Perhaps no TV show in history has had a more complicated lifespan than “Futurama,” Matt Groening’s improbably death-defying space-age laffer. Since its FOX debut in 1999, this misunderstood bastard child of “The Simpsons” and “Star Trek” has survived a 2003 cancellation, thanks to reruns airing on three different networks, and spun off into four direct-to-DVD movies beginning in 2007. Now Comedy Central has picked the series up for another season, bringing it back from the dead … six years after its last new episode.
Thursdays at 10 p.m.
So what is it about “Futurama” that keeps the cultists coming back for more and leaves the networks befuddled? Only this: In an era where personality-free sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory” fool audiences into mistaking geek for chic, here is a show that unapologetically embraces the value of its own lunacy. Every episode of “Futurama” is a planet-spanning quest that juggles grand, conceptual ideas with character-based barbs, pointed satire and gross-out visual gags. The mentality of the writers is to overstuff everything, which has justly earned the show its uneven reputation.
It’s this very trait that is unfortunately on display in the seesawing first two episodes of the show’s Comedy Central debut. But the nice thing about a series like “Futurama” is it’s often still worth watching even when the jokes aren’t hitting, just to bear witness to the sheer invention on display. And also because the members of the Planet Express crew, from party robot Bender to senile Professor Farnsworth to man-crab-thing Doctor Zoidberg, are some of the most entertaining misfits found on any TV show right now.
There’s a lot of self-aware humor (a favorite of Groening’s) in the premiere episode, aptly titled “Rebirth,” which also makes good use of another “Futurama” trope: killing off and reviving central characters through intentionally convoluted means. When the crew is incinerated following a botched re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the Professor revives them all by dropping their skeletons into a vat of goo that, we’re told, is composed of stem cells. Here’s an excellent example of the wicked sharp writing that this series does so well: The Professor assures our man-child protagonist, Fry (both voiced by Billy West), that the stem cells are perfectly ethical because they came from “adults, whom I killed for their stem cells.”
“Rebirth” is everything the return of a cult show should aspire to be, because it reminds us why we wanted it back in the first place. To wit, there’s a great running gag where Bender (John DiMaggio, “Ben 10”) is powered up with a nuclear battery that will explode unless he parties nonstop. But the second episode? Well, let’s just say it provides credence to the belief that “Futurama” might have already started spinning its wheels.
The cartoon has a history of uncomfortably sexualizing its female characters, which seems like a blatant attempt for Groening and Co. to appeal directly to their more perverted fanbase. Maybe it’s good business, but honestly, if you get a kick out of seeing a hand-drawn, naked, one-eyed woman on TV, then you have problems that the mere return of “Futurama” can’t solve. The season’s second episode, called “In-A-Gadda-De-Leela,” takes busty Cyclops mutant Leela (Katey Sagal, “Sons of Anarchy”) and, through head-scratching circumstances, somehow manages to strand her naked on a paradise-like planet with the Phil Hartman-inspired space captain Zapp Brannigan (who’s solution to problems is to hide inside a barrel “like the wily fish”). Never mind how they get naked; the real question is why, after a miraculous second chance at their show, the writers of “Futurama” felt the need to go borderline pornographic instead of just, you know, funny.
As this program has proven time and time again, anything can come back to life in the future. But if the folks behind “Futurama” want to make this resurrection count, they’d be wise to focus their efforts on the same brand of fast-and-loose weirdness that won them an audience in the first place. Otherwise, their labor of love might just get vaporized again.