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Friday, July 12, 2024

The New 'Futurama' Successfully Reboots the Show for 2023

Good news, everyone! Futurama is back (again).

The sci-fi cartoon’s 11th season premieres today, returning on Hulu in the US (and Disney+ elsewhere) after a 10-year hiatus. Given the time that’s passed, it’s natural to wonder whether the show could pick up where it left off and be just as relevant today as it was a decade ago, but fear not. The new episodes successfully reboot the show in 3023—it’s still 1,000 years in the future—with all the verve it had when it got canceled (for the second time) in 2013.

Futurama got its start almost a quarter of a century ago, in 1999, emerging from the shadow of The Simpsons. It began with four excellent seasons, including multiple award-winning episodes like “Roswell That Ends Well” and “Godfellas.” While the protagonists, Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West) and Leela (Katey Sagal), deliver plenty of hilarious lines, the foul-mouthed, beer-drinking robot Bender (John DiMaggio) arguably became the most popular character. For newbies, the premise of the show is that Fry was a pizza-delivery boy on New Year’s Eve in 1999 when he was accidentally cryogenically frozen for a millennium. The new season begins after time has been stopped for a few years, and Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) somehow reboots the universe, causing everyone to seamlessly continue where they left off. “We’re back, baby!” Bender exclaims as he lights a cigar.

The show has now been canceled and revived multiple times, and it repeatedly mocks itself for this in the new season—like when the characters convince “Fulu” executives (who are robots) to bring back a canceled robot soap opera beloved by Fry. They help him binge many seasons by ensconcing him in a Dune-style stillsuit that feeds him, recycles his waste, and includes a helmet that drills into his skull. Bender himself writes a couple of episodes of the soap, but they’re not very good—apparently, even 1,000 years from now, AI still can’t write very well. It feels like classic Futurama—a nod to sci-fi of bygone eras but completely au courant.

And to think it almost didn’t happen. Last year, as the new season was coming together, DiMaggio withdrew from the Futurama revival, holding out for more pay for the entire cast. (TV and video game voice actors have long argued that they’re underpaid.) Producers threatened to replace his voice, spawning a backlash from fans under the hashtag #BenderGate. Ultimately, the matter was settled and he returned to the role.

Created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, Futurama began before Y2K, smartphones, social media, artificial intelligence—and also before animated space comedies like Rick and Morty and Star Trek: Lower Decks, which both now have new seasons in the works. Futurama is less dark than Rick and Morty and less tethered to science than Star Trek, but it’s easy to see how their influences overlap and how the popularity of animated sci-fi has multiplied thanks to their existence.

Futurama also references the 2020s more than either of those shows. Its Twilight Zone-like show-within-a-show now nods to Black Mirror, and there’s an episode about Bitcoin, which comes with crypto scams and lost money. It also includes a server farm, complete with an ethical conundrum: It sparks concern not about energy consumption and carbon footprints but about the robots’ heads powering it. Other episodes include a Covid-like outbreak, use of Ivermectin (but for deworming), a major character getting “canceled,” and 3D printing.

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Another new episode focuses on the megacorporation MomCorp, which earlier resembled a Walmart of the future. Now, it’s called Momazon, and it has a huge lunar warehouse with poor working conditions and a new digital assistant called Invasa (like Alexa, but even more invasive). Momazon threatens to dominate the industry, run Planet Express out of business, and take over the world. The characters criticize the company, but the quick, drone-borne deliveries sure are convenient. 

The new iteration of the show includes 10 weeks of episodes, and Futurama is getting 10 more for season 12. It’s clearly written with love for its forebears, but it also looks like the future.

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