Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost story

Yesterday's Futurama gave us an old-fashioned story of robots haunting humans, complete with the return of the Robot Devil, the introduction of the Space Amish, and vengeance from beyond the grave...or, in this case, from beyond the global wireless network.

While attending the Parade Day parade, Fry becomes a hero for saving the life of a nerdy human. However, Fry was forced to let a nerdy robot die during his bravery, and Bender demands to know whether Fry considers robot life equal to human life. When Fry tells him he doesn't, Bender decides to kill himself once and for all. His software gets stuck in an infinite loop on the world's wireless network, become the robot equivalent of a ghost...and only the Robot Devil can see him.

Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost storyS

Both Bender and the Robot Devil want revenge on Fry, so the Robot Devil makes a deal with Bender to give him his body back once he literally scares Fry to death. Bender manages to scare Fry almost to death, and his former friend flees to the machine-free Amish home world to escape all the haunted technology. Bender realizes the error of his ways and goes with Fry to keep him company, albeit in a ghostly, insubstantial sort of way. But the Robot Devil still wants his revenge...

This is a decent enough episode of Futurama. It features a great return appearance from Dan Castalleneta - Homer Simpson himself! - as the Robot Devil, and he's as fun as ever in the role. There are some nice callbacks to the excellent first season episode "Hell is Other Robots" - including a brief reprise of that episode's big song - and the Fox series finale "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings."

Indeed, a key plot point takes Bender right back to his introduction in "Space Pilot 3000", as he finally completes his transaction at the Suicide Booth...who, it should be pointed out, he used to date, in yet another fun example of Bender romancing things that are kind of physically impossible to romance.

Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost storyS

Then there's the Space Amish. They're a fun concept - I'm a sucker for a horse-drawn, wooden spaceship - and they offer an interesting take on what a sect already a couple centuries behind the times might be like a thousand years from now. The episode didn't feature a ton of great jokes, but the Professor got in a couple nice one-liners, particularly in his reaction to the robot psychic. I enjoyed the half-hour I spent watching this episode. However, I think you all know there's a "but..." coming here, so let's get right to it.

But...this episode felt just a little too ordinary. What I mean by that is this entire episode could be rewritten so that it takes place in a show set in the present day - albeit one with supernatural elements - and the whole thing would still more or less work. The Robot Devil doesn't do anything the human devil (or whatever we're calling him) wouldn't do in a fantasy episode of some contemporary sit-com, and the fact that he and Bender are robots feels superfluous to the story being told. (And while I did love the Space Amish, they could pretty easily have been moved back to Lancaster County without really affecting anything.)

Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost storyS

That, I would argue, is a problem. What sets Futurama apart, on some level, is the uniqueness of its setting, and for all the pop culture references to 20th and 21st century stuff (which I could do without, but I've learned to live with), the best Futurama episodes are ones that could only ever work on this particular show. For what it's worth, I think you could also level much the same critique at other weaker episodes like "That's Lobstertainment", "A Leela of Her Own", and "Attack of the Killer App", all of which could more or less be set in the 2000's without much trouble. When this show steps too far away from the 31st century, the stories tend to suffer.

That's part of why I liked last week's "Neutopia" and "Benderama" - neither of which are classics - more than "Ghost in the Machines." While neither is perfect, their stories of gender-swapping, rock aliens, gray goo, and space giants could only really be found on Futurama, and would have to be altered probably beyond recognition to make them fit on any other show. At the risk of being horribly vague, there's something inherently Futurama-y about them that I just didn't find with this week's episode.

"Ghost in the Machines" is obviously not an episode grounded in reality - it is a ghost story, after all - but it doesn't really feel like a Futurama spin on a ghost story. (For a good example of that, I'd point you towards "The Honking", in which the crew go to the robot equivalent of Transylvania and Bender becomes a werecar.) Instead of offering a twisted, sci-fi spin on the tired ghost story, this just sort of felt like a tired old ghost story.

Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost storyS

Ultimately, there's three basic things that can make a Futurama episode compelling to me: the humor, the sci-fi concepts, and the characters, in roughly that order. Personally, I didn't find the episode all that funny - obviously, comedy being subjective and all, some of you may disagree, and you might have liked the episode more than I did as a result. I didn't see a lot of big sci-fi ideas on display here, although I will say that I quite liked the Space Amish and Bender's relationship with the Suicide Booth. So that just leaves the characters...and that's my other problem with this episode.

It's absolutely possible to build a compelling episode around Bender's character. "Godfellas" is the big example, but there's also "30% Iron Chef" and even last week's "Benderama." Still, his complete amorality and purposefully inconsistent personality makes it more difficult to find emotional resonance in him than with, say, Fry. The trick with Bende, I'd say, is to zero in on one particular aspect of his character and stick with it for the episode.

Futurama serves up a frustratingly ordinary robot ghost storyS

Here, I guess that aspect would be his murderous rage towards Fry, which perhaps understandably the writers didn't want to place too front and center. But we don't get much of a sense of who Bender is here, and the return of some overused catchphrases like "Oh, this guy" and "I'm back, baby!" don't help the sense that the writers don't have a strong handle on Bender in this episode. He feels like a cipher, and not a particularly compelling one.

Again, I enjoyed "Ghost in the Machines" well enough. I'd rate it a slightly below-average episode, but a slightly below-average episode of Futurama isn't such a terrible thing. But I do think the show has lost a bit of the momentum it had at the end of last season, and I'd like to see them pick up the pace a bit in the coming weeks. Looking at the descriptions for upcoming episodes, I'm optimistic. If this ends up being the worst episode of the season, that won't even remotely be a bad thing.