Futurama's return doesn't play it safeS

Futurama returned last night with two new episodes that made the most of the troubled series' latest resurrection. The episodes, while occasionally uneven, were crammed with absurd jokes, stem cells, cartoon nudity, and a potential new Eve (AKA Leela).

The first episode, aptly titled "Rebirth", charts out the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the last DVD movie, which found the Planet Express Crew on the run from Zapp Brannigan and the Nimbus. They unwittingly flee into the Panama Wormhole, which takes them right back to Earth, but things go from bad to fatal as the two ships crash and explode upon reentry. Professor Farnsworth is able to use stem cells to resurrect everyone except Leela, who is left in an irreversible coma. A distraught Fry makes a robot replica of his lost love, who is seemingly a perfect duplicate...until the real Leela reawakens, at which point things get more complicated. A lot more complicated.

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela", the second episode, begins with the status quo more or less restored, as President Nixon and Zapp Brannigan enlist the Professor's help to destroy a Death Sphere headed towards Earth. Zapp and Leela pilot the Professor's invisible stealth fighter inside the sphere, but they are attacked and forced to crash down on an uninhabited paradise planet. Leela finds herself trapped under a fallen tree, forcing her to depend on Zapp for her survival. Soon stripped down to nothing but some modesty-preserving fig leaves, the pair start to work through their past differences, particularly when the Earth's destruction at the hands of the Death Sphere forces Leela to ponder whether this planet is their own Garden of Eden, and whether she and Zapp are now humanity's Adam and Eve. Except, things then get more complicated...again. A lot more complicated...also again.

Futurama has never shied away from non-linear storytelling and insane twists that reveal everything isn't as it seems, and both these first two episodes have that in spades. It's not a bad gambit - it's produced some of the show's finest efforts, such as "The Sting" and Bender's Big Score, pulled off with aplomb - and if nothing else, they pretty much require you rewatch the episodes to see how well the twists were signposted. (The answer for both: quite well indeed.) Of the two, the twist for "Rebirth" is probably a little better, if only because it's way more audacious.

You see, Fry didn't really survive the explosion along with the Professor - he actually sacrificed himself so that Leela could live, leaving nothing but charred hair behind that were beyond the stem cells' abilities to repair. So it was actually Leela who made a Fry robot, but a second explosion killed Leela and left the Fry-bot burned and without its short-term memory. As such, we don't see the real Fry until the very end of the episode, finally allowing the love triangle between Leela, the Leela-bot, and Fry who's really the Fry-bot to resolve itself. By comparison, the second episode's big reveal - that Zapp is lying about just about everything, including the destruction of Earth, to get Leela to think he's worth having sex with - seems almost mundane by comparison. It's also a bit more of a cheat, as a lot of it hinges on Leela being too delirious to realize what's really going on, and we the audience are only shown that same limited viewpoint.

That said, the main appeal of Futurama really ought to be its jokes, and these are generally fairly solid. These episodes don't have some of the giant laugh lines that we've seen in other episodes - Bender and Zoidberg are both relatively sidelined and don't get in their usual allotment of one-liners, and there isn't a delightfully insane side character like Hedonism-Bot or the Hyper-Chicken to come in and liven things up. Bender is used well in the first episode in a subplot where a life-saving power source is giving him dangerous amounts of excess energy, forcing him to party constantly. It never quite works as a main joke - its use as the first act break particularly falls flat - but it gets works much better when we see it in the background, as Bender constantly dancing in establishing shots just gets funnier and funnier (not to mention cuter and cuter).

In fact, the funniest lines in the first episode probably come from the self-consciously ludicrous exposition. "Rebirth" is a ridiculously overstuffed adventure, with at least an hour's worth of plot crammed into twenty-two minutes, and does it ever show. Thankfully, the writers manage to turn this into a perverse strength by constantly throwing in lines that acknowledge just how quickly they're jumping from plot point to plot point and just how little sense any of this really makes. The sheer breakneck pace of "Rebirth" manages to paper over a lot of its potential weaknesses.

"In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela" also feels overstuffed, but it doesn't get around this problem quite so well. There's at least two episodes worth of material here, and I'm not sure it served either plot line particularly well by trying to combine them into one. Matt Groening has said he wanted to parody the hoary old science fiction trope where two stranded astronauts discover they're really Adam and Eve (The Twilight Zone did this exact story during its decline phase), but the Eden elements get largely overshadowed by Zapp's manipulations. The talking snake, for instance, gets pretty unceremoniously dropped, and it might have been better to drop the B-story with the rest of the Planet Express Crew so that Leela and Zapp's story could have more time to breathe.

Similarly, the Professor's attempts to stop the Death Sphere, which he identifies by the mysterious nameplate "V-Giny" (shades of the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture there), feel a bit underdeveloped. The eventual reveal that the sphere is the lethal combination of a US Air Force defense satellite and an FCC V-Chip satellite is satisfying enough, but the episode could have done a lot more with this idea. His attempts to get the Earth to stop swearing seem a bit rushed and perfunctory, and it seems like a huge missed opportunity that we never see President Nixon's reaction to the Professor's proclamation. The final revelation that V-Giny is, for all its puritanical censorship, kind of a pervert itself (backed up by enlisting one of TV's greatest perverts, Chris Elliot, to do the voice) is a funny idea, but the show doesn't quite hammer the joke home enough for it to really play.

Still, there's a lot here to like, particularly on a second viewing. (I liked "Rebirth" in particular quite a bit more when I watched it a second time.) It's still pretty much the same old Futurama, as absurd and beautiful and daring as ever. (It's also a bit coarser in its language and a lot more willing to break out the nudity, as pretty much every character gets naked multiple times.) It's not quite as funny just yet, but there's more than enough here for me to be very optimistic about what the next twenty-four episodes have in store.