A red-headed man with eyes bugged out in shock sits, motionless, in a glass tube. The beer in his hand has frothed, but is frozen. Outside, ten centuries pass. New York is destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again (no one seems to know how the man and his tube survive the repeated onslaught of alien lasers). Finally, a timer ticks down, and ding! The tube opens, and the man slumps down with a whoosh of steam around him. Philip J. Fry is welcomed, again, to the world of tomorrow.
When DVDs were the thing, I would often fall asleep to Futurama on a loop. Inevitably, I would wake up, face impressed with the grain of a cheap couch, the theme music repeating, Bender’s brassy voice insulting me as I slept off the tension from marking the thousandth comma error that day. These sounds are familiar; they belong to my friends, albeit fictional friends, with whom my complicated relationship is unrequited. The Planet Express crew are ill-behaved friends, yes, who have little decorum and who tell the same stories over and over. But their stories, especially the ones Fry, the inept, 20th century delivery boy and Leela, the bossy, mutant space captain, tell, never get boring.
1. How I Feel When I’m Drunk Is Correct?
Futurama frequently presents Fry as useless and undesirable; the series goes out of its way to make sure we understand this point: he’s only got one set of clothes; he loses his teeth from drinking too much Slurm; he is his own grandfather; he can’t kill the last ship on Space Invaders. But despite this overt characterization, the series insists on Fry as an emotional hero—a devoted friend, he loves unabashedly and hopes always. In “The Why of Fry” he starts to lose his hopeful attitude; Leela dates an arrogant mayor’s aide, Bender and Leela don’t need his help on deliveries, and he gets a ticket for failing to scoop Nibbler’s poop, even though “it weighs as much as a thousand suns.” He tries to argue that he matters, but really can’t; he tells Leela miserably, “the kind of importance I have, it doesn’t matter if I don’t do it.”
But it does matter; the whole universe depends on Fry doing something. Turns out, Fry, as Nibbler tells us, is “the single most important person in the universe.”
On Planet Eternium, Nibbler (a brilliant alien masquerading Leela’s pet) and his colleagues explain to Fry the consequences of his “doing the nasty in the past-y.” In a previous episode, “Roswell That Ends Well,” Fry travels back through time and gets pretty (un)lucky with his grandma. As a result of the unintentional inbreeding, his brain lacks the delta wave, thus making him invisible and impervious to the evil Brain Spawn. As luck would have it, the Brain Spawn have built an Infosphere in order to collect all the knowledge in the universe. They’ll prevent new knowledge by destroying the universe. Fry agrees to destroy the Infosphere.
Fry flies to the rescue on his Scooty Puff Jr., which promptly breaks. But even after it breaks, Fry sets off his bomb, knowing he can’t escape. He does, as he tells the Brain Spawn, one important thing with his life.
That’s where I connect with this show—the wanting to know that what I do matters. That somewhere, among chasing down drafts, and writing the same comment (“Please proofread” or “Expand this analysis”) on student papers, something useful and important happens. That how I feel at the beginning of each new semester is correct: I can include students in a conversation about research and writing, I can get them to embrace revision, I can help value them writing.
But right around October, I become discouraged. And not because of my students; instead, I feel stuck in a system of adjunct labor, little more than a delivery boy—assign three papers to two classes, grade the papers, start a new semester. Relationships with students, much less my own writing or research, tend to get thrown by the wayside in the interest of just getting the job done. And so, the one important thing gets lost; my work just serves a larger, vaguer institutional goal.
Fry becomes similarly disillusioned. The brains reveal to him the real reason he got frozen: Nibbler blew on his chair in 1999, and forced him into the freezer tube. Distraught, Fry, along with the brains, implodes into an alternate universe by the explosion he sets off. Once there, the Brain Spawn offer him a deal—they can send him back to stop Nibbler and they’ll be free to consume and destroy knowledge (oh, the commentary on academia). He takes the deal. Once back in the cryogenic lab, on December 31st, 1999, Future Fry grabs Nibbler by the throat and demands to know why.
Now, Fry has a choice: resume his old life, or get frozen and continue into the future. Fry says that Leela makes the future worth saving, but really, he also knows that he will matter in the future. Past Fry doesn’t matter, or doesn’t feel like he does. Fry chooses Leela, but he also chooses to return to the time that makes him important.
And we end where we began—Fry lets his past self fall into the freezer tube. He gets his hero moment—he rides into the Infosphere on an improved Scooty Puff (“The Doombringer”) and destroys it. And even after Nibbler, who as a covert operative needs Fry to forget that he’s more than a prodigious pooper, blanks his memory, Fry gets to be important: after her date behaves like a complete ass, Leela feels happy to see Fry, and he feels like the most important person in the universe.
As an educator, the happy end of semester well wishes, the “I’m so proud of you” moments, and even the occasional continued relationships with students can provide that “how I feel when I’m drunk” feeling. But rather than being the most important person at my job, I’m among the least important. The reality of adjunct labor will not change because I admire and think fondly of my students. I’m facing an increasingly urgent choice: stay or leave. But there’s no hero future here—just a choice to remain part of a contingent and undervalued work force, or to start a new career. That’s a frightening choice, and so Fry’s ultimate validation, his reconciliation with Leela, and pursuit of his life in the future cheer me up. He ends up where he started, yet better.
2. …if you heard a familiar voice, it might help keep your mind together.
Eventually, all of our DVDs got too scratched to play. Netflix replaced them, streaming across the computer screen, and, via the ancient technology of the Nintendo Wii, streaming across the TV screen. Using the WiiMote, I could start binge watching at the push of a button. The circumstances were usually mundane: cleaning, grading, or cooking with my Futurama friends chattering in the background and keeping me company. Everyday life gets disrupted, though, even among the most common of situations: having children, and dealing with the emotional aftermath.
In “The Sting,” The Planet Express crew undertakes a risky mission to harvest space honey from deadly space bees (Farnsworth: “A single sting of their hideous neurotoxin can cause instant death.”). In the process, a baby queen stings Leela and impales Fry. We experience Leela’s grief and guilt over Fry’s death, for which she blames herself. The twist (and if you need a spoiler alert for a fifteen-year-old show, why are you reading this?): Leela got all the poison and Fry just needs a spleen transplant.
I’m always reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” watching Leela’s breakdown: Gilman’s unnamed protagonist, rendered unstable by postpartum depression and isolation, tears at the wallpaper lining her room to free the woman she sees trapped in it. Leela, hallucinating as she fights bee venom in a coma, tears the faces of her friends off the wall and vacuums them off the floor as they chant “You killed Fry! You killed Fry!” Two women, centuries apart, claw at their walls as they struggle to keep their selves together.
And there it is: the struggle to keep the self together. Leela’s not a mother, but she’s responsible for the man-child Fry, and she loves him. She believes Fry has died an agonizing death because of her; her guilt drives her insane. Gilman’s protagonist, locked up, her husband “protecting” her from motherhood, believes she is responsible for freeing the women in the walls.
And, in November of 2012, I called my OB, responsible for the infant in my lap. It’s hard to see when you’re in it. I couldn’t really go outside; I struggled to heal his rampant diaper rash; I cried all the time; I was angry. A voice on repeat told me over and over that my life would hold no purpose, only instead of coming from the walls, this chant came from my own brain, “cracking up” as Leela describes it. My self had been subsumed into diapers, swollen breasts, failed nap schedules, and desperate nights rocking and rocking and rocking in the nursery.
Leela panics as her mind betrays her again and again with guilt, grief, and hallucinations. But, always devoted, Fry sits by her bed, “like a parrot of the sea” as Zoidberg describes, imploring her to wake up and return to him.
And she does. Frye doesn’t know if he helped; Leela assures him he did. They hug. They make jokes about each other needing a shower.
In the next episode, “Bend Her,” Leela returns once again as the stable, practical, nagging voice of reason. She problem-solves, devising a way to allow Coilette (Bender’s womanly alter-ego) to marry Calculon without breaking Calculon’s heart or revealing Bender’s desire to return to his original form. She creates an elaborate plan to stage a melodramatic “death”: “If there’s one kind of pain he can handle, it is soap opera pain.”
One week, she’s tearing at the walls, the next she’s crashing a wedding yelling “Coilette! You she-devil!” Things are back as they were. One month, I’m fighting to keep it together. The next I’m standing in a classroom. Back as I was. As much as I could be.
3. I can’t believe everybody’s just ad-libbing.
The original series finale was “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings.” (The series has been resurrected twice; it’s hard to declare this episode an actual finale.) It returns to one of the central conflicts of the series: Fry’s unrequited love for and futile pursuit of Leela. Fry, having won the Robot Devil’s mechanical, musical hands in a literal deal with the devil, writes an ode to Leela on the holophoner: “Leela, Orphan of the Stars.” The operatic character of Leela is heroic in every sense: during the retelling of her abandonment at the orphanarium, the warden asks “Who is this one-eyed female baby Moses, with courage in her female baby smile?” and true to her practical character, the baby Leela replies “Or just a lonely filthy starving child!”
Later on, in the opera, Fry, Leela, and Bender fight Godzilla, with the Fry playing the role of the damsel in distress, held upside down by Godzilla, who will “devour him” as Bender makes a flimsy excuse to run away.
C and I start signing here, as Robot Devil tells Fry that the opera “is as lousy as it is brilliant.” We do Clinic Defense together. Standing in orange identifiers while anti-choice protestors mutter insults and harass women grinds us down; we must remain steady, we must not escalate the situation and we must try to keep everyone safe. In an effort to calm ourselves, I put on my best cheesecake pose, and sing as Leela, explaining why the Robot Devil has pulled her to the stage:
“I should have revealed I’ve been deafened by Bender, the shame! The Shame!
But I feared you ‘d stop writing this musical splendor
Deception’s the curse of my whimsical gender.”
Around us, the sidewalk cringes. Anti-choice protestors whisper and look askance. The ruse works. C laughs as he walks by with a patient, plays the shocked Hermes to my embittered Amy:
“Is this really happening or just being staged?”
“It can’t be real, not if Leela is engaged.”
And over the monotone litanies and the off-key Ave Marias, we remind each other of Zoidberg’s questionable support of Fry, who refuses to play with human hands:
“The music was in your heart! Not in your hands… [after Fry plays sour notes] Your music is bad and you should feel bad.”
The episode mocks and celebrates the show’s deeply ingrained absurdity. Among the realities of gory protest signs, foam fetuses, and old men carrying gold painted mega-phones, singing the lyrics to a cartoon space opera isn’t just a gag. We revel in the irony of singing an opera put in motion by a devil and Hedonism Bot while prayers are used as psychological weapons around us. It bonds us together; C and I trust each other, but we like each other as well. We have fun, and we sing boisterously in the face of cruelty and anger.
4. I just like TV better!
In Season 1’s “When Aliens Attack,” the Omicronians attack earth, infuriated at the interruption of their favorite show. A thousand-year-old sitcom, “Single Female Lawyer” doesn’t seem very good, but they’re devoted to it, literally foaming at the mouth when the static cuts in. They want to know how it ends, and when they can’t, because the second coming of Jesus destroyed all videotapes, they throw an intergalactic tantrum. After murdering the president of Earth, they give an ultimatum: show us the end, or Earth gets it.
Fry, who has wasted his life in front of the TV, remembers the show—in part because his spilled beer ruined the broadcast—and the Planet Express crew stages a remake. When Leela wants to do something “clever and unexpected,” Fry reminds her that “clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.” And the ending proves Fry right—the Omicronians want the same resolution they’ve seen “a thousand times before” (they give Fry’s a C+). As they fly off, leaving the ruins of New New York smoldering around the Planet Express building, Fry proudly claims that he saved the day thanks to “knowing the secret of all TV shows: at the end of the episode, everything’s always right back to normal.”
Not all of us watch TV like the Omicronians, but I do. I don’t necessarily mind clever (not if I’m watching a show that created its own mathematical theorem), but I’m not a fan of unexpected. Netflix and Amazon stream through my Roku—every service managed by one controller, and one continuous play system. I’m a comfort watcher. I rewatch and rewatch, dozens of times. I retreat into the worlds I know well, with characters that are friends, with outcomes I already understand. Futurama is what I return to, when I want things to be the same as they were. I want to get the joke over and over again; I want to matter; I want to get better; I want to sing. And when the Roku asks me if I want to continue watching, I click yes.