One of the hallmarks of any cult TV show is that it doesn’t matter how many times you watch it, you can always sit down and watch it again. The more you watch the individual episodes, the more things you uncover that remind you in the first place just how great the show was and how dumb everyone is for not having recognized its greatness while it was still on the air. One of the shows I’ve grown to love more and more as time passes is Matt Groening’s red-headed stepchild, Futurama.
For the record, I consider Futurama the best animated program in history. Better than The Simpsons, better than Cowboy Bebop, better than, well… everything else, both in quality of animation and depth of characterisation. From the opening episode onward, despite all the problems caused to the show by Fox’s incompetent scheduling, Futurama maintained a quality and humour level that no other show, live action or not, can match (especially over a five-year time period).
The show’s cast list reads like a Who’s Who of Voice Actors: the legendary Billy West (Ren and Stimpy, Invader Zim, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd from Space Jam) handles the majority of the work, which is reasonable considering he’s the best voice actor alive right now. Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain, Inspector Gadget, and the best Orson Welles impersonator since Orson Welles) also does his fair share of heavy lifting, too. Lauren Tom is instantly recognizable from her work on King of the Hill. Frank Welker (Megatron from Transformers, about 1200 other voice credits), does most of the animal roles. Katey Sagal, famous for the role of Peg Bundy on Married With Children, assumes the mantle of Fry’s love interest Leela.
Throw a rock, hit a familiar voice actor, basically.
Futurama is a fish out of water story, at least initially. You take a 20th Century 20something slacker, Phillip Fry, and transplant him into the new and scary future of 30th Century New York City. Like all fish out of water stories, the structure allows the story writers to get a lot of digs in at contemporary culture, through the eyes of Fry’s new friends at Planet Express, and what a crew of misfits they are.
Everyone has their favourite character. For most people, that favorite is Fry’s best friend, a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking robot named Bender who has a penchant for stealing and a secret desire to be a folk singer. There’s also Leela, a one-eyed female spaceship captain; Professor Hubert Farnsworth, Fry’s great-great-great-nephew and an eccentric (read mad) scientist; Dr. Zoidberg, an incompetent, dirt-poor lobster physician alien; Hermes, a Rastafarian accountant and former Olympic-class limbo competitor; and Amy, the poor little rich girl from Mars who just happens to be the clumsiest person alive. Every character is rounded, and grows along the way as the series progresses.
It’s not just the main characters who grow and change; as the series progresses, minor characters start to develop and take on lives of their own, which is a sign of high quality writing. Background character who initially seem to be only one-shots, like Morbo the Newsmonster or Ethan “Bubblegum” Tate, leader of the Harlem Globetrotters and senior lecturer in physics at Globetrotter U, reappear again and again, taking on roles of varying importance. Everyone becomes important, at some time or another.
Since the show went off the air in 2003, I’ve probably watched every episode 30 times. They have repeat value, to be sure, and they’re as good the 30th time as they were the first time, if not better simply because you’re allowed to see more on subsequent viewings. The viewer is rewarded for watching the show more and more, picking out little allusions missed the first time through. Missed jokes, references to science fiction classics, familiar sound bites, references to actual science principles, recurring background characters… there’s more than just jokes, there’s depth present that you won’t get in a show like Family Guy.
While I’m not a big fan of being frozen in a tube, if I could come back to live in 30th Century New York and have a life like Fry’s, I’d definitely start saving up to become a human popsicle. So long as someone puts a six pack of beer in my hands before I freeze up, I’ll be good to go.