If you’ve been to this site before then you’re probably familiar with the quasi-Simpsons spinoff Futurama, which was cancelled by Fox for not being Simpsons enough (read: didn’t make Fox enough cash to insulate a battleship).
Yes, just like Family Guy, Millennium, The Tick, Lone Gunman, Terminator, Arrested Development, and Firefly– Futurama joined a fraternity of TV shows axed by 20th Century Fox. Shows that later gained a lucrative cult following. Proving (again) that Fox has no ****ing idea how audiences work, or even how they came to be a network, really.
Needless to say, Futurama found a devoted following after its banishment to Cartoon Network. This new audience was comprised of frat boys, stoners, and college geeks who needed a distraction while their Totino’s pizzas crisped and blackened in the oven. After only a few years of re-runs Futurama was pushed into production once again, starting with direct-to-disc movies, eventually earning its place in syndication with new seasons, which is practically unheard of.
And this is ironic if you ask me.
Given Futurama’s miraculous resurrection by the collective prayers (and dollars) of devoted fans, I have to stop and ask, did the target demographic (Male, 16-28) catch on to the show’s primary message?
Futurama: Responsible for 80% of stoner memes since 2003.
Don’t get me wrong, I watched the hell out of some Futurama. And yes, it’s still acceptable to get misty-eyed during that one episode. But if I’d noticed fifteen years ago (aired 1999, hope you feel old!) that the themes are about growing up, leaving childhood behind, and adopting a lifestyle of mediocrity, would I have been cackling with joy when it returned in 2008?
Don’t believe me about the themes? Ok, let’s look at a few episodes.
Message: Leave Childhood Behind
Throughout the series Fry is confronted with material objects from his past, mostly in the form of worthless junk that he clings to like a life raft. In the episode A Big Piece of Garbage, Fry and crew fly to the giant asteroid that’s about to go all Armageddon on New New York, where he finds that the mass of flaming, destructive crap is brimming with relics from his past, which he must demolish or divert into the sun.
Relics from his past… about to destroy his future. Not exactly a hard metaphor to follow, but OK, that’s one example. We can do better.
Earlier, in A Fishful of Dollars, Fry stumbles upon his old bank account, which has accumulated a vast wealth while he was frozen in time. With his newfound riches he buys back all his old furniture and knick-knacks, now “antiques,” and sets up an apartment to look like his childhood bedroom. He then sits in squalor for days, reveling in his past like a morose drunk with a crate full of rum and a memory built on regret. The message: you can’t take childhood with you and still be a functional human being.
Another example: In The Cryonic Woman, Fry’s childhood girlfriend comes back, thawed from cryo-sleep just as he was, and yet he’s forced to give her up…to Pauly Shore, an icon from his past. In another season he parts ways with his estranged brother, also from his time. And from his loving dog too, who waited for him…
Point is, anytime Fry finds a connection to his childhood, he has to give it up, sometimes in painful ways. And in the end we’re led to believe he’s better off for it. Because he’s living in a new, exciting, prosperous future! Which brings me to my next point.
Message: Accept Any Paying Job
From the very first episode we’re told that careers are restricted via chips surgically implanted in the hand. And life at Planet Express, an intergalactic delivery company, is none too safe. I know as the audience we’re supposed to cheer for adventure and mystery. But as Fry’s legal council (which I am) I would advise him to stay the hell out of the future and away from Planet Express.
The darker message here (a note struck several times throughout the show) is that Fry returns to his low-paying delivery job whenever life elsewhere in the Galaxy doesn’t pan out. As the audience we understand this perfectly– he’s meant to be there. At a low-wage job. Forever. Because it’s his destiny.
We see this when he accepts a shared apartment in I, Roommate. In later episodes he stays with Planet Express despite achieving wealth, fame, or power, which he does at least seven times by my count. Even Zoidberg, who is mocked and shunned by everyone, stays with the company. And Hermes, the secretary, fights tooth and nail to keep his terrible job when his Bureaucrat Rank is lowered and he’s replaced at Planet Express.
This message of maintaining a mediocre job never changes. In fact, it evolves, as members of the crew start families while working as delivery drones. Hermes has a son. Fry and Leela settle in together. Even the professor who is ancient beyond years, curmudgeonly, and wantonly destructive, has a son (clone) by the end of the series. On purpose.
So, get a crappy delivery job and settle down with kids, I guess? I don’t know, maybe I’m taking this Hidden Message thing too far. Especially where Leela and Fry are concerned…
Message: It’s OK to Settle
Over the course of the show Leela rejects Fry’s advances time and again. She’s a pariah of human society for her mutant ancestry, sure, but she’d rather stick a fork in her one good peeper than date someone who has the mental acuity of a starfish. I actually respect that about her. She’s smart, she’s tough, and she doesn’t want to settle.
But as things progress Leela shifts into crazy cat lady territory with Nibbler (sentient-feline-animal-thingy). She gets more comfortable with Fry and Bender day by day, what with all the dangers they face. Eventually, due to Fry’s nonstop proximity, Leela learns to accept him, sponge-brain and all. Which is exactly the sort of message we should send to young girls. It doesn’t matter how much of an idiot he is, so long as he hangs around enough to appear committed.
Message: You Can’t Pick Your Friends
Zoidberg is a non-stop, no-holds-barred, terrifying threat to the crew’s safety. And I love him for it. Zoidberg should have been fired or demoted. He’s a walking wreck and a health hazard as a doctor. Nobody should ever hang out with Zoidberg. There should be a 10-man squad of armed handlers surrounding him at all times, and a tough-as-nuts Australian hunter to yell “Shoot her!” whenever he gets out of line.
But for this example I’m actually arguing Zoidberg’s side. Do ya’ll remember the episode Mobius Dick?
That’s right, Zoidberg has seen friends come and go. Most notably, the death of his old crew by being swallowed by a 4th dimensional whale. All of them. All in one gulp. Zoidberg should never make friends with anyone at Planet Express again. But you can’t pick your friends.
When Fry and Leela make the scene, Zoidberg doesn’t have zero reasons to pick them as friends– he has negative reasons.
Fry, a boy from 1,000 years ago who wanders the future like Mr. Magoo, a suicidal bending robot, and a cyclops with a chip on her shoulder, would have the life expectancy of gnats. But because of the show’s message about friendship, Zoidberg’s stuck with them. Is it any wonder Zoidberg, a doctor, doesn’t seem to give a damn about their health early in the show?
And what about Bender?
Bender’s hilarous antics are a thin disguise. The real Bender would be a self-centered malignant narcissist. He’d be the type of abusive alcoholic we teach family members to avoid, and build outreach programs to rescue people from. Yet we applaud Leela and Fry for sticking with him.
Bender is quite literally defective (Episode: Lethal Inspection) born with a bottle of liquor in his hands and cursed by the gods. He brings misfortune and pain to everyone he comes in contact with, and is completely unapologetic about his flaws. But we live in the age of accepting everyone for who they are.
So bring on the robotic megalomaniac, because we’ll be right by his side. Even when he drags us all to hell with him (Episode: Hell is Other Robots) Because we see ourselves in Bender’s defective heart of hearts, and somehow that makes it better.
(Originally posted on Theinquisitiveloon.com)