Episode Title: "The Bots and the Bees"
Writer: Eric Horsted
Director: Stephen Sandoval
Episode Title: "A Farewell to Arms"
Writer: Josh Weinstein
Director: Raymie Muzquiz
"Futurama" has returned for another run on Comedy Central, kicking off its seventh season with two back-to-back episodes.
In "The Bots and the Bees," Bender (John DiMaggio) impregnates the new Planet Express vending machine, Bev (Wanda Sykes). Naturally (or unnaturally, as some may argue), Bev gives birth to a rapidly aging robot named Ben; who inherits his father's love for bending… but not his ability thanks to his stubby and weak little arms. Bender being Bender, the first thing he attempts to do is abandon his child. However, Bev beats Bender to the punch and she leaves Ben in his custody.
Much to everyone's surprise, Bender turns out to be a great father to Ben. When Bev shows up to retake custody of her child, Bender kidnaps Ben to get him back. And in the end, Bender sacrifices his relationship with his son in order to install the necessary bending software in Ben's head and fulfill Ben's dream of attending a bending university.
The problem with Bender's sacrifice is that it has none of the emotional punch that "Futurama" has become known for during its previous seven seasons. Even during the sixth season, the "Futurama" writers have shown an ability to break the collective hearts of the audience… when they want to. It doesn't happen by accident. Bender's relationship with Ben is fun and it has some really amusing moments. But at no point did I ever buy into the emotional connection that Bender had with his son. It just didn't feel real or sincere.
A similar issue occurs in the following episode, "A Farewell to Arms;" which focuses on the impending destruction of Earth and how that affects the relationship between Fry (Billy West) and Leela (Katey Sagal). Fry and Leela's romance has been the emotional touchstone of the entire series and it's no coincidence that some of the best episodes of "Futurama" have revolved around this dynamic. And yet their occasionally epic love seemed unusually flat in this episode.
"A Farewell to Arms" plays around with the idea that Fry's chivalry towards Leela sometimes leads to unexpected and unpleasant consequences. One of the running gags of the episode is that Leela suffers bodily harm almost every time that Fry tells her to take his hand. Even Fry's grand gesture to save Leela's life ends up dooming her to an apocalyptic fate.
Far beneath New New York City, Professor Farnsworth (West) and the Planet Express crew find an ancient Martian calender that predicts that the Earth will be destroyed in 3012. Since this revelation is accompanied by destructive solar flares and the failure of all electric appliances, the people of Earth take the prophesy very seriously. Earth President Richard Nixon orders the only functioning space ship to be piloted by the always inept Zapp Brannigan, with 30,000 essential people selected by a machine to accompany humanity's exodus to Mars. Most of the Planet Express crew is chosen (and somehow, Fry qualifies twice!), but Leela is rejected.
Although Leela appears to be doomed to stay behind, Fry secretly swaps out his ID for hers, in perhaps his first plan that ever worked on the first try. There is a moment when Leela realizes what happened that is pretty effective, but it's undercut by the rest of the episode. As Fry remains on Earth with Bender and a panicked population, Leela and the Mars colonists get the bad news that the Martian calendar predicted doom for the red planet, not Earth. And Zapp has already managed to destroy the last working space ship.
Fortunately, the trajectory of Mars takes it close enough to Earth that the majority of the population is literally able to jump to safety. Everyone that is except Leela, who broke her leg when she slipped from Fry's grasp earlier in the episode. This time, Fry accidentally pulls her arm off her body and Leela returns the favor before she is rescued off-screen by Scruffy. While Fry and Leela reconcile and await their new cloned arms, their severed arms are joined for an eternity as they drift off into space.
There is a nice moment when Leela acknowledges that Fry is the only one who loves her enough to go through such lengths, despite the destructive aftermath. But Fry and Leela's relationship seemed to lack the warmth and heart of earlier episodes that centered around them. Neither "The Bots and the Bees" or "A Farewell to Arms" were bad episodes, they just felt incomplete without the emotional pull that they needed.
In terms of humor, there were definitely some good jokes in both episodes. Fry's radioactive state from his Slurm addiction and his obsession with his lucky (and only) pair of pants were both particularly funny. And other assorted moments were more than acceptable. "Futurama" remains a very special animated series whose resurgence on Comedy Central still seems remarkable.
"Futurama" may not hit a home run every time out, but it's still reassuring to have it back for another season. With this team of writers, the next classic episode could be just around the corner and that is always worth waiting for.