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Culture wars, streaming and NFTs: Futurama has accidentally become a fascinating document of social change

The acclaimed adult cartoon has been brought back from the dead – and not for the first time. It’s never going to recapture the brilliance of the original run, writes Louis Chilton, but the series’ stop-start history has made it a compelling record of changing cultural obsessions

Sunday 30 July 2023 08:07 BST
Leela (Katey Sagal), Bender (John DiMaggio) and Fry (Billy West) in the first episode of the new ‘Futurama’ reboot
Leela (Katey Sagal), Bender (John DiMaggio) and Fry (Billy West) in the first episode of the new ‘Futurama’ reboot (Hulu/Disney)

Is Futurama more or less unkillable at this point? Like the Terminator, or Novak Djokovic, the animated sci-fi comedy just keeps coming back – this time, for a 20-episode revival series on Hulu (or Disney+ in the UK). In its heyday, Futurama was a great TV show. Doomed to live forever in the shadow of The Simpsons (both series were created by cartoonist Matt Groening, and featured his signature art style), it nonetheless succeeded on its own creative merits. The initial 72-episode run on Fox, beginning in 1999, still holds up remarkably to this day. Set 1,000 years in the future, in the city of New New York, Futurama was, for a time, the perfect vehicle to satirise the foibles of contemporary life.

And then, in 2003, it was cancelled. For five years, Futurama seemed destined to become a mainstay on every list of “TV series that were cancelled too soon”, a niggling case study of what-might-have-been. But then, in 2008, it was brought back for four straight-to-DVD films. It was clear that something had been lost in the interim; the comedy here came a little less easy, the plotlines a little less electric.

But for Futurama fans, it was a damn sight better than nothing. In 2009, the series was revived again, this time as a series on Comedy Central. It was here the series really started to change – episodes were increasingly rooted in on-the-nose topical parody. One episode saw the citizens of New New York fall under the spell of an addictive “eyePhone” app; another uses a “robosexual” marriage bill to satirise the then-topical same-sex marriage ban in California. The series ploughed on for five years, coming to an end in 2013. Now, after a decade away, it’s back, with a season premiere (“The Impossible Stream”) that touched on everything from streaming services, to NFTs, to anti-PC humour. Futurama may not be what it was – but it’s slowly transformed into a fascinating study of changing times.

Futurama’s specific brand of satire is simply not built for longevity in our era of rapid technological change. When the series premiered in 1999, the internet was still in its infancy. Early episodes betrayed an attitude to the web that is vastly different to what it would be even a decade later. Season three’s “I Dated a Robot”, for instance, hinged on a parody of file-sharing site Napster that is almost incomprehensible to anyone watching now. The season two episode “Put Your Head on My Shoulders” saw Bender (John DiMaggio) start a back-alley matchmaking service – an idea that seems almost quaint in the era of dating apps.

Politically, too, Futurama was rooted in Gen X cynicism and Bush-era politics. One of the series’ longer-running jokes is that Earth’s president is the jowly disembodied head of Richard Nixon; Al Gore made multiple appearances, playing himself. It’s hard to see these jokes resonating in the same way now (though Nixon does feature in the latest season). I suspect it’s a blessing that Futurama was off air throughout the entirety of the Donald Trump presidency.

Some of the ways in which the series has dated are obvious – a misjudged episode from the first revival featuring a singing boil named Susan (a weak pun on Britain’s Got Talent sensation Susan Boyle) has aged like milk. Others are a bit more complicated: the fourth season episode “Bend Her” sees Futurama’s resident robot Bender undergo a mechanical gender reassignment operation in order to win an Olympic medal. Today, an even halfway progressive programme wouldn’t touch a plotline like that in a million years; that the writers felt comfortable doing so back in 2003 attests to both the ignorance around transgender issues that was pervasive at the time, and the recency with which the anti-trans lobby has sprung up. The “culture war” did not exist in the way it does now. This season, it seems like the 31st century is finally getting its own equivalent: episode eight is forebodingly titled “Zapp Gets Cancelled”.

On one level, Futurama is a stark reminder to be careful what you wish for: sometimes it’s better to go out on a high than live on in mediocrity. Each time it’s been rebooted, it’s come back a little different – resembling its former self but somehow, indescribably off, like the resurrected cat in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Taken as a whole, the series is messy and narratively inconsistent, its once-cohesive vision of the future warped by efforts to update its satire. But these flaws make it interesting anew. As an insight into how the world has evolved over the past 25 years, it’s compelling.

‘Futurama’ is available to stream on Disney+

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