In the science fiction/fantasy genre, there are two types of zombies. The old school type is slow and uncoordinated, its body broken by decay; it mostly staggers around blindly and groaning incoherently. The new school type is fast and mean, running at full speed after fresh meat.
Television shows returning from cancellation can be lumped into the same two groups. Family Guy, canceled by FOX, returned from extinction without missing a beat. The brush with death has made the creators of Family Guy a little more fearless – they’ve already been canceled once, so what’s left to fear? Whether you love the show’s humor or hate it, the post-cancellation episodes have been just as strong as the pre-cancellation episodes.
Like Family Guy, Futurama was also canceled, and was brought back to life on the strength of DVD sales and re-run ratings. Unfortunately, death was not as kind. Grave-rot seems to have set in and lobotomized the nimble sense of humor that made the first four seasons of Futurama so wonderful.
In its first-run incarnation, Futurama was the far smarter and funnier show. Witty and cerebral, it easily blended low-brow slapstick with post-doctorate quantum physics, as when the doddering professor invoked Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to complain about a photo finish of a race. “You changed the outcome by measuring it!”
The returning Futurama feels disoriented and off-balance. Part of the problem is that instead of returning as a string of 16 stand-alone episodes, the new season is divided into four four-part mini-movies. The first, “Bender’s Big Score,” is a muddled letdown.
The plot involves email-scamming aliens who use Bender to travel through time and rob history of all its treasures. What ensues is a tilt-a-whirl jag across what feels like an endless number of non sequiturs and disconnected story threads involving limbo stick decapitations, endless time travel loops, whale hunting, the North Pole, powdered television executives, evil Santa Claus, surgical mishaps, Leela’s romance with a mysterious stranger, a wild intergalactic space battle, three musical numbers, and more. It’s scattered, overwhelming, and disappointing.
Writers Ken Keeling and David X. Cohen spin in circles, trying to generate an epic story and wind up tripping over their own feet. The number of ‘Easter eggs’, old show in-jokes that are subtly or explicitly referenced, are sky high. For hardcore fans of the show, there are plenty of rewards in the details and none in the story itself. Non-fans of the show would be irretrievably lost in the relentlessly shifting plot. You’d be hard pressed to explain to non-fans how the future Harlem Globetrotters are actually post-post-doctorate physicists who specialize in time traveling mathematics, before having to explain the lineage of Leela’s Niblonian super-cute, super-genius pet, or the significance of Fry’s sadly patient abandoned pet, all of which blurs past in a few minutes.
Gone is the cleverness, and the love of the old science fiction tropes that Futurama could turn upside down. The best of the individual episodes would simultaneously embrace and invert old and new science fiction clichés. Bender becoming a robot-god as he drifts through space. Fry gaining super-human powers from intestinal parasites. One of the secrets of Futurama is a quiet acknowledgement that we (the show’s fans) all love hearing those stories. We love (or love to hate) the Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight Zones, and Outer Limits that we rabidly consumed as children.
And perhaps that’s why the new Futurama stumbles and the undead Family Guy succeeds. Family Guy has allegiance to nothing but irreverence. Character and continuity can be manipulated at will, as long as something is being mocked. Futurama doesn’t have that latitude because it has respect for its characters. Series creators Matt Groenig and David X. Cohen let them develop and evolve over the course of the series.
The series was laced with poignant moments; over the seasons, these animated characters developed the layers and depth that you would find in a good traditional sitcom. The re-animated version seems to have lost touch with that. The brush with death seems to have rattled the creators, shaking their faith in the warmth of consistency, and replacing it with the cold desperation of relentless gags and a flop-sweat fear of re-cancellation.