TV Review: ‘Futurama’ Returns From Black Hole of Cancellation

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CHICAGO – Fry, Leela, Bender, and the rest of the gang of “Futurama” take a major step forward in their return from the other side of the TV schedule with the first brand new hour of television debuting tonight on Comedy Central. Fans are understandably nervous that something may have been lost during the show’s time off. Fear not space travellers. TV Rating: 4.0/5.0
TV Rating: 4.0/5.0

The saga of the return of “Futurama” has been a fascinating one. First, I think even Fox would agree that they didn’t treat Matt Groening’s clever creation with any sort of consistency, regularly axing it for sports events and barely reminding viewers that it was even on the air. When it was canceled after four seasons in 2003, the response was often “That’s still on?”

Photo credit: Futurama TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Like “Family Guy,” “Futurama” found an audience through reruns on Adult Swim and Comedy Central agreed to help finance four movies which would then be cut into episodes and aired on the network. The results — “Bender’s Big Score,” “The Beast with a Billion Backs,” “Bender’s Game,” and “Into the Wild Green Yonder” — were mixed at best and didn’t quite live up to the first four seasons of the show. With the creative team back for traditional episodes on a new network, fans worried that they might be treated to sub-par variations on their once-favorite show.

Photo credit: Futurama TM and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

It’s hard to say for sure after only two episodes, but the writers have clearly been energized by the chance to prove that seven years off has not resulted in a single lost step. Both episodes are cleverly inspired by the saga behind-the-scenes, especially the first half hour — “Rebirth” — in which the entire crew save for Farnsworth needs to be reborn through stem cells after being destroyed in a spaceship crash. The second episode features a censoring sphere that’s a clear reference to the fact that “Futurama” will be a little dirtier on the network that made “South Park” a phenomenon.

The first two new episodes of “Futurama” on Comedy Central are much smarter and more tightly-paced than any of the four films (or even any of the “episodes” into which they were cut) and are consistent with the show’s quality level when Fox pulled the trigger. Just having these characters back on the TV landscape creates enough goodwill that people are likely to laugh at jokes that may fall flat in a few weeks. Watching Bender sing “Coma Chameleon” is funny mostly because we haven’t seen Bender in so long that none of the characters could possible feel stale so quickly.

The voice talent of one of the best animation ensembles in the history of TV cartoons haven’t lost a step either. It’s sometimes easy to forget what an all-star team of voice actors work on “Futurama.” Billy West (Fry, Farnsworth, Zoidberg, Zapp Brannigan) has voiced Ren, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Elmer Fudd, Popeye, and many more in a legendary career. John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche — these are legendary voice actors. And Katey Sagal always rocks, live action or animated. There were waves when it seemed like Fox might replace the voice cast. They were very, very smart not to and it should never be considered again.

Clearly, a critical analysis of the return of “Futurama” is surprisingly difficult after only two episodes. It makes sense that the first two stand-alone adventures after seven years of devising new stories for the characters would work. If these were stale, we’d really be in trouble. But the writers of “Futurama” are too smart to blow this opportunity right from the starting gun. The question is going to be if the writing is still consistent by episode five, ten, or twenty. What will tell is time, something “Futurama” hasn’t had in over half a decade.

The sixth season premiere of “Futurama” features voice work by Billy West, Katey Segal, Phil Lamarr, Maurice LaMarche, and Tress MacNeille. It airs on Comedy Central on Thursday, June 24th, 2010 at 10pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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