Futurama returns tonight on Comedy Central. For those who missed out on this star-spanning animated comedy the first time around, we've got everything you need to know to jump into the show's new season — complete with helpful video.
Considering the last new television episode of Futurama broadcast almost seven years ago, it's certainly understandable that people might need a refresher, or even an introduction on just what this Futurama thing is all about. Helpfully, Comedy Central's official Futurama site has created a seven minute recap of the show's history up to now, narrated by its resident blowhard starship captain, Zapp Brannigan:
If you can't watch the video, here's the quick version of the show's admittedly convoluted story: a pizza delivery boy named Philip J. Fry gets frozen in a Cryogenics Lab on December 31, 1999. He awakens a thousand years later to a world overrun by aliens, robots, and the talking heads of various historical figures. Despite the apparent craziness of his new surroundings, Fry quickly discovers the year 3,000 is a lot like the world he left, and he even manages to get a job from his great-great-great...great-nephew, mad scientist Professor Hubert Farnsworth, as...a delivery boy. Although now he's delivering exotic packages to other planets instead of just pizza, so that's an upgrade.
The pilot episode quickly brings together the show's main characters as the crew of Planet Express delivery service. Along with Fry and the Professor, there's Leela, the ship's sexy cyclops captain and Fry's unrequited love interest; Bender, the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-everything robot who is completely amoral and totally awesome; Dr. Zoidberg, a lobster-like alien who remains totally ignorant of human anatomy, somewhat complicating his work as the crew's doctor; Hermes Conrad, a Jamaican ex-Olympic limboer and now the company's chief bureaucrat; and Amy Wong, the obscenely rich heiress to the Wong family fortune, which includes half of Mars.
With that main cast in place, Futurama settled into a sort of bizarro workplace comedy that was basically a realistic, down-to-earth show that's completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots (to borrow a description from creator Matt Groening's other show.) Indeed, much like The Simpsons before it, Futurama expanded its fictional world into one of TV's richest universes, with dozens of brilliant side-characters, complex mysteries that took entire seasons to pay off, and gags that required a minimum of two Master's Degrees to fully understand.
Indeed, a lot of the show is so complicated and interwoven that it's tough to zero in on a couple threads to explain. (The Futurama wiki The Infosphere is a good place to root around for more on the show, and those looking for concrete examples of what all the fuss is about would do well to check out original series episodes like "Godfellas", "Time Keeps on Slippin'", and "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid.")
Futurama is a show with a robot mafia, a Robot Devil, robot Dickensian street urchins...well, robot everything, really. There's also an alien newsreader who has sworn to destroy Earth, a seemingly sweet old industrialist named Mom who is really an ultra-profane, completely evil tycoon who would give Mr. Burns a run for his money, and a folksy southern lawyer who is just a simple Hyper-Chicken from a backwoods asteroid. And that's not getting into the ancient, mysterious, really cute and tiny race known as the Nibblonians, who devour zebras whole, poop dark matter, and hold the secrets to the universe. Oh, and Fry is actually his own grandfather, thanks to a time travel mishap. Honestly, a lot of this show is better seen than read, if only because I feel faintly ridiculous typing this all out.
So then, if the show was so good - and it was, it really was - how come it got canceled after only four seasons? The show did get decent enough ratings, at least compared to the other non-Simpsons shows in Fox's Sunday animation bloc, but the show never really enjoyed much support from network executives and soon found itself in the absolute worst spot in Fox's schedule: Sunday at 7pm, where it would find itself constantly preempted by football games. It certainly didn't help that Futurama was very expensive to produce, what with its extensive use of CGI and predilection for eye-popping visuals. At a time when Fox executives were in the mood to cancel shows prematurely (they also axed Family Guy around the same time, and that show was never heard from again, ever), Futurama was a goner.
Of course, as with most things that are both science fiction and gone too soon, a massive cult following developed, and the show's DVD sales were strong enough to warrant four new direct-to-DVD movies produced by the show's new rights owner Comedy Central. Although these movies weren't quite up to the standard of the original show at its best (with the possible exception of the first entry, Bender's Big Score), they were good enough to warrant Comedy Central picking up the show for a full twenty-six episode season, which begins tonight. And that, more or less, is how we got to here.