The Many Lives of Futurama

TV Features Futurama
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The lifespan of the television show is usually pretty linear, and without much variation from show to show. A series airs on a channel for a while, and then it ends. Sometimes it’s canceled pre-maturely. Sometimes it gets to end on its own accord. But for some shows, it’s not so simple. No series exemplifies the potentially complex nature in the lifespan of TV show more than Futurama.

The sci-fi sitcom about a simpleton named Philip J. Fry who was frozen at the beginning of the year 2000 and wakes up on the eve of the year 3000, began its life on FOX. This made sense, considering that it was co-created by Matt Groening, who helped build FOX into the powerhouse that it is, with The Simpsons. It was a great show—funny, very smart and innovative, but it never found its footing on FOX like The Simpsons did. While The Simpsons has been running for over 25 years at this point, Futurama was often preempted by football by the end of its run on FOX, and was canceled without ceremony after four years and 72 episodes. Its final episode, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings,” was a fitting note to go out on, but that didn’t ease the sting of its cancellation.

But the truth is, four seasons and 72 episodes was very impressive, especially for a show as high-minded as Futurama. The length of its run was made all the more admirable by the fact that this was a great show. Cancellation marks the end for basically every show, although, occasionally, resurrections occur (look no further than FOX’s other animated juggernaut, Family Guy). Futurama would live again too, but they’d have to go about it in an entirely unique way.

It all began, or began again as it were, with four direct-to-DVD movies. The show aired the last episode of its original run, the aforementioned “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings,” on August 23, 2003. The first Futurama movie, Bender’s Big Score, was released November 27, 2007. Obviously, fans were quite pleased. This movie was followed by three more, concluding with Into the Wild Green Yonder. They were, admittedly, not as good in terms of quality as the original run of the show. Making the move from half-hour sitcom to 90-minute movie meant stretching the story’s to the breaking point, and they did not always hold up. In particular, after an essentially flawless run on television, Bender’s Game, the third of the Futurama movies, was a straight dud.

Despite these issues, it was nice for fans to see Fry, Bender, and Scruffy again. At this point, Into the Wild Green Yonder was the de facto series finale, and it felt like a fitting finish. It was the best of the four movies, but the men behind the show did not want it to end there, and left the conclusion open for another return. They had already gotten 72 episodes and four movies; asking for anything more would have seemed to be an exercise in greed. Yet, they did, and as a result, this wasn’t the last we heard from the series.

In 2010 Comedy Central resurrected the show with an order for new episodes. They broke up the storylines from the four movies into four episodes apiece and called them, collectively, Season Five. At Comedy Central, Futurama not only got to work within the more lax parameters of basic cable, but the characters were being reborn and reinvented in a world of HD television. This was an especially wonderful development, given that it was already a beautiful-looking show. Still, much as it was with the movies, the actual quality of these Comedy Central episodes could be lacking (although the same could be said for most shows that go over 100 episodes).

That caveat aside, there were clear signs of fatigue in the Comedy Central phase of the show. Futurama became more hit-or-miss. The opportunity to be more ribald than they could be on FOX didn’t really open up the show. If anything, it had the opposite effect, allowing writers to go for the easier joke, instead of working towards something great. Futurama was defined by its ambition in its initial run, but ambition does tend to run out, for even the most noble of creatives.

Futurama’s run on Comedy Central would not last as long as the run on FOX. They got two seasons, consisting of 26 episodes, but this time they also got the chance to end on their own terms. The final, true series finale of the show, “Meanwhile,” aired September 4, 2013. It was a fitting end to an excellent show—the end of a wild ride we’d been on since 1999. It was also one final example of the show’s cleverness, as the end of the finale culminates with the universe being reset in the world of the show. Comedy Central followed it with the original pilot, essentially asserting that, much like James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, the story of Futurama was cyclical. Plus, James Joyce didn’t include any sassy robots in his books so, the genius of Futurama’s had him beat in some aspects.

In this modern era, Futurama’s journey doesn’t feel quite so odd. We now live in a world where shows are resurrected by internet streaming services with some frequency. The show’s fellow FOX expatriates Arrested Development and The Mindy Project have been saved by Netflix and Hulu, respectively. Even American Dad ended up back on television, moving to TBS. Futurama seems increasingly less like an outlier, and more like a sign of things to come in this modern era of seemingly unlimited content. No show feels truly dead anymore, or at least that is the hope of fan bases worldwide. With this in mind, Futurama remains a gleaming example of how the traditional life of the television show has been permanently altered. Welcome to the world of tomorrow, indeed.

Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)