Television

Where to Start With Futurama’s Galaxy of Aliens, Robots, and Reanimated President Heads

In this screengrab, the preserved sentient head of Richard Nixon glares at the disembodied head of Bender, who is also glaring.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screengrab from Futurama episode “A Head in the Polls.”

Futurama, the animated comedy set in the 31st century, is packed with background gags, in-jokes, meandering subplots, shows within the show, and bizarre but (usually) lovable characters—be they humans, animals, aliens, robots, mutants, monsters, or heads in jars. It’s a massive, rich universe to immerse yourself in: There are thousands of entries in the show’s wiki, and one plotline was so complex that a show writer invented an entirely new math theorem to resolve it. But what makes Futurama remarkable is that it doesn’t feel like work to watch it. Despite the effort the creators went through to create a cosmos vast in scope, there’s no pretentious or forbiddingly highbrow references that you need to study to truly understand it, no lore to memorize. It’s clever, winking, and self-aware, but never overbearing. It’s fun.

Futurama takes place in a future where interplanetary civilizations mingle, humans inhabit worlds with aliens and robots, and everything contains some sort of cultural reference to Earth history. The primary story centers around Philip J. Fry, a human who was cryogenically frozen in 1999 and emerges in 2999. His new, better life in the glamorous, techno-fantastic future finds him working for a delivery company named Planet Express run by his distant descendant, the absent-minded but brilliant professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, and living with an avaricious, kleptomaniac robot named Bender, who is literally fueled by alcohol. His co-workers and new friends at the company include one-eyed captain Turanga Leela (whom Fry crushes on quickly), spoiled engineering intern Amy Wong, hardheaded accountant and former limbo champion Hermes Conrad, the medically incompetent alien Dr. Zoidberg, and janitor Scruffy. Together, this idiosyncratic crew journeys to bizarre planets and often finds itself somehow responsible for the fate of the universe, even when its members are far from the ones who should be.

This massive intergalactic saga was the brainchild of Matt Groening, the famed The Simpsons creator whose still-iconic venture made the network so much bank that the suits asked him to repeat the magic with yet another show. Groening enlisted fellow Simpsons writer-producer David X. Cohen, and the two steeped themselves in science fiction lore, belching out a mishmash of ideas that would coalesce into Futurama. Despite attracting an enthusiastic fan base early on—helped along by the spread of the internet and leading to the pioneering meme formats still in use today—the show soon became a classic example of an ambitious, creative enterprise sabotaged by TV execs who just wanted another hit.

Fox took a while to settle on consistent airtimes for the show, and the ratings, while high for an animated show at first, suffered as a result. Futurama aired in an erratic fashion: first on Fox from 1999–2003, then as a series of four direct-to-video movies in 2007, and finally a few more seasons on Comedy Central from 2010–13. The show had multiple “series finales,” but it seems safe to assume that—save for an audio-only reunion episode in 2017 and rumors following Syfy’s acquisition of the rights—Futurama is likely finished, especially with Groening having turned to other projects like Disenchantment.

That’s fine, because the 140 episodes already in existence are a satisfying text all their own, hilarious and heartwarming in equal measure. Futurama is consistently entertaining, but part of what makes the show truly outstanding is that, in between the nerdy jokes and timebound references, pathos abounds: Much of the show revolves around Fry’s reckoning with his new life and unhappy past, as well as his unrequited love for Leela, while the latter struggles with her own unique alien identity.

In fact, all the characters, wacky as they are, have multiple episodes focused on them, their strife, and their strange lives in this often morbid world—after all, a shaky galactic coalition populated by aggressive conflict-happy species tends not to be a utopia. Through these lenses, Futurama touches on themes of family, loneliness, bigotry, love, loss, greed, and the existential angst of life. It’s one of the great animated shows about what it means to be different, special, lonely in this vast, chaotic, unknowable universe.

All this makes it difficult to pick the ideal point at which to hop on the USS Planet Express Ship. But there is one early episode that includes some of Futurama’s best show-spanning gags, showcases the personalities of the three primary characters—Fry, Leela, and Bender—perfectly, and contains a plotline that proves particularly consequential for the series: Season 2, Episode 7, “A Head in the Polls.”

“Head” is one of Futurama’s most explicitly political episodes, both a reflection of mass perceptions of politics at the time (the episode aired in 1999, after all) and a portent of the worst yet to come. The episode takes place during an election cycle for president of the Earth, and the two front-runners are human clones John Jackson and Jack Johnson, whose policy aims are, like their appearances, identical. Politics bores Bender and Fry as much as it excites Leela, who tries hard to get the two to care.

Meanwhile, a mine collapse that traps and kills hundreds of robots causes the price of titanium to skyrocket. The ever-greedy Bender, being made of “40 percent titanium” and sensing an opportunity, sells his body to a pawn shop, leaving him with just a head and a wad of cash he’s more than happy to splurge. Looking for some company, he visits a museum of preserved, sentient human heads of history, where a mournful conversation with the head of Richard Nixon causes Bender to realize how much he actually misses his body. But when he attempts to get it back from the pawn shop, he finds it’s been sold—to Nixon, who uses it to announce his candidacy in the Earth elections, running a familiar campaign with nods to his sweat problem as well as those damn hippies.

Bender, Fry, and Leela scheme to get Bender’s body back by sneaking into Nixon’s room at the Watergate Hotel (classic!), catching his diabolical plan on tape (classic!), and using the recording to blackmail him into returning the robot body he purchased (not so classic!). But they’ve underestimated Nixon’s desire to win and the marginalized robot vote, which you could call a silent majority. In an era ruled by the whims of a con man who ran his own grievance-tinged insurgent campaign to capture the hearts of the disaffected, parts of this may make for a slightly too-close-to-home watch 20 years after its original airing.

But of course, that’s the beauty of the show—it imagines a world from far away in time and brings it right to you, sometimes uncomfortably close. It’s why “A Head in the Polls” encapsulates the best of Futurama, with its wacky, grimly funny storyline, absorbing animated sequences, and keen understanding of its characters’ ever-watchable vices. It sets the stage for limitless possibilities of a new galactic politics, the consequences of which viewers will get to witness as the series expands. And you don’t need an elaborate setup to know what’s going on here and to enjoy it, because the early travails of the Planet Express crew don’t quite yet get into the weedy timelines and subplots you’ll lose yourself in later. “Head” is the perfect episode to kickstart your Futurama experience, inviting you seamlessly into the year 3000 while preparing you for the even zanier stuff to come.

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20th Century Fox Television