Futurama returns with a crash course in gender studies and nanotechnology

Yesterday's episodes of Futurama gave us an intentionally cliched battle of the sexes, followed by the ultimate tribute to Bender's world-destroying laziness. While neither episode was perfect, they provided a funny, thought-provoking, and wonderfully disturbing launch for the latest season.

Futurama begins its latest 13-episode season in quite possibly the strongest position it has ever been in. Thanks to Comedy Central's additional 26-episode order, last night's episodes are the first of thirty-nine guaranteed new episodes. It's only taken twelve years, but the show is finally playing from a position of strength, and I think we've officially reached the point where we can stop worrying about the show's cancellation. That's a weird thought - after all, clamoring for the show's survival has been pretty much a way of life for Futurama fans for nearly a decade. But still, while I'm optimistic Futurama has quite a few more seasons left in it, if the show does wrap up for good in 2013 after 140 episodes, I'd be perfectly satisfied with that result. So then, fresh with this new, more contented outlook about the show's future, let's examine last night's episodes.

In "Neutopia", Planet Express is once again on the verge of going out of business. The men, who are apparently in a misogynistic mood this week, exploit a rule in the company contracts that forces Leela and Amy (and Hermes's wife, the newly hired LaBarbara) to pose for a nude calendar. When this idea fails, the Professor steals Leela's idea and turns Planet Express into an interstellar airline. The ship crashes onto a planet inhabited by strange, genderless rock creatures, and one of these aliens runs a series of experiments to better understand why humans have genders. After judging genders to be nothing but trouble, the alien turns the crew into neutered versions of themselves, and then accidentally swaps everyone's gender when he's asked to change them back.

Futurama has played around with gender stereotypes before, most notably in "Amazon Women in the Mood" and "Bend Her." Like those earlier efforts, "Neutopia" makes it clear that the men of Planet Express are raging chauvinists, and they're very clearly being huge jerks that we're not in any way supposed to root for. To a certain extent, we're running into the problem of diminishing returns here - the first half of the episode, which is taken up with a lot of pointedly over-the-top sexist jokes, doesn't do much that those earlier episodes hadn't done before. This line of humor also forces most of the cast to be, if not exactly out of character — you could definitely argue that at least Bender and the Professor are always this horrible — then at least playing up their most unpleasant qualities.

Futurama returns with a crash course in gender studies and nanotechnologyS

Still, I actually enjoyed "Neutopia" a whole lot, and much of that has to do with the rock alien. It's the rare all-powerful being that's also a bit of an idiot, and its tests of gender superiority (starting with "Who can drink the most sulfur?" and then "Who can drink the most arsenic?") are hilariously terrible. Again, this is treading into familiar territory for Futurama - a lone omnipotent alien playing around with humans recalls Melllvar in "Where No Fan Has Gone Before" - but this feels like a fresh take on the old trope.

The alien is an amusingly easygoing creature, so casually accepting of its own shortcomings as a super-being, and Maurice LaMarche really lifts up the episode with his performance. The neutered and gender-reversed humans were also a highlight. Honestly, these really should have taken up a lot more of the episode, and delving deeper into these concepts might have knocked "Neutopia" up a notch. If nothing else, I did love how deliciously disgusting the second calendar shoot at the end of the episode really was. As Leela observed, "Thank god most of our fans are huge perverts." Indeed we are, and I for one am damn proud of it.

Futurama returns with a crash course in gender studies and nanotechnologyS

"Neutopia" also highlights one of the more interesting aspects about Futurama - for all its science fiction trappings, its sense of humor is often weirdly old-fashioned. This episode relies on going through every gender stereotype in the book, no matter how old and hackneyed, to the point that it somewhat diffuses a lot of the potential offensiveness. Of course the men don't ask for directions when their lives depend on it, and of course the women hallucinate a shopping center. It's not just the gender humor that falls into this category - Futurama often gets away with lightning-fast plot developments and hugely unlikely twists by calling attention to how ludicrous they are.

If done right, the whole thing is meant to play as one huge meta-joke in which a big part of the humor comes from how bad a lot of the gags actually are (Hermes and LaBarbara's tortured puns also fall into this category). I don't think it quite works as well as it needs to, and there are moments when the layers of irony break down and a joke that does feel vaguely sexist slips through, but overall I was highly amused and only ever so slightly offended, which isn't such a bad thing for comedy anyway.

"Benderama" is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: "The Farnsworth Parabox" did this with alternate universes, Bender's Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and "The Prisoner of Benda" focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn...well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt's hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

Futurama returns with a crash course in gender studies and nanotechnologyS

Part of what makes this episode fun is that the grey goo dilemma is such a natural outgrowth of his character. The entire Earth is at risk of destruction because Bender is simply too lazy to fold a couple sweaters, and because all the Benders are far too amoral to look past their own immediate needs. Even when the microscopic horde of Benders comes together to save the world from the space giant, Bender can only see it as an abject lesson in never attacking people more handsome than oneself.

Bender's utter narcissism and irresponsibility is pushed to its logical extreme here and then several light-years beyond, as even after the Bender goo has departed Earth he still keeps one around to fold his sweaters, meaning Earth will never escape the scourge of infinite microscopic Benders. (Well, at least not until next week.) I also loved Bender's bizarre conception of math, in which any one thing - including saving the world - is easier than doing two things, such as folding the Professor's new sweaters.

Futurama returns with a crash course in gender studies and nanotechnologyS

On balance, "Bendarama" is one of those Futurama episodes that gets by more on its ideas than its jokes. There are some funny moments here - Patton Oswalt is a delight as a space giant trying desperately to remain well-adjusted in the face of a cruel universe, Morbo and Linda get some great moments, and I will never get enough of the show's Twilight Zone pastiches in the form of The Scary Door - but I'm having a hard time thinking of too many quotable lines, even after watching the episode twice.

For most comedy shows, that would be a pretty big problem, but then most comedy shows don't build stories around divergent series or feature subatomic versions of a main character turning the entire world's water supply into booze. No show goes deeper into hardcore science territory than Futurama, and certainly no other show is as wonderfully irreverent about it. It's not quite enough for me to consider "Benderama" a classic - not when I can point to the likes of "The Farnsworth Parabox" and "The Prisoner of Benda" as superior examples of this type of episode - but it's still a lot of fun and, along with "Neutopia", a worthy beginning for this latest (but definitely not the last) batch of episodes.