“Choke on that, causality!” – Professor Farnsworth
The Futurama gang has traveled back in time on several occasions and by several different methods, but usually when they do they manage to find something a lot more interesting than in Simpsorama. They’ve looted ancient treasures, gone back to the American Revolution, and been in and around December 31st, 1999 more times than I can count. But for an episode that goes and stays in (relatively) contemporary America, the best comparison is easily Roswell That Ends Well.
Both episodes put Fry, Leela, Bender and the Professor in fish-out-of-water situations, but Roswell That Ends Well not only gives them something meaningful to do along the way, it also puts them in an actually interesting place with actually interesting characters. Simpsorama has dull characters lurch from one unconnected situation to the next, never developing any kind of momentum (story wise or comedy wise).
For starters, just look at the characters we get to see. Simpsorama has the one-note remains of Professor Frink making lots of weird noises because that’s his catchphrase. Roswell That Ends Well has all the government scientists who become increasingly frustrated in their attempts to study and dissect Zoidberg. One of these gives you “glaven flaven” for fifteen seconds, the other gives you “Uh, it’s free” when Zoidberg thinks their experiment is a buffet, “the same deviled egg” during their old fashioned alien autopsy, and “The President is gagging on my gas bladder. What an honor.”
Is President Truman coming on to Dr. Zoidberg? He’s not hearing a no.
Similarly, the entire Simpson family doesn’t possess nearly as much character as Fry’s grandparents. While they can be secretly gay, get blown up in an atomic blast, sleep with their own time traveling grandson, and hear about how the implosion trigger functioned perfectly, the Simpson family has become so flat that they can do little more than repeat catchphrases, or, as the case may be, catch-actions: with Homer strangling Bart-clones being something they thought so funny that they twice did it repeatedly.
The respective settings are just as divergent. Springfield is a shell of itself at this point. The long established locales (Moe’s, Barney’s Bowlarama) don’t have anything left to offer, which is why all they could think to do in both was have Bender extend his arms. There’s something we’ve never seen in either place: a robot from the future with really long arms!
The new spots, this mysterious horse track and (just for the hell of it) Panucci’s Pizza, were there as filler and fan service. The first was another interchangeable locale for Bender to be a jerk, which would be fine in a regular episode but feels, shall we say, a bit undercooked in a long promised crossover. The second was a quick and nonsensical reminder of one of Futurama‘s most memorable moments. It didn’t need to be there, but it did check one more item off the “let’s cram stuff in” list, so I guess there’s that.
By contrast, in Roswell That Ends Well, we get an almost Simpsonized version of a post-war 1940s military base. There’s the Sgt. Carter like lunatic NCO who wants to eat in the latrine, the obsession with secrecy that leads to shipping President Truman in a wooden crate marked “Canned Eggs”, and the blundering ignorance of the top military officials who can’t understand a theft minded robot carcass or a lonely and annoyingly talkative crustacean. The whole thing is classic fish-out-of-water comedy and it provides plenty of opportunities for the characters to act like it (“You really don’t cook enough roasts, Leela.”). Having Bender fit in at a few random Springfield locales isn’t.
The same is true of the Simpson family after they get sucked into the future (for some reason). While there, they spend most of their time sitting around a table before easily herding the previously uncontrollable Bart-clones into Madison Cube Garden in time for the ending. Sure, they went to the future, but we don’t get to see them do much, and since there isn’t much to do, the jokes are predictably lame:
Marge: Homer works at a nuclear plant. He can help us get home.
Professor Farnsworth: Oh, are you good at your job?
Homer: I was voted employee of the month as an April Fool’s Day joke. [resume strangling]
Lisa: Attention goblins, Madison Cube Garden is filled with Butterfinger bars, and people are laying fingers all over them.
It’s the usual litany of weak Zombie Simpsons writing (expository background, general nonsense, and Sitcom 101 setup-punchline-laugh crap), it just happens to be in the future.
Here you go, fans. Enjoy it.
To see how all of that stuff ads up to such weak television, just compare the two endings. In both, Bender is stuck a thousand years in the past. Here’s how it plays out in Zombie Simpsons:
Lisa: Wait, wait, wait! You’re the portal? How are you gonna get to the future?
Bender: The old fashioned way.
At that latest expository question and answer, Bender turns himself off for a thousand years. In Futurama, we see the crew rescue Bender’s body and Zoidberg, steal the microwave dish they need, and then blast their way out of the base. Bender’s head plummets back to Earth as he tells 1947 to kiss his shiny metal ass. The episode has already shown us what’s happening, so we don’t need it explained, and we get a context appropriate, and extra bitter, rendition of Bender’s favorite saying.
When things get around to wrapping up, we also get two very different actions. In Zombie Simpsons, Homer pours a beer into Bender’s deactivated head. Bender replies, “Thanks, buddy.” In Futurama, the crew finds Bender’s head and “rescues” him from what they think of as a thousand years of lonely torment:
Fry: Bender, what was it like lying in that hole for a thousand years?
Bender: I was enjoying it until you guys showed up.
So were we, Bender. So were we.