Futurama -- "The Impossible Stream" - Episode 1101 -- Fry risks permanent insanity when he attempts to binge-watch every TV show ever made. (Photo by: Matt Groening/Hulu)
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Tv Hulu’s ‘Futurama’ revival is stuck in the present

Hulu’s ‘Futurama’ revival is stuck in the present

Futurama -- "The Impossible Stream" - Episode 1101 -- Fry risks permanent insanity when he attempts to binge-watch every TV show ever made. (Photo by: Matt Groening/Hulu)

In the first episode of Hulu’s “Futurama” revival, Planet Express delivery guy Fry (Billy West) is stunned to discover that he’s been in Century 3000 for 23 years (whether he hasn’t aged a day is a question not worth thinking about). Faced with an existential crisis from years past, he decides to devote his life’s purpose to watching every TV show ever made, through the use of “the world’s fourth most popular streaming service”, ‘Fulu’.

“The Impossible Stream” takes aim at the evolution of streaming culture that has occurred since “Futurama” left the airwaves in 2013, portraying it as a chaotic and miserable space where people are constantly overworked and absolute trash is shoveled onto platforms to fill their libraries. In a running gag that’s especially relevant now, the soap opera’s “All My Circuits” writing team works to the literal death. Eventually Fry is so overwhelmed by the amount of content to watch that he straps into a “binge” Google suit that directly drills into his brain, allowing him to watch “All My Circuits” in a continuous stream without any interruptions. For the remainder of the episode, Fry disappears, cooped up in the awkward suit without a chance to speak to his loved ones.

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It’s a pretty funny joke. It’s also an apt metaphor for what these new episodes, the first of which debuts Monday on Hulu, do to their characters, burying them in stale modern-day commentary and losing sight of their own identity in the process.

When ‘Futurama’ premiered in 1999, what immediately made the show stand out from other Fox animated series of its genre was the possibilities of its sci-fi setting and the inherent sadness of its premise. In the pilot, Fry, a modern-day pizza slacker, is unknowingly cryogenically frozen and emerges on New Year’s Eve 2999, into a world filled with aliens, robots, and suicide booths. A classic fish out of water, Fry spent the first few episodes struggling to adjust to a world that has passed him by, where the moon – once a symbol of man’s quest to venture into space – has now been reduced to a theme park spewing (inaccurate) trivia about mankind’s first journeys to the stars.

Futurama --
“Futurama” (Photo by: Matt Groening/Hulu)HULU

As the show, created by Matt Groening of ‘The Simpsons’ fame and co-developed with David X. Cohen, evolved over its first season, it quickly proved to be a versatile work, capable of doing many things well. It was great fun, with a nerdy sense of humor and strong sitcom timing. It was often insanely ambitious, with experimental episodes like the parallel universe story “The Farnsworth Parabox” or the dark fever dream “The Sting.” And it turned out to be surprisingly heartfelt and emotional, with episodes like “The Luck of the Fryrish” and “Leela’s Homeworld” bringing in as much drama and character development as they did laughs.

When the show tackled the real world in its first two outings on Fox and Comedy Central, it usually did so through ingenious pop culture pastiches like the iconic “Star Trek” reunion episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” or the “Starship Troopers” parody “War is the H Word.” The rare episodes that have become topical have usually found a way to blend their commentary with the show’s established world — for example, “Proposition Infinity” from the show’s Comedy Central years parodied Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage legislation through a story about relationships between human robots, a taboo in-universe that was first mentioned in the show’s first episode.

Hulu’s revival, however, pounces on the opportunity to comment on hot topics, in a way that feels less like a natural evolution of the series and more insecurity about the show’s perceived irrelevance. Fry’s main arc in the show’s early seasons was learning to accept his circumstances and embrace his new surroundings; new episodes of ‘Futurama’ seem to want to do the same thing while adapting to its new decade, but lose sight of the fundamentals that make it what it is in the process, with character dynamics getting lost in the shuffle and the show’s great expansive universe feeling diminished and woefully mundane. Over the course of the first six episodes of the season, the Planet Express crew makes a huge delivery and doesn’t go beyond the moon; for a show whose ostensible premise focuses on the crew’s interplanetary adventures, that’s not a large percentage of episodes that drop out of the format.

If topical humor managed to seem particularly strong, this approach could be attributed to the show evolving into something new, but instead “Futurama” often feels like it’s trading what made it unique in favor of becoming just another run-of-the-mill animated sitcom. “The Impossible Stream”‘s hand-biting jabs on Hulu recall the continuing jabs of the original Fox run, and its spoof of the industry’s unsustainable working conditions certainly comes at an opportune time, but the execution is tired, forcing characters like Leela (Katey Sagal) and Bender (John DiMaggio) into jokes about the industry that never quite feel true to what we know about them. And all of the satire amounts to very basic variations of jokes that have been made hundreds of times in other streaming comedies like “The Other Two” or Hulu’s “Reboot.”

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“Futurama” (Photo by: Matt Groening/Hulu)HULU

Installments that otherwise have potential become weighed down by the desire to push a topical button; the third episode of the season, “How the West was 1010001,” is mostly an excuse for the cast to play a classic western pastiche, and has some decent fun with references to various classics of the genre. But the entire episode is based on a clumsy cryptocurrency parody, with Farnsworth forcing the crew to travel west so he can literally mine Bitcoin and save the company from bankruptcy. Its satire on the instability of cryptocurrencies seems about a year behind its times, making the story more antiquated than any episode of the show’s 1999 first season.

The most disappointing of the six episodes slated for review is “Related to the Objects You’ve Seen,” which begins with a premise that could serve as a turning point for the core trio of Fry, Leela, and Bender. Fry and Leela’s romantic relationship, always a frustrating “two steps forward one step back” journey, takes a big leap when they finally move in together, causing a rift in their friendship with Bender, who is still living with Fry and starting to feel like a perpetual wheel of the house.

But instead of throwing the trio into a situation that would highlight these new nuances in their dynamics, the episode instead turns its attention to “Momazon,” an Amazon parody retail website, which competes with the smaller Planet Express service and eventually hires Bender into its robotic lab. Various Amazon signatures, including an Alexa pastiche, are grafted into the existing ‘Futurama’ universe, and Mom, a delightfully evil recurring antagonist voiced by the fantastic Tress MacNeille, is awkwardly cast into the role of the parody Bezos, flattening his specificity in the process. None of the episode’s insights — that Amazon drives small businesses into the ground, that AI monitors our every move, that mega-corporations exploit its workers — are harsh or singular enough to warrant sinking Bender’s conflict with Leela and Fry into B-plot territory, when it could easily carry a 25-minute episode on its own.

Not every episode of Hulu’s “Futurama” revival is a complete wash, with episodes prioritizing its characters over references — like “Children of a Lesser Bog,” about Planet Express intern Amy (Lauren Tom) struggling to adjust to motherhood — still retaining flashes of the show’s trademark imagination and ambition. As of right now, only six episodes of the season have been sent to critics; four more will follow until 25 September (a look at the exhibition IMDB extension reveals that future episodes will be titled “Rage Against the Vaccine” and “Zap Gets Canceled,” so perhaps it’s too early to hope that this trend will cease in future episodes), and a 10-episode second part will follow in 2024. But to do so, it would help the creators step out of the year 2023 and start caring more about 3023.

“Futurama” is now streaming on Hulu. New episodes streaming from Monday to September 25th.

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