The Re-Return of Futurama

If you've ever been a fan of a science fiction TV show that aired on a major broadcast network, you know the drill by now. More often than not, the show will premiere in a cushy slot with average to above-average fanfare, and then one of the following things happen:
  • Its ratings will falter and it disappears before the end of the season;
  • Its ratings falter and it's moved to a crappy, obscure time slot and then it permanently disappears;
  • Its ratings don't falter but it's moved to a crappy, obscure time slot anyway and then it permanently disappears;
  • It does OK in the ratings but the show's budget is too big for the ratings it scores so it gets cancelled.
Yes, there are exceptions to this pattern (Lost, X-Files, etc.) but these are basically the rules for sci-fi TV on non-cable networks (although with the exception of a handful of shows on the SyFy channel--Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, and Warehouse 13--I'm not seeing too many new rules being written for sci-fi TV on cable either). So, it is with great enthusiasm yet reserved expectations that I await the return of Futurama to TV on Comedy Central on June 24. I think that Futurama is one of the best animated shows to air on prime time and one of the few U.S.-produced sci-fi comedy series worthy of note, but its production history is an odd duck (even by sci-fi TV standards) that it's so hard to determine what the return of Futurama actually indicates. Read on . . .

Futurama's original home, the Fox Network, treated the show so horribly that it's hard to imagine how it lasted for four seasons at all, from 1999 to 2003. Such treatment was always baffling to me, since Futurama's creator Matt Groening gave Fox The Simpsons, the figurative goose that keeps laying golden eggs for the network. Nevertheless, Futurama's fan base persisted and the DVD sales of the show's four seasons were enough to commission the production of four straight-to-DVD movies between 2007 and 2009. The catch? Under the production agreement with Comedy Central (the wishy-washiest agreement that could ever be), the four movies weren't really movies but sixteen episodes being released on DVD as four movies which would then be aired later on Comedy Central as either movies which are four episodes in length or just individual episodes. According to Groening, "[The crew is] writing them (the episodes) as movies and then we're going to chop them up, reconfigure them, write new material and try to make them work as separate episodes."

While it was nice to see Futurama up and running again when the movies came out, it became apparent to me when watching them that the writers were stuck in a very difficult place in terms of narrative structure. They tried hard to make the movies work, but the snappy comedic rhythms that were common during the first four seasons of half-hour episodes just weren't there. I could only wonder what the discussions were like while the production deal was worked out with Comedy Central: "Yeah, we want you to make more Futurama episodes, but we don't want to air them until we can prove absolutely positively for sure that there's an audience for the episodes, so could you release them as feature-length movies on DVD first so we can air them as half-hour episodes later, maybe, or not? Thanks!" (I shudder to ponder how the Star Trek movies would've turned out if they were held to a similar stipulation by Paramount.) By being held to such a lackluster, ambiguous production agreement, Futurama movies ultimately ended up delivering lackluster, ambiguous stories.

With any luck, the rough patch of creative limitations that the Futurama production team had to endure during the movies is over, and that Comedy Central will put its full weight behind the show so that it can deliver sci-fi comedy of a quality similar to that of its original TV run. At the very least, I expect to see many, many new tin toys bearing the Futurama name and at least one video game where Bender finally gets to kill all the humans.

It's great to see you back on TV, Futurama. Let's hope they don't screw you again this time.


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