Four long years after the animated series seemingly ended for good, the entire Futurama cast has returned for a one-shot installment. Also, a Futurama mobile game called Worlds of Tomorrow launched a few months ago, I wonder if the timing is just a coincidence?
As we’ve pointed out on this site before, the twist of the new episode is that it’s a podcast, so the series’ instantly recognizable art style has been abandoned in favor of a War of the Worlds-style radio play format. It’s also double the usual length, which doesn’t have any obvious reasoning behind it like the new format, but definitely increased my anticipation.
OVERVIEW (SPOILERS BELOW)
Controversial opinion time: I like Futurama more than The Simpsons. Maybe it has something to do with one show having eight seasons and the other having 28 (and counting), but I’ve always felt that Futurama was more consistent in its quality. My encyclopedic knowledge of all things Planet Express came in handy when preparing for this review, as I looked at previous occasions when the show had played with its style (Reincarnation, Saturday Morning Fun Pit) and length (so many movies).
Much like we found in the black and white Fleischer stylings of Reincarnation, it seems like the writers have a good understanding of how this new format differs from a normal episode. For instance, the audience is greeted by a slick-voiced narrator who provides stage directions and delivers commercials exactly as I imagine might’ve happened in the 1930s. The commercials, starring the semi-obscure recurring character Borax Kid, are among the many rewards for dedicated fans, although I wish there had been more variety to them.
Speaking of which, as much as this is a one-shot episode, don’t expect a standalone plot like the first Futurama game had way back in 2003. How much a listener understands Radiorama is hugely dependent on being able to recall the show’s continuity, specifically the death(s) and resurrection of Calculon, Bender’s brief acting career on All My Circuits, and the relationship between Fry and Leela. However, despite what I just said about the writers understanding how to write a radio play, in theory, the story they choose to tell in this new format is what ultimately lets the episode down, as too much of it feels lazy or contradicts past episodes.
As someone who thought that Meanwhile was a perfect series finale, I was annoyed to hear Leela break up with Fry “permanently” within minutes. The show did some truly inspired work in later seasons by serializing the couple’s ups and downs, but here Fry somehow forgets that Leela is a cyclops, only to have her later forgive him after gaining the ability to perceive 3D while experiencing sensory deprivation. I checked the credits and was honestly surprised that Ken Keeler, the writer of Meanwhile, co-wrote this episode.
Thankfully, the couple’s issues are only a B story, although the main plot highlights my other issue with this episode: jokes about podcasts aren’t as funny as the writers think, and there are a lot. The opening joke about an All My Circuits podcast made me smile, but having the antagonist be the embodiment of billions of 21st-century podcasts is overkill. More importantly, it’s one thing to suggest that humans make too many podcasts, but to do this while the show earnestly embraces the format sends mixed messages. There’s another subplot involving Bender suddenly deciding to reunite with his estranged mother, but it feels like this only exists to serve the episode’s bizarre ending (Bender’s new stepdad is a supervillain! Hooray?), so the less said about it the better.
There was a lot of potential here. As I said above, the writers clearly understand the differences of writing for radio, and the technical aspects worked for me: the commercials, the sound effects and music, and especially the sign language gags. The emphasis on sound also gave me a greater appreciation for the talent of the Futurama cast, many of whom voice multiple characters. Having said that, not getting Maurice LaMarche to reprise his Orson Welles impression seems like a missed opportunity. I also had to look up who Chris Hardwick voiced despite his prominent position in the episode’s marketing (it was Klaxxon, apparently).
I understand the writers wanting to return to the world and characters for sentimental reasons, and the smaller character-driven jokes were probably my favorite part of the episode other than explicit fanservice (of course Zoidberg is still a loser who somehow thinks the crew is his friends). Overall though, I’m just not sure why this episode exists other than to promote Worlds of Tomorrow. It fails to justify its double length, and its lack of consideration for previous key plot developments ultimately makes it feel haphazard. Established Futurama fans will likely be able to sit through it for curiosity’s sake, but especially after a finale like Meanwhile, the crew probably didn’t need to be brought back.
At least, unlike Worlds of Tomorrow, you’re not expected to spend any money on it.