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Future 'Futuramas'

A cult TV classic returns in DVD form.

12:00 AM, Jun 27, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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ABOUT A DECADE ago, Matt Groening--the genius behind The Simpsons--pitched a second animated series to the honchos at Fox. It was a no-brainer for the suits--"Another animated show from the guy who basically created this network?"--who quickly got behind the program.

In conjunction with Simpsons cowriter David X. Cohen, Groening created Futurama. Set in an elaborate future version of New York City named New New York, the show was populated by humans, aliens, a spacefaring version of the Harlem Globetrotters, and all other manner of oddities. Our guide through this universe was Philip J. Fry, an everyman accidentally frozen in a cryogenic chamber for the millennium between 2000 and 3000. Fry was teamed up with sarcastic robot Bender, distant nephew Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, and spaceship captain/unrequited love interest Turanga Leela to deliver packages across the universe like an intergalactic Fed Ex crew.

Futurama was a critical hit, taking home Emmys in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Audiences, however, were not as enthusiastic: After debuting with boffo numbers while sandwiched between The Simpsons and The X-Files on Sunday nights, Fox moved the fledgling program to Tuesday nights, where it floundered. Over the years it bounced around the schedule, unable to pick up a steady audience and, in 2003, it was canceled.

But Futurama found a second life in syndication when the Cartoon Network put it into heavy rotation as part of its late-night "Adult Swim" lineup. The syndication numbers, while impressive, wouldn't have meant much to Fox executives if they weren't combined with an even more lucrative revenue stream: DVD sales. Aided by modest prices, Futurama did tremendous business. Tinkering with a model used for Family Guy, another fan favorite rescued from cancellation by DVD and syndication, Fox decided to produce four feature-length DVDs of Futurama which would be broken up into 16 episodes and delivered to Comedy Central (which now holds the syndication rights) as a putative fifth season.

The first of the DVDs was released last year in time for the Christmas shopping season. Bender's Big Score did brisk business, moving just under a million units in the United States and generating a little more than $16.5 million worth of revenue for the studio. These aren't Titanic numbers, but considering the negligible promotion and production costs, and the fact that syndication rights on the "fifth season" can be sold in perpetuity, it is safe to assume the network made a tidy little profit.

The second of the series, The Beast with a Billion Backs, arrives this week, and appearances suggest that it, too, is doing good business. It has topped Amazon's list of new releases for most of the week, and is number one overall in movies and television DVD sales. All this despite the fact that, pleasing as it may be to hardcore fans, it is an unfortunate mess of a movie.

Bender's Big Score was like reuniting with an old friend--crammed into the film's 89 minutes was every one of the show's significant (and most of the insignificant) recurring characters. The endless cameos probably would have made a fun drinking game for the Futurama-obsessed: Last person to name one of the half-dozen bit players onscreen at any one time takes a shot! Family Guy set the precedent for this kind of madness: During its first episode back on air, the show's creator Seth McFarlane crammed every guest star the show ever had into 22 minutes.

It was silly but fun, and spread out over an hour-and-a-half, not too intrusive. The film also moved Futurama mythology along, handling with particular care the ever-maturing relationship between Fry and Leela. But The Beast with a Billion Backs gets a couple of things wrong, not least its continued infatuation with minor characters.

More important, the story is confusing. At the beginning, completely out of the blue, a new love interest for Fry is introduced. And not just a new love interest but a girlfriend so serious that Fry plans on moving in with her. This is the sort of thing you could get away with in a 22-minute TV episode, but with 89 minutes to fill it doesn't make much sense. It seems forced, arbitrary, and slightly ridiculous, an obvious plot contrivance designed to speed the plot along.

And what about that plot? Well, it's hard to say. It's partly about love lost. It's partly about discovering a rip in the fabric of the universe. It's partly about an evil space octopus enslaving humanity. It's partly about discovering that said octopus is actually the physical manifestation of heaven. And amazingly enough, it's entirely disjointed! It feels like four not-so-well-put-together episodes of a TV series rather than a film with a coherent narrative vision.

Half-hour comedies seldom translate well to the big screen: Plots tend to bloat, become overwrought, and collapse under their own weight. Sex and the City suffered from this problem, and so does Futurama's straight-to-DVD offering. Bender's Big Score was similarly bloated but got a pass from fans because it was so pleasant to see Fry and friends in action again.

It's hard to see The Beast With a Billion Backs getting a similar free ride. Fox should have ordered a new season's worth of episodes, canceled it halfway through (as it did in 2003) and released them all on DVD. It would have made for a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.