After premature cancellation, fan campaigns, comic books, DTV movies, and will-they-or-won't-they-return tension, it feels safe to say that "Futurama" is really and truly back, locked in for one more and likely for at least a couple additional seasons on the show's new home, Comedy Central. With the show's on-again, off-again nature taken into account and a whole season of potential "settling" over, it's natural to wonder how this seventh volume of Matt Groening's little-star-cruiser-that-could stacks up in terms of freshness. The answer: not perfectly, but pretty well. This batch of 13 episodes mostly displays the usual wit and invention of the best "Futurama" episodes, even if none of them quite earn the title of "series stand-out."
The "season" -- the DVD releases and actual season orders of "Futurama" have never aligned -- kicks off with a strong episode, "The Bots and the Bees," in which Bender (John DiMaggio) accidentally fathers a child with the new Planet Express soda machine (guest star Wanda Sykes). The best episodes in the set, including this one, do a good job of juggling the show's growing cast of characters and their personality quirks, from main characters Fry (Billy West), Leela (Katey Sagal), and Professor Farnsworth (also West), down to minor characters like Scruffy the Janitor (Dave Herman) and the recurring human / robot cop partners (West and DiMaggio). The jokes are consistently sharp, the animation keeps pace, and the episode even tugs at the heartstrings a little at the end.
On the other hand, any great "Futurama" episode has to incorporate some sort of clever science fiction idea, and this is perhaps the area where these episodes fall a little short. "Decision 3012," for instance, has a great science-fiction idea in it, but it isn't introduced until the episode is almost over, making it feel like an afterthought rather than a driving force. Same for "The Thief of Baghead," which offers up an interesting alien character and very few options for the characters to deal with it, only to chicken out a little with an overly jokey ending. It's not that these episodes are bad -- they're definitely on the better end of the spectrum -- but they get close enough to really special that it's a little sad that they fall short. The best "science" episode is probably "The Six Million Dollar Mon," in which Hermes (Phil LaMarr) decides robotic upgrades are the key to self-improvement.
Most of the episodes in the set earn a solid "B." Two episodes make good use of Amy Wong (Lauren Tom): "The Butterjunk Effect," about Leela and Amy joining the violent Butterfly Derby, and "Viva Mars Vegas," in which mafia robots take over the Wong Family's Martian casino. Most "Futurama" episodes tend to have a slightly more "serious" A-plot and a goofy B-plot, but both of these episodes are fun because the A-plots are the goofy ones (addiction to Nectar and butterfly pheromones, and an Ocean's Eleven-style heist where Zoidberg's stomach is the key). "Zapp Dingbat" is also a strong episode, which finds Leela's parents file for divorce, and the egotastic pilot Zapp Brannigan falls for her, which gives Sagal an opportunity to carry an episode.
The flipside of "good goofy" is "too goofy," and there are some episodes later in the set that end up more the latter than the former. "31st Century Fox" goes really broad with a story in which Bender becomes a dignified game hunter, which has some very funny one-liners and non-sequiturs, but meanders for awhile getting there. "Fun on a Bun" is also half unsuccessful, where Fry is believed to have been ground into Bender's Oktoberfest sausage, but he's really fallen into a crevasse and discovered a society of Neanderthals. The Eternal Sunshine riff in the Leela half of the episode is surprisingly moving at times, but Fry's story flops. The set also saves the weirdest for last: "Naturama" is one of the series' most bizarre episodes, a nature documentary anthology in which the characters are reimagined as fish, turtles, and seals, complete with Morgan Freeman-like narration. It's admirably and satisfyingly unique, although as the last episode, it makes for a very strange sign-off, to say the least.
The episodes included in this set are as follows:
Disc 1: "The Bots and the Bees," "A Farewell to Arms," "Decision 3012," "The Thief of Baghead," "Zapp Dingbat," "The Butterjunk Effect," "The Six Million Dollar Mon."
Disc 2: "Fun on a Bun," "Free Will Hunting," "Near-Death Wish," "31st Century Fox," "Viva Mars Vegas," "Naturama."
Much like the previous seasons -- all of them, actually, if you haven't seen the recent package redesigns -- "Futurama" Volume 7 arrives in a thin cardboard case without plastic trays (an environmentally friendly decision made by the show's production team). These continue the stylish graphic design style of individual characters built out of colors, and the two discs slide into little cardboard pouches that, in my experience, held the discs well and don't seem to be doing any damage to them.
The Video and Audio
When I see animation on standard definition, the two biggest concerns for me are haloing and aliasing. Thankfully, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation has no problem handling Rough Draft Studios' clean, colorful animation. A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, gets plenty of chances to show off amidst butterfly battles, the campaign trail, Oktoberfest, and the great outdoors. From a technical perspective, this is a top-notch set. English captions for the deaf and hard of eharing and Spanish and French subtitles are also included. Also, just a curiosity, I noticed there's a locked commentary audio track on Disc 1, but I couldn't access it, so I figure it's just a disc authoring quirk.
On both discs, we get "Too Good For TV: A Smorgasbord of Deleted Scenes" (6:56, 6:34), most of which are a) pretty inconsequential and b) still in storyboard format.
On Disc 1, the reel is supplemented by "Christopher Tyng's Big Score: A Jam Session With Futurama's Innovative Composer" (8:25), a featurette on the show's composer Christopher Tyng. It's kind of interesting but not very deep; the most interesting thing is hearing Tyng build up the familiar "Futurama" theme from its components as the featurette progresses. The disc wraps up with an extra hidden under the episode menu for "Zapp Dingbat" that I might not have ever found were it not mentioned on the packaging (and actually used as the package's only photo, which is quite strange) -- an alternate ending to the episode, edited back in (I have to side with Groening; the final episode's ending is better).
On Disc Two, we get two "Möbius Trip: Infinite Futurama Screen Loops" (∞), which are digital scenery loops for your TV, and "Futurama Karaoke: Sing Along With Your Favorite Characters" (9:07), which consists of some of the show's most famous music numbers ("Welcome to Robot Hell", "This Toy Shop's Going to War," "Even If It's Not a Good Idea (The Bureaucrat Song)"), presented with or without the vocals.
The video features are pretty underwhelming, but any "Futurama" fan knows the real value in owning the discs is audio commentaries on all episodes by executive producers Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, accompanied by any number of directors, writers, crew, and cast members. Although these guys have already recorded 114 episodes worth of commentary thus far, these are as good as the ones that came before -- a nice mix of jokes, nerdiness, and production trivia. My favorite on the disc may be the one for "The Butterjunk Effect," in which the usual male crew members are joined by Lauren Tom and episode director Crystal Chesney.
This is a perfectly solid collection of "Futurama" episodes that I imagine fans will be happy to own. On the part of the show, a strong lineup of shows, and on the part of the DVD, great A/V presentation and great commentaries, plus some other odds and ends for added value. Recommended.
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