belief in her isolation, but still, knowing what’s coming in a few seasons changes how that loneliness plays out.

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Of course, Leela’s melancholy, and Fry’s doomed but endearing attempts to cheer her up, aren’t really the draw here; we’re in this for the psychotic robot Santa Claus who flies through the streets on Xmas Eve, punishing anyone who falls onto the Naughty List. Which, due to some bad programming, is nearly everyone. By now, it feels like the murderous Santa trope is common enough to deserve its own genre, but the idea still has some potency, and the gleeful malevolence with which John Goodman tears into his role saves it from being a one-note gag. I think it’s the slight astonished twist he puts on so many of his lines; like he, the robot, is legitimately amazed that the people (and others) he’s dealing with could be so goddamn naughty. Also, he clearly enjoys his work, which makes it more festive.

What I hadn’t realized is that Killer Santa doesn’t show up until over halfway through the episode. It’s a bit like “When Aliens Attack” in that regard, although this one takes even longer to really get going. (He said, desperately hoping no one would grab a stopwatch and check.) “Xmas Story” is more a riff on the ideas of a typical Christmas special than it is any one story, starting with the Planet Express group on a skiing trip before segueing back to New New York for some pre-holiday preparations. There’s no mention of Robot Santa in the episode’s early going, to the point where I briefly wondered if I’d somehow misremembered the whole thing. Like, maybe Robot Santa doesn’t show up until season three.

I was wrong, of course, but the lack of foreshadowing makes the episode’s third act come out of left field. Which may be the intention, or may be something that just happened to happen, as they say. This is another Futurama entry that feels just about equal to the sum of its parts, a collection of gags and concepts that largely stand on their own without the help of a strong central story to hold them together. There are segments of plot throughout, most notably in the brief conflict between Leela and Fry, but those rarely last more than a few scenes. I’m exaggerating a little here, and I freely admit that the half hour isn’t overtly messy or disjointed—hell, in case the grade didn’t tip you off, I dug it—but it’s odd to have so many promising ideas thrown into a bundle without really digging in to any of them.

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Really, what holds this together is the basic concept of Xmas itself, as the season gives the writers plenty of opportunities to riff on holiday traditions. Most notably, people in the future decorate palm trees instead of pine trees, and when they rip off “The Gift Of The Magi,” Dr. Zoidberg rules all. (Dr. Zoidberg is also the only one on Robot Santa’s “Good” list, which is, like Zoidberg himself, perfect.) Also, there are robot soup kitchens that give out alcohol to poor robots, and Bender decides he wants to scam his way into that. What’s great is that there’s never any sense that Bender needs money, or that he’s been deprived of booze in any way. He’s not doing this because there’s any significant benefit to drinking free, cheap alcohol. He’s doing it because it’s cheating.

But it’s also easy cheating, so when Bender sees a chance to go door to door, he takes it. This feels like a line being crossed, albeit in a fairly undramatic fashion: Instead of stealing from his friends, Bender recruits a gang (including Tinny Tim, a Tiny Tim robot who will pop up occasionally on the show from here on out), finds a house, and, after some modest caroling, robs the hell out of it. It’s a sign of just how fluid Bender’s character can be—and just how elastic our expectations for his behavior really are. If Bender had murdered the old woman in her house, that would’ve been a bit much. But robbing her blind on Xmas Eve? Well, she was kind of annoying, so I’m sure she had it coming. Bender merely needs to manage the bare minimum of non-sociopathic behavior, and we’re willing to roll with it.

Besides, there’s the other, much more dangerous robot to worry about. If the first part of “Xmas Story” is thin on forward momentum, the finale more than makes up for it, as Robot Santa provides a clear and immediate danger that drives us through to the end. (Actually, there’s also a fairly suspenseful bit with Fry chasing after the doomed parrot he bought for Leela. If you’ve ever wanted to see someone hang off a digital clock in a clear homage to Harold Lloyd, this is the show for you.) As Christmas episodes go, this manages to be at once cynical and heartfelt, although the heart part is still a little iffy—it’s sweet, but somehow perfunctory. But then, maybe that’s another one of those hindsight problems: I’m more critical now than I should be, because I know how much better this show gets.

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Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “Based On A True Story.”
  • Conan O’Brien has a cameo as his own head in a jar; O’Brien’s work on The Simpsons makes him a natural fit here, even if he’s only around for a couple of minutes.
  • Like the beach scene in “When Aliens Attack,” the Catskills Lodge offers up plenty of chances for quick gags for the whole group. There’s even an early Xmas nod, when Bender crashes into some ice and drowns some children ice-skating, à la A Charlie Brown Christmas. (I’m sure the kids are fine. Probably.)
  • “Xmas Eve, another pointless day when I accomplish nothing.”—Bender, living the dream.
  • On his quest to find the perfect gift for Leela, Fry goes into a pet store and sees one of the Life Is Hell rabbits.
  • Not only is Zoidberg on the Good list, he gets a pogo stick, which he then uses to save the day.
  • “I’ll be back—back when you least expect it! NEXT XMAS!”—Robot Santa. (It’s interesting: When you read it in on the page, this line seems like it should be a joke. I mean, isn’t Xmas the day Santa is most likely to show up, robot or otherwise? But Goodman reads it as pure threat. It sounds swell, but it’s not funny, and I’m curious if it was supposed to be.)

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“Why Must I Be A Crustacean In Love?” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 2/6/2000)

In which Zoidberg, Zoidberg, Zoidberg…

Ah Zoidberg. Zoidberg, Zoidberg, Zoidberg. In a show whose main ensemble is loaded with misfits, weirdos, dolts, and freaks, Zoidberg stands apart as the lowest of the lower, a terrible doctor and freakishly out of place lobstrosity with a Droopy Dog voice and an optimistic perspective that will forever doom him to disappointment. Later episodes would underline his more unsavory qualities (by which I mean his willingness to dumpster dive and dumpster squat; morally speaking, Zoidberg is as up and righteous as they come), but even at this early date in the run, the fundamental tragedy of the character is firmly in place. Well, maybe not “tragedy.” Any serious efforts to mine pathos out of Zoidberg’s condition tend to fall flat. He’s too perfectly balanced in his particular lifestyle. It’s like giving Hamlet to Winnie-the-Pooh.

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That doesn’t make room for much of a story, though, so “Why Must I Be A Crustacean In Love?” finds a way to dig into Zoidberg by letting biology generate a premise. Stealing more than a few pages from the classic Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” “Crustacean” finds the good (awful) doctor experiencing a sudden shift in personality when his body goes into heat. Gone is the placid, low-key zen styling that typifies his approach to life. Now he’s perilously close to psychotic, a fact which poor Amy learns first hand. Multiple times. (No, it’s not rapey, he’s just violent. Wait, that’s still creepy. It’s funny in context, I swear!)

In “Amok Time,” the normally stoic Spock turns moody and disturbingly horny, as part of a once-every-seven-years Vulcan ritual that requires him to return to his home planet and mate. That’s pretty much what’s happening here, although the situation here is (obviously) played entirely for laughs. Seeing Spock lose his preternatural cool was deeply unsettling; seeing Zoidberg start snarling is more goofy than disturbing, although the fundamental point of the personality change remains the same. The only way to help Spock was to bring him back to Vulcan, where he could undergo the ritual of Pon Far and take a wife. The only way to help Zoidberg is to bring him back to his home world, so he can attract a mate and fertilize her eggs during the great Frenzy.

There are more parallels, most notably the fight between Zoidberg and Fry that takes up the climax of the episode (the two aren’t best friends like Spock and Kirk, but it’s close enough; the episode even uses the “Amok Time” theme!), but once the Planet Express crew arrives on Decapod 10, the story moves away from its presumed inspiration. See, Spock was locked into an arranged marriage, which led to all kinds of political intrigue and manipulation, and a betrayal that ultimately led to his fight with Kirk. Zoidberg doesn’t have that kind of luck. He can’t attract a mate, and in his desperation, he turns to Fry, because when you’ve hit rock bottom, it can pretty amusing to see how much deeper you can go.

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The mid-section of “Crustacean” then becomes a decent Cyrano goof, with Fry teaching the uncomprehending Zoidberg the ways of human love. There are some of the familiar “Women are like this, men are like this” jokes, but they work better in this context, if only because it’s funny to see two human-shaped lobster creatures engage in an old-fashioned battle of the sexes. A lot of what happens here feels familiar, because it follows the time-honored tradition of the biggest loser chasing after the hottest girl—or, in this case, Edna, an unattached lady with a whole lot of eggs that need fertilizing. But the setting helps the familiarity from getting stale, and the ending is so unexpected and, well, disturbing that it makes these earlier segments appear more daring in retrospect. We thought we were watching one story, but it turns out we were watching something far more grotesque.

Well, screw it, this is a review, so let’s just jump to end now: the Frenzy which Zoidberg is so desperate to take part in ends in the death of every participant. Zoidberg’s people pair off, they scuttle into the sea, they mate, and then they die. This is not the expected conclusion, although the episode does hint at it, if in an utterly oblique way. When Fry tries to help Zoidberg, he gives him tips when, in a broad (heh) view follow the standard method for getting to know someone and building a relationship—say nice things, listen to them when they talk, act you’re trying to establish a connection that’s about more than just sex. But neither Zoidberg nor Edna really understand what all of this means. Both of them are susceptible to the approach (this is probably the only planet in the galaxy where Fry’s erstwhile Romeo act could gain any sort of traction), but primarily because it’s so alien. To them, mating is not about trust or companionship or finding someone to grow old with. It’s about hormones and fucking and death.

I’m not sure how this would work on a societal level (it’s hard to imagine a culture developing when every living member of it dies every 30 or 40 or however many years it is between Frenzies), but as a punchline for an episode that works over a somewhat hackneyed sitcom premise, it’s aces. If you wanted to get really deep, you could even argue that the ending justifies Edna’s weird crush on Fry—the possibility of finding something more than just fucking and instant death, a something that Fry, in his very limited way, offers, would have to be tempting, even as clumsy as his efforts might be.

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But depth isn’t the point here. The episode has a stronger plot than “Xmas Story,” and the opportunity to get to know Zoidberg and his origins is a welcome one. And any episode that includes a fight scene where the show’s main character gets his arm cut off is a-okay by me.

Stray observations:

  • Opening caption: “From The Network That Brought You The Simpsons
  • Bender has a different approach to Zoidberg’s mental problems: “It’s always so sad when a friend goes crazy and you have to have a big clambake and cook him!”
  • Bender also takes bets on Fry losing his fight to the death against Zoidberg. “Come on Fry! Die with dignity!”
  • Back on the ship, Zoidberg reattaches Fry’s arm—to his other arm. Then he cuts off Fry’s legs. He is not a good doctor.

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