Futurama tries for a social message, and doesn't quite make it

In last night's Futurama episode, Viva Mars Vegas, the gang decides to pull off a casino heist. Everything about that's fun. But the show also tries to hit a social message — and that's not quite as successful. Also, there's Zoidberg.

We start the episode with a slam on Jar Jar Binks, as the Binks Security Service gets robbed by the Robot Mafia. One could argue that this joke isn't particularly timely. One could also argue that it's never the wrong time to make fun of Jar Jar Binks. Meanwhile, back at Planet Express, the gang is bored, and so they set out for Mars Vegas, which Amy's parents run. Zoidberg is left behind, sitting in a dumpster and reading a newspaper called The Daily Bum Blanket. In his loneliness he prays to God for — we don't know what, because before he can even get the words out, the Robot Mafia sling their bag of cash into the dumpster to hide it from the police. Zoidberg takes the cash, and goes to Mars Vegas.

To Amy's extreme frustration, he lets his money ride on the roulette wheel, where it turns from eight million, to tens of millions, to billions, to nothing.

"See, this is why you never see a poor person with millions of dollars," she says. The show has always leaned on Clueless Rich Girl jokes when it comes to Amy. And quite rightly, too. It's never wrong to make fun of rich people. If they can't take it, who can? In this episode, the jokes skew towards her being more of a clueless and contemptuous rich girl. She's backed up by her clueless and contemptuous parents, who run the money-sucker of the casino while scoffing at the Native Martians who staff it. The Wongs take the gang on a tour through the money counting rooms and the vault.

Futurama tries for a social message, and doesn't quite make itS

As a result of losing all that money, Zoidberg has run afoul of the Robot Mafia, who naturally want it back. They find that they want the casino even more, and they kick the Wongs out. Amy and her parents are forced to live in the substandard housing they built for the Native Martian workers. Poor at last, Amy's brain kicks into gear. She plans out a daring casino heist to steal money back from the mob, and to return the casino to its rightful owners. When the Native Martians, led by the canny Blind Joe, foil the plot, Amy reveals that the rightful owners are the Martians themselves, as revealed by a contract hidden in the safe. Security kicks the mafia out, the Wongs get their money, house, "collection of rare servants," and one of their casinos back, and the Native Martians finally get some money.

I love Futurama, but let's get one thing straight. It's not good at coming up with solutions to social issues. It's better at throwing those social issues into sharp relief. And when I say better, I mean better in all ways — smarter, more perceptive, funnier, and more humanitarian. I loved the initial appearance of the Native Martians. They were mysterious people who lived in the planet's interior, having traded their land for a single bead. When they found out that the bead was a huge diamond, they all got up and left the planet, figuring that they'd be happier somewhere else. Leela asked them about their belief in the sacred land, and they replied that they'd happily buy some other land and pretend it was sacred. With money like that, who was going to argue? I thought the episode was a great send-up of the bland, benign, vaguely-nature-loving portraits of Native Americans that TV shows and movies usually do. Nobody grew or changed much in that episode, but we understood everyone better.

This episode's weakest link was the attempt on the part of the show to set everything right. When it stuck to showing everyone being awful, it was a pretty good episode. They got a little bit of it right with Zoidberg being a reckless, stupid spendthrift, Amy being a clueless condescending twit, and her parents being just shy of pure evil. The best line of the show comes, as usual, from the Professor. He scoffs at the idea that God would give Zoidberg money, and then, when Zoidberg lost everything laughed, "Now that's the God I know!" Yes. And that's the show I know.