Futurama's season finale saved the best for last, with three absolutely hysterical pastiches of classic black-and-white cartoons, 8-bit video games, and - in one of the greatest segments in Futurama history - every possible cliche of ludicrous, poorly dubbed anime.
Seriously, I can't stress enough how amazing the anime section was - you can see some video proof up top. Let's quickly run through the premise of "Reincarnation" - as our old friend the Godlike Space Entity explains, reincarnation is always a possibility, and so we're treated to three bold reimaginings of the Futurama gang. Each of the stories revolve around a comet made of solid diamondium. In the black-and-white cartoon, Fry wants to use it as a engagement ring for Leela; in the video game, the Professor uses a chunk of it to solve all the mysteries of the universe; and in the anime segment, it's worshiped by some aliens that communicate only by dancing, only the comet gets destroyed so they attack Earth, and then our heroes get defeated, so they have to find a way to dance a peace...ah, forget it. Like all good (and by "good", I mean "bad") anime, the plot is completely incomprehensible. But that really, really doesn't matter.
I'm no expert on the form, but I know enough about anime to know that it was pitch-perfect. The impenetrable storytelling, the absurdly convoluted backstory, the stilted translations (and even worse subtitles), the random kid/seal sidekick combo, the half-assed attempt to hide the fact that it's clearly Japanese, the recycled footage (including the same Japanese temple doubling for both Rockefeller Center and all of Omaha, Nebraska), the constant inexplicable laughter...everything about it was just incredible. The animators even managed to make the dialogue intentionally out-of-sync, which I have to imagine was an absolute nightmare to pull off. And I just could not get enough of the running gag in which clearly Japanese locations were passed off as American landmarks.
Special mention has to go to David Herman, who steps in as the voice of the Professor and completely nails the shouty, no-nonsense dickishness of the fearless leader. His random declaration that the movement analyzer "was a gift from my ancestors...go on" is quite possibly my favorite line of the season - both the writing and delivery perfectly capture something that is desperately trying to be a facsimile of American TV, and just failing miserably. John DiMaggio is the other actor who really gets the cadences of a lousy dub, rushing his overwritten English lines to fit over the more terse Japanese originals.
This segment was, quite simply, a triumph. I haven't seen Futurama in such a sustained comic groove since "The Prisoner of Benda" last season, and honestly there's only a handful of setpieces from the original series that can match this burst of concentrated hilarity. Hell, I kind of wish this was the last episode ever, because "Action Delivery Force" would be a surprisingly perfect capstone for the series.
The other two segments, the black-and-white "Colorama" and the retro video game "Future Challenge 3000", can't quite measure up to the big finale, but that's no knock on either of them. They're both fantastic in their own right, and anything with Stephen Hawking - second only to Al Gore on the all-time guest voice rankings - saying "I checked the invariance of your Lagrangian - hubba hubba" is already well on its way to classic territory. But really, this is one episode that pretty much just speaks for itself. Let's check out the Walt Disney, Max Fleischer inspired antics of "Colorama"...
Followed by the 8-bit silliness of "Future Challenge 3000"...
Look, if I strain, I guess I can find a couple minor criticisms. The first two segments use styles that the show has explored before - "Colorama" recalls the beginning of The Beast with a Billion Backs and Zapp Brannigan's fantasies in "In a Gadda da Leela", while "Future Challenge 3000" covers some of the same territory as the video game parody in "Anthology of Interest II." And, while the first and third segments tell stories that feel true to their eras, I'm less sure that the Professor's search for ultimate knowledge quite syncs up with the plots of 8-bit video games. That said, it's a damn fine story, and really, these are all quibbles.
There isn't much more to say beyond the fact that this was very, very funny, and that it'll take a far braver soul than I to annotate the metric ton of references contained within. There's a neat running gag here about how the characters can see things that we, due to the limitations of the various forms, can only imagine, and I'm easily enough of a nerd to get a giddy thrill whenever Stephen Hawking shows up. (And, in case anyone was wondering, yes, like all previous Hawking appearances, he really did type out all his lines.)
"Reincarnation" is a spectacular end to the latest run of Futurama, not to mention this elongated, two-year production season. Overall, I'd say it's the third stone cold classic of the run, joining "The Late Philip J. Fry" and "The Prisoner of Benda." Leaving "Reincarnation" aside, I'd point to "Möbius Dick" as my personal favorite of the 2011 episodes, with "Law and Oracle" and "Silence of the Clamps" two of the funniest, "Benderama" and "Overclockwise" the most thought-provoking, and "All the Presidents' Heads" the most gleefully bizarre...and no, I'm not 100% sure that's a good thing.
I'd say this season didn't reach the same highs as the last batch - I might have to rank "Möbius Dick", much as I love it, behind five episodes from last year, including "Proposition Infinity", "A Clockwork Origin", and "The Mutants are Revolting." That said, I found this season more consistently entertaining than the last, and "Ghost in the Machines" was really the only misfire, and hardly a painful one at that. I couldn't call this a great season, both in comparison to what's come before and simply on its own merits, but there's still a ton here that I enjoyed. And, quite frankly, "Reincarnation" justified this season's existence pretty much single-handed. Everything else, I'm willing to consider a bonus.