It never fails - You give a television network pure gold, and they'll beat it and roll it around in the mud before you ever had a chance to realize what was happening to it. Instead of looking at the quality of any given program, network executives would rather comb feverishly through their charts, graphs and reams of statistical data, and in pondering how much blood they might be able to draw from stone, will begin an all too familiar slippery slope- Time slots are shuffled, episodes are carelessly aired out of order or not at all, time slots are shuffled again and, well, then the inevitable happens: The show gets canceled. I'd like to think that in 2003, Fox executives were scratching their heads, wondering how they facilitated a brilliant show like Futurama to slip in the ratings, but it's more likely that they sparked up cigars while congratulating each other on what was sure to be their next surefire (and cheap to produce) hit - Paradise Hotel. Now, I apologize if my outlook on the inner-workings of Fox comes off as a little sour, but is this really so far from the truth? Haven't we all been burned by this sort of thing before? How many times have we yelled from our couch, "(Insert recently canned show here) got canceled but they decided to keep this?!?!?!" Fortunately though, many shows have found life after cancelation thanks to impressive home video sales, and as most of you already know, Futurama is one of those success stories. Comedy Central ordered a new season after four direct-to-video 'movies' were released and met with generally favorable reviews, but Fox, being the financial backer for production, blew a lot of smoke in the middle of an intense salary dispute and threatened to move forward with an entirely different voice cast, even going as far as posting an open casting call. Fortunately the dispute was resolved and the show was allowed to go on without any major changes. Although many jumped at the chance to pal around with the Planet Express crew again, I remained skeptical.
I expressed some minor concerns in my Volume 5 Blu-ray review, most notable of all being my fear that the show would have resurfaced feeling like a brand new entity, a Futurama 2.0if you will. For example, I'm sure many of you would agree that there was something different about Family Guy when it returned to television. When the first two episodes of Futurama's sixth season aired back-to-back on Comedy Central however, that fear had been alleviated. Matt Groening has always insisted on having complete creative control over Futurama, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the show didn't miss a beat and felt like it had never been canceled at all. Despite the show's faithful return however, there were still a couple of concerns rattling some chains at the skeptical epicenter of my brain. For one, I knew that Comedy Central's tendency to only air half a season at a time was going to bite us in the ass bigtime. Don't get me wrong - Airing thirteen episodes over the course of just as many weeks is far more preferable than Fox's model of making us wait weeks on end just to get three or four new episodes. Furthermore, Comedy Central also has the courtesy to release their shows on DVD in complete season sets... but Fox, a studio that obviously cares more about its bottom line than anything else, retained Futurama's distribution rights. Surprising no one, Fox jumped at the chance to sell us half a season at a time at a hefty MSRP of $39.99. That's right! If you want to own the sixth season of Futurama in its entirety, you're going to have to cough up double the coin. Now, some of you might be tempted to boycott these releases, but who does that hurt in the end? Us. Fox is backing the series financially, and if they get a poor return on their investment I'm sure they'd have no problem pulling the plug on the series once and for all. As another beloved Groening character might say, "You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."
My bitter view of Fox's business ethics aside, I was afraid the half-season model would cause a negative impact on the show creatively. Look at South Park in recent years for example- The first run often verged on greatness, whereas the second was dull and dreadfully uninspired. I suspect this is due to the fact that Trey Parker and Matt Stone endure such a grueling schedule during the first half of the season, that by the time they're supposed to clock in for work on the second half they're not mentally ready to deliver the goods. This causes the tone of each season to be drastically cut right down the middle, but Futurama? Their production team isn't afforded the luxury of being able to take a break mid-run, and this allows them to keep their head in the game from beginning to end, ensuring the tone of a season is consistent throughout. However, there was still an obstacle I imagined the Futurama crew had to overcome - More rigid and demanding deadlines to make, potentially burning the creative staff out by the time the second leg of the season was ready to be produced. After all, a single episode takes six to nine months to complete, and several episodes are always being worked on simultaneously. That's a tall order to fill under normal circumstances, so you can see why I was concerned how they were going to be able to pull off a 26 episode season with only a few months break in between each batch of (13) episodes. Now, it might merely be a coincidence but I did find the episodes contained within Volume 6 to be the least consistent batch I've seen to date. Not that any of the episodes are bad mind you, but considering the series has, in my opinion, had a nearly flawless run up to this point, I was surprised at how many episodes in Volume 6 became forgettable shortly after the fact.
Right off the bat the first episode of Volume 6, Silence of the Clamps, is surprisingly made up of 'been there, done that' material, a real surprise considering how Futuramatypically pulls strength from its unpredictability. Bender yet again finds himself in cahoots with someone the Don Bot is extremely fond (and protective) of, and spends another 22 minutes or so running from the robot mafia. In The Tip of the Zoidberg,Professor Farnsworth reveals why he keeps the medically incompetent crab employed at Planet Express, and although this would have been a great opportunity to add a dimension to Zoidberg we've never seen before, the episode ultimately fails at being able to do so. Instead, we're given some hokum about the Professor carrying a disease that can strike at any moment, which (of course) only Zoidberg knows how to cure. Another episode that rolled listlessly into dullsville was Fry Am the Egg Man, which tackles the 'controversial too many years ago to count' issue of fast food. But, perhaps the most frustrating thing of all now that the sixth season in its entirety has wrapped, is the fact that very little time has been spent developing the relationship between Fry and Leela. I've seen plenty of television series drag out a budding relationship over the course of several seasons or so, but Futurama is really beginning to take 'underplaying your hand' to a whole new level. This plot point was never given the chance to truly evolve due to the show's premature cancelation, and they couldn't really expand on it much in the direct-to-video flicks without changing the vibe of the show. However, you would think with Futurama being revived for its sixth season, as well as being renewed for two more seasons after the fact, the writers would have jumped at the chance to flesh out the only running plot point since the beginning... but, no. All we're given in Volume 6 is more of the same - A vague promise that after a series of ups and downs, Fry and Leela will wind up happily ever after.... kinda.... maybe.
On the flip side of the coin, 'season 6B' also contains some of the best episodes I've seen in a while. The highlights for me begin with Mobius Dick, which follows Leela on an obsessive quest to avenge a long lost Planet Express crew by destroying a fourth dimensional white whale in space. Although the story is intriguing enough in and of itself, there are plenty of pop culture references sprinkled throughout that we really have to look for, which has always been a core aspect of the show. There was something about seeing the Event Horizon floating in a spaceship graveyard that put big smile on my face. Next, Law and Oracle proves to be a showcase for the writers. Fry joins the police force and gets a promotion that lands him in a Minority Report inspired future crimes unit gig. It was an unpredictable venture from beginning to end and stands as a beacon of light in this 'hit or miss' batch of episodes, as it shows us that the creative team hasn't lost their touch, but again, were probably just getting burned out near the end of the season. My two favorites overall have to be the episodes that close out the season though - Overclockwise features a Bender that's been overclocked by Cubert, which causes a peculiar side effect that eventually allows Bender to transform into an omnipotent being. Last but not least, there's Reanimation. This episode breaks out of the typical Futurama mold and tells three short stories, each in a different style of animation - Old time black and white, a low-resolution video game complete with crappy Super Nintendo-esque music and sound effects, and (but of course) anime. Each of these stories are very clever in their own way as they utilize the animation style as part of the joke. I won't spoil the surprise as to how though, I'll leave that for you to discover.
So really, for all the reasons the writers have given us in the second half of season 6 to wonder if the show was finally losing its edge, they've also provided just as many reasons tolet us know that they still possess the intellect and charm to keep Futurama going strong for some time to come. Considering how the first half of the season was consistent from beginning to end, I'm more convinced than ever that the new deadline schedule imposed by Comedy Central had taxed the creative team by the time these episodes were ready to be produced. Even if I'm being too much of an apologist and writers just flat out dropped the ball on some of the episodes, Volume 6 is still worth seeing. I'll reiterate that the 'bad' episodes aren't really bad at all. On the contrary, they still fare much better than most of the other junk on television nowadays, easily besting recent seasons of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. They're just 'less than' when compared to the rest of Futurama's stellar run up to this point. I'm also willing to cut the writers a little slack here because this is the first full season of the show they've done in quite some time. Hopefully after having an entire year to become accustomed with a 26 episode production schedule again, they'll be ready to tackle the seventh and eighth seasons with more practiced hands. That, however, is a conversation we'll reserve for after Volume 7's inevitable release in late 2012 / early 2013.
Good news, nobodies! Futurama - Volume 6 looks absolutely brilliant on Blu-ray! If you've seen Bender's Game, Into the Wild Green Yonder or Volume 5 on the format though, this should come as no surprise. Encoded at 1080p via the AVC codec (1.78:1), there really isn't anything negative that can be said about this release. The edges are sharp and show no signs of over sharpening or edge enhancement, contrast is exquisite, blacks are deep and inky, and the colors are as vibrant as can be. Futurama continues to impress with its flawless video and if you want the definitive experience of this show at home, believe me, this is it. Don't even contemplate buying the DVD version if you have a Blu-ray player at home!
This release has a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and although it's not the most impressive thing I've ever heard, let's be real - This is a television show, and the mix that's been presented is perfectly suited for what it is. The dialogue is always crisp and clean and that's what counts. There are some sound effects that make adequate use of the rears as well as the LFE, but they never overpower any of the important dialogue and never come off sounding 'loud just to be loud'. Simply put, this is the best representation of Futurama one could hope for, and I anticipate the only time it could ever sound better is if Matt Groening and Co. make a real theatrical feature someday.
First, it should be noted that the packaging for this release is pretty bad (anyone who has seen the Volume 5 packaging already knows what to expect). Each disc sits inside a cardboard sleeve on each page of the foldable insert, and although I can appreciate the effort of those that work on Futurama to be eco-friendly, it needs to be taken into consideration that people are spending their hard earned money to buy a set they're likely to keep for a very, very long time. People who opt for the DVD version of Volume 6 are sure to find their discs scuffed and scraped, but for those of you who want the Blu-ray discs, the resistant coating exclusive to the format should soften the blow of this horrible packaging quite a bit. This set has a fairly high MSRP for the amount of episodes that are available (at least, for this reviewer's money), so it would have been nice if something a little more, oh, longer lasting was available in place of this.
-Full Length Audio Commentaries on All Episodes - Cast, crew and friends of both alike make appearances behind the mic on every episode, and the result is good. There's plenty of great background information and funny stories that detail how some of the episodes were conceived. Matt Groening and the crew he works with have never disappointed in an audio commentary before, as there's always a friendly and fun atmosphere between everyone, while never traveling too far off base to bore the fans. These commentaries are no different, and I recommend casual viewers and fans of the show alike to listen to these as soon as they've seen the season in its entirety.
-Professor Farnsworth's "Science of a Scene" - In order to get a better understanding of what it takes in order to bring a single episode of Futurama to life, allow Professor Farnsworth to guide you through the process! Interviews with animators, voice actors and writers are included to provide us with the full picture, and the information contained within is sure to make you appreciate the effort it takes to create an animated show that much more.
-Reincarnation Explained! - Of course, production was a little different for this episode, and Director Peter Avanzino fills us in on what it was like to do three different styles of animation.
-Futurama F.A.Q. - Two of the show's writers responds to some questions that have been lobbed at them by the fans. This is actually more informative than you think, as it runs at about eleven and a half minutes. Typically with a supplement such as this, I only expect a flimsy two or three minutes but they've really gone above and beyond here.
-Deleted Scenes - Some of these scenes are finished and some are still in storyboard format. However, the clips range from mediocre to quite good, and there's about eight and half minutes worth here to enjoy.
The episodes that stand out on this release are really some of the best I've seen in some time, but with that being said, this is the most inconsistent batch of episodes we've seen of the series to date. A small minority of fans thought the first half of the sixth season wasn't very good, and if you happen to be in that boat yourself Volume 6 isn't going to make you a fan again. If you enjoyed the previous offering though, you're still in for some disappointment but you're likely to enjoy more of what this release has to offer than not. The supplemental package is decent, and the A/V presentation is a flawless reproduction of the source. Recommended.