Futurama had some mighty big shoes to fill, so to speak. Coming from the same (twisted) mind that brought the Simpson family to the world, comparisons between the two shows are inevitable. And while Futurama may not have developed (yet) the razor-sharp wit that helped make The Simpsons so wildly successful, the series is coming along and finding its own voice.
Whereas The Simpsons takes on modern life from the “inside” perspective of what is supposed to be a typical suburban family, Futurama uses its premise to great effect to take an ironic and satirical look at our life from an outside perspective. Here’s the basic set-up: a 20th century pizza delivery boy (Fry) is accidentally cryogenically frozen (don’t ask) on New Year’s Eve 1999-2000 and wakes up in the year 3000. He winds up as a delivery boy for the Planet Express delivery service, working with a misanthropic robot who makes Bart Simpson look like Gandhi by comparison, a one-eyed alien “babe” (voiced by Katey Segal) and an assortment of other eccentric humans and aliens.
A particularly clever gag throughout the series has been the famous “heads in a jar.” Sure, it’s a convenient plot device to allow current celebrities to play themselves. My favorite so far is seeing Bob Barker’s head in a jar hosting an intergalactic beauty pageant (think Miss Universe meets Star Wars). And, like The Simpsons, sometimes the funniest gags come not from what is said, but from a quick visual image that might be easy to overlook. Such was the case when an exhibit of some of the most celebrated evil and demented “heads in jars” from the 20th century included Matt Groening.
Futurama’s greatest asset is the even greater freedom the premise gives the writers and animators to develop wild characters and worlds. Cartoons by their nature allow for more creativity, and when your setting is a thousand years in the future and your boundaries are as limitless as the universe you can imagine, it is a free for all of the imagination. In that regard, the show can stand apart from its older sibling (no slouch in the imagination department itself!) and play with the boundaries of the world even more.
Where the series has some room to develop is in adding some depth to the main cast of characters. This may come in time, just as it did with The Simpsons. The core Simpson family members have deceptively rich and complex personas. Futurama by contrast has relied more on broadly drawn characterizations without much substance to them. That’s not a negative reflection on the wit and creativity of the show. Rather, it is just to say that with more fully developed characters, that creativity would have even greater comic results.
Futurama makes a fine companion to The Simpsons, and I do hope that Fox keeps Futurama as part of the Sunday night line-up (though during the NFL season, that seems questionable). It’s filled with clever writing and animation, and definitely worth watching regularly. Like The Simpsons, this is a comedy primarily for older audiences, and is not always appropriate for younger viewers. Parents should use the same caution they would apply to any other program, animated or not.
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