Being Careful About What You Wish For

Bender's Big Score1

“We’re back, baby!” – Bender

Futurama is coming back.  The news broke a couple of days ago, and plenty of different outlets used the same hook.  Our beloved SimpsonsChannel:

Good news, everyone! Collider.com reports today that an inside source tells them that another season of Futurama may be coming soon to Comedy Central.

The Nintendians at N-Philes:

Good News, Everyone! Futurama To Make A Return

Even The New York Times couldn’t resist.  Though, being the Times, they had to give it some preparatory context:

In the immortal words of Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Good news, everyone! The animated science-fiction comedy “Futurama,” below, will be getting a new lease on life at Comedy Central

It even translates into Czech:

Good news, everyone, pozdraví zase Hubert J. Farnsworth svého příbuzného z minulosti Philipa J. Frye a vyšle ho s dalšími exoty na novou krkolomnou misi coby doručovatele v zásilkové společnosti Planet Express, která šílenému profesorovi vydělává peníze pro vědeckou činnost.

So, lots of people are happy that Futurama is coming back with a full 26 episode season set to begin next year.  Of course, the more circumspect are at least expressing some caution.  Svip at Futurama Madhouse writes:

But not everyone is cheering, and not just because they are pessimists, even the optimists are using caution. If you have paid any attention to a Futurama community lately, and by lately I mean since the release of Bender’s Big Score, you would have noticed a certain… opinion on the four films.

And that opinion pretty simply sums up to that the four films are not en par with the original four seasons. Not as clever plots, not as good laughs, too much canon contradiction, excessive use of reset buttons, more creepy than entertaining, and so on. Generally, the four films, while most welcome by the fans, they are still not seen as being on the same level as season 1 to 4.

So the main concern becomes; will season 6 be on the same level as the films?

Svip concludes that the pessimism isn’t warranted because Futurama has always worked best in 22 minute chunks.  The movies, which were essentially four 22-minute episodes smashed together (so they could be chopped up for syndication), were simply the wrong format.  It’s a good point and I basically agree, but I’m not going to let go of my wariness just yet.

A creative endeavor like Futurama isn’t something you can just turn on and off with a light switch (Cue Cletus: Duh, light switch?).  Creating something as clever, funny and original as Futurama requires a lot of elements to fall into place, and not all of them can be controlled.  Some of it is just luck and random timing.

The obvious parallel here is the decomposition of The Simpsons into Zombie Simpsons, but there are a lot of other examples as well.  Think of all the crappy movie sequels that didn’t need to be made.  Think of novelists who keep using the same characters.  Even keeping the principal people on a project is no guarantee of success.  Look at the “Matrix” sequels, look at Spider-man 3, hell, look at Ghostbusters 2.  I’m a fan of that film, but there’s no way it’s on the same level as the original.  Fiction tends to go downhill, whatever the format.

That basic principle applies to television series, only instead of sequels it’s extra seasons.  Again, the obvious example is Zombie Simpsons, but how many television shows just lingered too damn long?  There’s a reason the phrase “jumped the shark” gained such widespread acceptance.  Whether it’s The Flintstones bringing in Gazoo or a comedy becoming a soap opera (looking at you NBC), or a drama reaching ludicrous new heights to keep the action building.  Shows get tired all the time.

It can happen for a lot of different reasons, but any ongoing creative project is vulnerable to it.  Plots become increasingly far fetched in an attempt to show the audience something new.  Characters develop enormous back stories which must either be respected (constraining what they can do) or ignored (which often angers fans).  Every fictional world gradually becomes crowded with its own past.

Futurama is well protected against a lot of that.  The universe it inhabits is essentially infinite (they can always go to a new planet).  There are a lot of multifaceted characters (inside and outside Planet Express).  And the show isn’t overly sentimental with its characters (Fry and Leela may be in love, but Bender will always be an asshole).

Nevertheless, bad things can happen, and fictions that are at their best in the later iterations are the exception, not the rule.  I’m certainly looking forward to new Futurama, it was still going strong when it got canned, but I won’t be surprised if the magic is gone.

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