Futurama is one of the funniest, smartest, most bitingly satirical TV shows around, and I say that with a degree of sighing regret because, with the release of this Volume 4 set, the marvelous ride has come to an end—and far too soon. Filled to brimming with not only eye candy but mind candy, Futurama is definitely a thinking man's comedy, and for that reason, it's no wonder Fox had trouble deciding what the hell to do with it. This is a show that requires you to pay attention to its details. Its humor is more often in the minutiae than in the big picture. It's constantly throwing ripe movie and TV references, accurate yet absurd science trivia, and colorful social commentary in your face, so fast that you can barely keep up, so consistently that it's one of those rare shows that requires second and third viewings. The brilliance and beauty of Futurama is that it is positively infused with its rib-poking sci-fi geek attitude, from top to bottom, making it one of the more pure TV half-hours I can remember.
By now, you know the sordid story behind Fox's dwindling of support for the decidedly odd Futurama. You know how Fox executives, who apparently just didn't "get" the show, gradually turned their collective back on Matt Groening's second TV brainchild, running it only haphazardly and dropping promotions. Surely you know that the show appeared to air for five increasingly sporadic seasons, but that, in fact, Fox simply left the show to die after four seasons worth of episodes were in the can and ran fresh episodes whenever the mood struck them to do so. To be fair, Futurama with its elaborate mix of traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI, was an expensive endeavor. You can understand a profit-motivated studio's decision to go with something cheaper and less inspired and original—something like, for example, Family Guy. But there's a certain moment when you have to step back and look at the situation from a global view: The derivative Family Guy is achieving a renaissance of sorts, finding its mediocre way back on the air, whereas Futurama is already relegated to cult status among thinkers. How often will the whims of moneymen, over time, ultimately determine the tastes of the viewership? Can our karma afford such a dumbing down of entertainment? I speak half in jest, but in my opinion, Futurama didn't deserve its too-quick demise.
The ultimate irony—or perhaps a form of apology—is the fact that Fox has only now (now that the show is dead) lavished the proper attention on this first-rate show in the form of gorgeous and elaborate DVD season sets. Season 4—at least when considered in its production order, and not in Fox's careless air-date order—provides a fitting, even emotionally resonant conclusion to a show that grew from geeky lark to wild, confidently hilarious entertainment.
I doubt you're new to the show, but if you are, I recommend gathering the first three seasons and watching in production order before you get to this set. That way, you can really appreciate the comic evolution of this unique series. Futurama is about the continuing adventures of Philip J. Fry (Billy West), a 20th-century pizza-deliveryboy blasted into the future, who has found himself suddenly inhabiting a strange Earth filled with weird aliens and robots, an insane media, and any fancifully technological marvel that suits any given episode's plot. Fry has become part of a bizarre star-hopping troupe of characters that include cyclopean hottie Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal), the blissfully malevolent robot Bender (John DiMaggio), the Grandpa Simpson-inspired Professor Farnsworth (also West), the squid-like Dr. Zoidberg (also West), the Jamaican bureaucrat Hermes (Phil LaMarr), and the Asian human Amy Wong (Lauren Tom). The strength of the cast lies in its leads—Fry, Leela, Bender, and, to a lesser extent, Professor Farnsworth. All are impeccably drawn, distinct personalities, and their humor extends from their characterizations. The minor characters don't fare quite as well. Indeed, when you compare Futurama's ensemble with that of The Simpsons, Futurama can't help but suffer. However, the increasingly no-holds-barred nature of the humor can't be denied—it's such an insane, fast-moving barrage of parody and sharp wit that you'll barely notice any flaws amidst copious laughter. Futurama is a potent, absurd, cartoony sociological commentary about our own present-day world.
Of the 18 episodes of Futurama: Volume 4, I found only a few to be clunkers. The gender-bending Bend Her just didn't seem have that typical Futurama sharpness of wit. I've never been a huge Zoidberg fan, so his big episode, A Taste of Freedom, felt flat. Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch, which also focuses on one of the show's minor characters, comes across as an equally minor effort. But taken overall, Futurama: Volume 4 is an immensely satisfying amalgam of trippy ideas, loving sci-fi parody, and surprisingly character-driven humor. Considering the show's steadily brilliant escalation in goofiness, and its refusal to bow to anything in the realm of formulaic, we fans are left feeling a great emptiness when we reach the end of that last show, when Fry finally has Leela's undivided attention in that abandoned theater. We're left considering what could have been, had Fox shown a little more faith in one of the more remarkable products it's ever hefted onto the air.
I will rewatch many of these episodes quite often. After exploring this box set, I'm left with the lingering memories of the hilariously ridiculous super-identities of Leela, Fry, and Bender in Less Than Hero; the unexpectedly touching conclusion of Jurassic Bark; the effects of a Planet Express team growing younger in Teenage Mutant Leela's Hurdles; the wonderfully in-on-the-joke Star Trek cast in Where No Fan Has Gone Before; the fun mind trickery of The Farnsworth Parabox; and—perhaps most of all—the final touching moments of The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings. Here's the breakdown, and as usual, the episodes are presented in production order. (The actual schizophrenic airdates are in parentheses.)
Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch (1-12-03)—Amy's unlikely love for Zap Brannigan's sidekick Kif gets even weirder when Kif becomes pregnant. Kif must return to his amphibious homeworld to give birth, but is Amy up to the task?
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents Futurama: Season 4 in a sparkling 1.33:1 transfer of the show's original full-frame TV broadcast. Animation on TV has, for some reason, generally bedeviled the DVD format, and has boasted too much in the way of interlacing errors and rampant aliasing. Futurama is bucking that trend, and in fact, the image quality of Season 4 is the best yet—it may in fact provide the best TV-animation quality I've seen yet on DVD. The level of detail is spectacular, and colors are bright and intense, perfectly saturated. This is an absolutely fine presentation, no doubt partly due to the fact that the animators used a digital coloring process. I noticed no edge halos or digital artifacting.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby 2.0 audio presentation is accurate to the original televised production, generally matching the audio quality of the first three sets. Although Futurama isn't an aggressive surround presentation, it does boast healthy separation across the front. Dialog is clean and clear, and I noticed no distortion at the high end. Sound effects, which are a particular strength of Groening's crew, come across vividly.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The first thing you'll notice is that Fox has changed the design of its Futurama packaging—which is a bit of a drag because it doesn't quite match the fluid design of the first three seasons. (Completists like me prefer their related box sets to look cool and like-minded on the shelf.) This time, you get a clear-plastic sleeve decorated with colorful animation, while the box underneath contains sketch art on silver, much like that of the Toy Story: Ultimate Toybox set.
Foremost among the generous supplements are Audio Commentaries over every episode. You'll find these efforts to be very similar to those of the first three seasons, with contributions from such personalities as Matt Groening; voice actors Billy West and John DiMaggio; producer David X. Cohen (who proves to have an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the show); and various directors and writers, including Kristin Gore, daughter of Al, instrumental to getting her dad to do a couple cameos for the show. There are also a couple of surprises, including Dan Castellaneta (Homer on The Simpsons), who provides the voice of the Robot Devil. The participants invariably talk about the origins of goofy ideas, explain particularly obscure scientific/technical jokes, and praise their cohorts. These are very fun and extremely informative audio romps through this strange universe. I also appreciated that some of the commentaries on the later episodes were actually recorded before the shows themselves were even aired, so during the recording sessions, the participants had no idea about the fate of the show, or the order in which the episodes would air. As Matt Groening himself marvels in the midst of one crazy episode, "What a goofy show!" One of the participants also lovingly refers to season four as "the nude season of Futurama, because of its tendency to get its cast naked, whether in hot tubs or outdoor tents or animal-park whale habitats.
You also get Deleted Scenes for all but a few of these episodes. Most amount to scene extensions and are surrounded by tiny moments of existing footage so that you can determine placement within the episode. Some episodes have only one deleted sequence, whereas others have upwards of ten scenes. Some are a couple seconds long, and others are more like a minute. I found most of these sequences to be quite funny—well worth your time to jog through them. All are presented as completed animation, but they aren't up to the image quality of the actual episodes. Some of the dialog is unfinished and even voiced by temporary actors.
Moving on, you get Storyboard Images for the Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch episode, an International Video Clip for Love and Rocket, and Animatics for Obsoletely Fabulous. Disc Four has a bevy of additional material, including 3D Models From Rough Draft (a featurette that includes narration), the text-based How to Draw Characters (which shows you how to draw Bender and Farnsworth), Character Pencil Tests, and Still Gallery/New Character Artwork.
Just by poking around, I found two Easter Eggs, one involving a table read of one of the episodes, another featuring short interview snippets with one of the writers and DiMaggio, who talks about the origin of Bender's voice (funny!).
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
So, it's over. Let's try to enjoy every moment of what we have, and try not to grieve over what could have been. I predict that Futurama will continue to gather fans, and the show will gain respectability in the way that, say, Police Squad and Twin Peaks attained increasing popularity following cancellation. This fourth-season set is an appropriately loving artifact that completes a splendid archive of a great show. The quality of image, sound, and supplemental materials is in line with the rest of the sets.