01 July 2010

Because it was on TV: The Resurgence of Futurama

Last Thursday one of the greatest Turn of the Century shows of our time returned to the air with new episodes designed as direct-to-TV episodes for the first time in seven years. I speak of one of our Greatest Animated Sci-Fi Shows, Futurama.

Futurama has had a storied run, first on the Fox Network alongside fellow creation of Matt Groening, The Simpsons. While the show at its best easily matches The Simpsons' writing, it never had the mainstream, massive cultural impact its predecessor had. The reasons for this are obvious, as Futurama really is just an incredibly incredibly nerdy show. So from 1999 - 2003 it had some great seasons over on Fox then was mostly screwed over, switched time slots, subverted for Sports Games and never allowed to grow the way it should. The real shame is that in its original run by the Fourth Season it had really hit its stride, that season is easily its best.

After its cancellation in 2003 nerds around the globe despaired. Alongside fellow prematurely cancelled Fox animated show Family Guy, though, DVD sales and repeats on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim sparked interest in its revival. Family Guy fast-tracked this revival, easily securing a new deal on Fox by 2005 and holding very strong ratings, mostly out of college drunks, every since. Seth MacFarlane productions now dominate Fox's once creatively lucrative Sunday Animation Line-Up which basically means anyone sensible should now stay away. I can't believe these shitty shows are still allowed to air, it's a crime against God.

See, Futurama is that rare Second Show that works. It works because its humour is similar yet distinctive from its predecessor. Both Futurama and The Simpsons are highly satirical, primarily of American Pop Culture and Institutions, but the beats are different. The source is also slightly different. Whereas The Simpsons relies on Family Lifestyle Humour, a highly episodic structure with an extremely slight arching narrative and bouts of insane "Flexible Reality," Futurama instead is mostly City Bachelor Humour, thorough arching storylines and the insanity is more grounded in actual reality rather than stretches of momentary goofiness. I think what works best to distinct the two however is simply the Suburban vs. Urban parody. This is all to say simply that Futurama has always been able to stand on its own ground.

Anyway, Futurama's history went on in a more roundabout fashion. After a good run on Adult Swim parallel to Family Guy it shifted to Comedy Central, where it was really given a good home. Comedy Central has been pretty keen the past few years picking up some quality shows like Ugly Americans, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and of course, Secret Girlfriend. Somehow their pulse has been on a higher caliber show than Adult Swim, including their proclivity towards securing syndication rights for shows like Futurama then actually treating them well. Hell, Futurama's practically on equal footing as South Park is now.

So there were these long years where Futurama built a DVD cult as well as successful runs in syndication. From 2007 - 2009 four Direct-to-DVD movies came out, each followed by a run on Comedy Central split up into four episodes. They all did well (Into the Wild Green Yonder [2009] being by a large margin the best one) and so Comedy Central began production on a Sixth Season (the movies being the "Fifth") for a genuine return to scheduled episodic storytelling.

So last week the new episodes premiered. They set a high bar for what's to follow. They were also markedly different from the first run as well as the four movies. Besides an edgier tone (the move from Network to Basic Cable allows them to get away with a whole lot more) with a whole lot more sex, violence and partying, there was also a very different kind of story being told.

Before we go any further, I gotta talk about Sex in Futurama, the animators must be so damn horny, every chick is so busty and usually has barely anything on. This goes for the men, too, there's so much nudity in this show already, in the New Season there was even more than expected. We've already seen every major character completely naked, then Leela and Zapp Brannigan for almost an entire episode. It's so insane.

Back to point, these episodes were decidedly more nerdy with a heavier bent towards Sci-Fi storytelling than previous incarnations. It's as if the producers are now feeling they can tell a much more determined story to an audience that they can rely on to tune in each week. They aren't fighting for viewership or backing from Fox anymore, they've secured their brand which allows them to throw as much Nerdy Sex into the pot as possible. The two episodes definitely emerged more as science fiction short stories or thought experiments with a couple good jokes thrown in to keep it light than mainstream Americana animation.

Thus we're seeing the early stages of Futurama's full blown Cerebus Syndrome. It has become a much more character-driven dramatic show than absurd flighty cartoon and if upcoming episode previews are any indication this trend should continue, likely to great critical and commercial success.

The next wave of New Episodes come on tonight at 10:00 pm EST on Comedy Central. Tune in for a rare treat this summer.

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