WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
In the words of Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, "Good news, everyone!" The second season of Matt Groening's Futurama has found its way to DVD, and sci-fi/animation geeks around the world can descend into their home theaters and giggle endlessly at obscure science trivia, homages to cult sci-fi TV shows and films, and of course, that insane brand of Groening-flavored humor. And although the rest of us probably won't get the full heady rush that its target audience experiences while viewing Futurama, we can surely appreciate the whipsmart humor of this almost-great show...particularly the cruel wisecracks of the robot Bender.
Futurama premiered in 1999 in the daunting shadow of Groening's The Simpsons. The show faced an uphill battle from the start: On top of Groening's difficult relationship with Fox (which resulted in frequent preemption and an erratic schedule), Futurama had a fairly small target audience (the aforementioned sci-fi geeks who love self-reverential humor in the form of bug-eyed animation) and featured a cast of—let's face it—some pretty unlikable characters. Frankly, I'm surprised Futurama lasted five seasons!
Regardless of its prime-time longevity, this is a show that's ripe for cult fandom. You might even say that Futurama's target audience is a cultish one. Futurama is a Simpsons-styled look at a crazy potential future, in which our hero—Philip J. Fry (Billy West), a 20th-century pizza-deliveryboy—finds himself thrown forward in time after an accident at a cryogenics facility. This future is filled with wacky aliens and robots, an insane media, and any fancifully technological marvel that suits any given episode's plot. In Season 1, Fry quickly finds himself a part of a bizarre star-hopping troupe of characters that include cyclopean hottie Turanga Leela (Katey Sagal), the blissfully malevolent 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 human Amy Wong (Lauren Tom). Season 2 continues the crackpot adventures of this crew, and is a fun, although relatively uneven, continuation of the first season's flow of strange humor.
As with most science fiction, Futurama serves as a potent—if absurd and cartoony—sociological commentary about our own present-day world. And that's how the show works best. The nerdily obsessive attention to pop-culture satire and scientific minutia—which is obvious on the surface but even more insane after you listen to this set's commentaries—is an almost unending source of intellectual fun. That being said, I must agree with one of the oft-stated complaints about the show—namely, that the supporting cast just doesn't quite generate the necessary feeling of cohesiveness or warmth. The aloof and dunderheaded Fry never manages to be the Everyman he wants to be, and a couple of the characters (e.g., Dr. Zoidberg and Amy) have never quite come into their own. The lack of a strong ensemble—which The Simpsons obviously boasts—keeps Futurama from attaining greatness. We're left with some admittedly strong characters in, for example, Bender and the hilarious Zapp Brannigan (also West), but in the end, the relationships between the central crew can frustrate.
But Futurama is an awfully fun show, and I still look forward to future seasons. This lovingly produced Season 2 DVD box set contains the following episodes (with original air dates in parentheses):
I Second That Emotion (11/21/99)—After Bender gleefully flushes Leela's beloved pet Nibbler down the toilet, Professor Farnsworth installs an empathy chip in Bender, forcing him to feel Leela's emotions. A remorseful Bender then sets out to save Nibbler from mutant-inhabited sewers.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Spectacular. I'm thoroughly impressed. Fox seems to be getting better and better at the presentation of its animated shows. This 1.33:1 full-frame presentation, faithfully reproducing the original television broadcast, features colors that will truly astound you. I can't recall seeing a color palette quite this vivid and sharp on my 65" screen. And the level of detail is peerless. The reason for this absolutely fine presentation is probably thanks to the fact that the animators use a digital coloring process.
On my screen, I noticed only slight instances of aliasing, and occasionally, at scene transitions, odd moments of seeming artifacting. But those were split-second occurrences.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The set's Dolby surround track is not as impressive as it's video accomplishment. However, it's a perfectly clear and natural track, offering accurate dialog and high-end sound. I noticed only the slightest bit of brittleness in loud songs such as explosions. The film's bell-and-synthesizer score comes across richly, and it will stick in your head for a while. The low end doesn't get much of a workout. I did notice good separation across the front soundstage.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Each episode has its own submenu, and you can access the disc's special features from each menu. The submenus all have entertaining Groening illustrations.
The best extras in the entire set are the scene-specific Audio Commentaries over all the episodes. The crew of commentators varies slightly from show to show, but you get mild banter from Matt Groening (producer), David Cohen (producer), Bill Odenkirk (producer), Rich Moore (supervising director), Patric Verrone (writer), Stewart Burns (writer), Eric Kaplan (writer), Paul D. Calder (editor), Peter Avanzino (director), voice actors Billy West and John DiMaggio, and others. While listening to these tracks—which are low-key but informative and entertaining—I imagine peering into the recording studio, gasping, and whispering, "My God, it's full of nerds!" I mean that in a good way. Who else but a room full of nerds would be adequate tour guides through the world of Futurama? My favorite aspect of the tracks is when the participants point out scientific minutia and secret jokes. However, especially in the season's later episodes, the tracks have some long, quiet spots, in which the men are just watching along with us. All in all, though, these are great, breezy tracks from which you'll glean some welcome geek knowledge of the show.
The commentaries would be enough, but we also get some other supplemental material on all of the four discs, as follows:
Disc 1 contains a "Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love" Animatic, in essence the entire episode in its rough pencil-drawn, storyboarded form. You also get very funny Deleted Scenes for "I Second That Emotion," "Brannigan, Begin Again," "A Head in the Polls," "Xmas Story," and "Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love."
Disc 2 contains Storyboards for "A Bicyclops Built for Two," as well as Deleted Scenes for "The Lesser of Two Evils," "Put Your Head on My Shoulders," "Raging Bender," "A Bicyclops Built for Two," and "A Clone of My Own."
Disc 3 contains Deleted Scenes from "The Deep South," "Bender Gets Made," and "The Problem with Popplers."
Disc 4 contains a Still Gallery/Concept Art, containing mostly pencil drawings of characters and aliens, as well as an Alien Alphabet to help you translate the hieroglyphics that sometimes appear fleetingly in the show. You also get International Clips, which shows scenes from the show in various foreign languages. The Simpsons also had this feature, and I've never been wild about it. Also on Disc 4 are Alien Advertisements, a collection of the funny advertisements—Arachno Spores, Glagnar's Human Rinds, Molten Boron, and Soylent Chow—that precede four of the episodes. There are also Deleted Scenes for "The Honking" and "The Cryonic Woman."
If you search around a little, you'll find Easter Eggs that show high-school yearbook photos of the show's creators.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Futurama is a very fun show from the brain of Matt Groening, and it's something of a miracle that we now look forward to a couple more of these great sets. Fantastic image quality and an entertaining set of supplements rate Season 2 quite highly.