In the premiere episode of Hulu’s “Futurama” revival, Planet Express delivery boy Fry (Billy West) is stunned to discover that he’s been in the 3000th century for 23 years (the fact that he hasn’t aged a day is a question not worth pondering). Faced with an existential crisis some years ago, he decides to dedicate his life’s goal to watching every TV show ever made, through the use of the world’s “fourth most popular streaming service”, Fulu.
The Impossible Stream takes aim at the evolution of streaming culture that has occurred since Futurama left the airwaves in 2013, portraying it as a chaotic, miserable space where people are constantly overworked and absolute garbage is shoveled onto platforms to fill their libraries. In a gag that’s especially relevant right now, the writing team on the soap opera All My Circles was bludgeoned to death. Fry is eventually so overwhelmed by the amount of content to watch that he attaches himself to a “hardened” google suit that plugs right into his brain, allowing him to watch “All My Circuits” in a continuous stream without any interruptions. For the rest of the episode, Fry disappears, encased in the clunky suit without the ability to speak to his loved ones.
It’s a pretty funny joke. It’s also an apt metaphor for what these new episodes, the first of which premieres Monday on Hulu, do to their characters, burying them in stale modern-day commentary and losing sight of their identities in the process.
When Futurama first premiered in 1999, what immediately set the show apart from other Fox animated series of its ilk were the possibilities of its sci-fi setting and the inherent sadness of its premise. In the pilot, Fry, a lazy modern-day pizza boy, is unwittingly cryogenically frozen and emerges on New Year’s Eve 2999, into a world filled with aliens, robots and suicide booths. A classic fish out of water, Fry spent the earliest episodes trying to adapt to a world that has passed him by, where the moon – once a symbol of man’s quest for space – has now been reduced to a theme park spewing (inaccurate) trivia about humanity’s first journeys to the stars.
As the show, created by Matt Groening of “The Simpsons” fame and co-developed with David X. Cohen, evolved over its first season, it quickly proved to be a versatile piece capable of doing many things well. It was very funny, with a wicked sense of humor and solid sitcom timing. It was often wildly ambitious, with experimental episodes like the parallel universe story “The Farnsworth Parabox” or the dark fever dream “The Sting.” And it proved surprisingly honest and emotional, with episodes like “The Luck of the Fryrish” and “Leela’s Homeworld” delivering as much drama and character development as laughs.
When the series reached out to the real world in its first two runs on Fox and Comedy Central, it usually did so through pop culture pastiches like the iconic Star Trek reunion episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before” or the “Starship Troopers” parody “War is the H Word.” The rare episodes that did become topical usually found a way to interweave their commentary with the show’s established world—for example, “Proposition Infinity” from the show’s Comedy Central years parodied the anti-gay marriage legislation Proposition 8 through a story about human-robot relationships, an in-universe taboo that first appeared in the show’s first episode.
However, the Hulu revival takes the opportunity to comment on hot-button topics in a way that feels less like a natural evolution of the series and more about uncertainty about the show’s self-perceived inappropriateness. Fry’s main arc in the first few seasons of the show was learning to accept his circumstances and embrace his new surroundings; new episodes of Futurama seem to want to do the same to fit in with its new decade, but lose sight of the fundamentals that make it what it is in the process, with character dynamics getting lost in the shuffle and the show’s vast sprawling universe feeling shrunk and depressingly ordinary. Over the course of the first six episodes of the season, the crew of the Planet Express make an extraordinary shipment and go no further than the moon; for a show where the supposed premise focuses on the interplanetary adventures of the crew, that’s not a huge percentage of episodes abandoning the format.
If the current humor managed to feel particularly strong, this approach could be chalked up to the show evolving into something new, but instead “Futurama” often feels like it’s trading away what makes it unique in favor of becoming just another animated sitcom. The Impossible Stream’s hits on Hulu bring back the constant hits of the original film on Fox, and the parody of the industry’s volatile working conditions certainly comes at a good time, but the execution is tired, forcing characters like Leela (Katey Sagal) to know what the real industry is like to never know (Katey Sagal) about them. And all the satire amounts to very basic variations of jokes that have been done a hundred times before on other streaming comedies like The Other Two or Hulu’s own Reboot.
Episodes that otherwise have potential are weighed down by the urge to push an actual button; the third episode of the season, “How the West Was 1010001”, is mostly an excuse for the cast to play in a classic Western pastiche and has some good fun with references to various classics in the genre. But the entire episode is based on a clumsy parody of cryptocurrency, with Farnsworth forcing the crew to travel west so he can mine bitcoins and save the company from bankruptcy. Its satire on the volatility of crypto feels about a year behind the times, making it a more dated story than any given episode from the show’s 1999 first season.
The most disappointing of the six episodes offered for review is “Regarding Items You’ve Seen,” which begins with a premise that could serve as a game changer for the core trio of Fry, Leela, and Bender. Fry and Leela’s romantic relationship, always a frustrating “two steps forward one step back” journey, takes a big leap when they finally move in together, causing a rift in their friendship with Bender, who still lives with Fry and begins to feel like a permanent third wheel.
But instead of putting the trio in a situation that would highlight these new nuances in their dynamic, the episode instead turns its attention to “Momazon,” an Amazon-spoof retail website that competes with the smaller Planet Express service and eventually hires Bender in its robot store. Various elements of Amazon’s signature, including an Alexa pastiche, are grafted onto the existing Futurama universe, and Mom, a deliciously evil recurring antagonist voiced by the fantastic Tress MacNeille, slips clumsily into the parody Bezos role, flattening her specificity in the process. None of the episode’s ideas — that Amazon is running small businesses into the ground, that AI watches our every move, that mega-corporations exploit its workers — are sharp or distinctive enough to justify relegating Bender’s conflict with Leela and Fry to B-plot territory, when it could easily carry a 25-minute episode on its own.
Not every episode of the Hulu revival “Futurama” is a complete wash, with episodes that prioritize its characters over references — such as “Children of a Smaller Bog,” about Planet Express intern Amy (Lauren Tom) trying to adjust to motherhood — still retaining the show’s once-signature flashes of imagination and swagger. So far, only six episodes of the season have been sent to critics; four more will follow through September 25 (a look at the show’s IMDB reveals that future episodes will be titled “Rage Against the Vaccine” and “Zap Gets Canceled,” so it’s probably too early to hope this trend will stop in future episodes), and a 10-episode second installment will follow sometime in early 2024. justify its existence and give fans character work and feverish imagination what they have come to expect from the poor and excellent program. But to do so would help the creators take their heads off 2023 and start worrying more about 3023.
“Futurama” is now streaming on Hulu. New episodes air from Monday to September 25.