Yes, yes, it's a high bar. Futurama has a history of great anthology shows that deal out daring stories. Still, the last episode of the season leaps nimbly over that bar and lands with its hands, flippers, and fins triumphantly in the air. Futurama goes absolutely friggin' nuts over nature documentaries and it's grim and great.
Last night's Futurama finale was two episodes back-to-back. I can see why they nestled the first episode in there. Despite having the greatest Star Trek captain ever voicing on of the characters (although I was sad I didn't get to hear him say, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."), 31st Century Fox was a lackluster episode. Through various contrivances, the gang finds themselves at a fox hunt. Leela is against fox hunting, and it's a lot of fun to see the Hunt Master (voiced by the great Patrick Stewart) and his courtly way of pushing her into a ditch. When it turns out to be a robot fox, Leela is fine with the hunting, but Bender finds he suddenly cares about animal rights. The fox hunters end up hunting Bender, and the Planet Express gang, led by Leela, end up vengefully hunting down the destructive robot fox. The episode has a few good written signs and visual gags, like Bender trying to change his scent using "Newmar's Own Catnip," but it's never going to be on anyone's top ten, or even top fifty, list of episodes.
The second episode, "Naturama," is fan-freaking-tastic. Several times during the first segment of the three-part anthology, the people in the room with me turned to each other and said, "This is weird." Not in a hostile way, or even a confused way, but in a way that meant that this was different from anything we'd seen before. And if Futurama is meant, as a show, to do one thing, it's to show us stuff we've never seen on other shows.
The anthology is framed as a nature documentary, "Mutual of Omicron Presents Wild Universe." The first segment has the Futurama gang as salmon. It then shows the life cycle of salmon, throwing in a star-crossed love story of Fry and Leela as salmon from different streams who wish to spawn together. A villainous Zapp salmon is waiting in the wings to be Leela's lover when Fry's nature won't let him follow Leela to her spawning grounds, and there are cameos by Lrrr and NdNd as bears. The second involves the plight of Hubert, the Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise, trying to find the only other tortoise of his subspecies on the island. The last story has beta male elephant seal Kiff going up against Bender the Beachmaster for the love of Amy.
The fact that the show's writers clearly decided to jettison the "future" theme of the show entirely so they could write hilarious stories is great. It lets us see the same characters in a new light. There's plenty of comedy fodder in the actual animals themselves, but the real stand-out is the narration of the nature documentary about them. It mocks the semi-pretentiousness of most nature narrations, which break in with a rhapsodic descriptions of what's happening when you just want to watch the show. ("Looming ahead is nature's waterfall: The Cliff of the Waters.") More importantly, it punctures the great, mystic, "circle of life," stuff that nature shows spout, and openly admits that nature is pretty nasty. The best parts are the conclusions: "And so the endless cycle of life comes to an end - meaningless and grim. Why did they live and why did they die? No reason. . . . For in the end, nature is horrific and teaches us nothing."