Yesterday's Futurama took us on a psychedelic, president-licking journey through time, space, and disturbingly British alternate futures, complete with a rope-dealing Thomas Jefferson, vomiting Ulysses S. Grant, elbow-fetishizing James Madison, and badger-wielding Benjamin Franklin. Now that's what I call history!
"All the President's Heads" finds Professor Farnsworth sprucing up his family tree, eager to show anyone willing to listen - and plenty who aren't - all the amazing people he's descended from. (There's also Fry.) When Fry abuses his second job as a night watchman at the head museum to throw a big party with all the presidents - featuring such guest heads as Amelia Pond, Inara Serra, and Owen Harper, albeit in the form of some fairly generic heads - the Professor discovers from George Washington that his 18th century ancestor David Farnworth was actually a traitorous forger.
Taking advantage of some previously unknown properties of heads in jars - namely, that ingesting the jar fluid can send you back in time - the Professor drags Fry, Bender, and Leela on a jaunt back to 1775. There, the gang hobnobs with various sentinels of liberty, and they even manage to foil the nefarious David Farnsworth. Only one slight problem: Fry unwittingly interferes with Paul Revere's legendary ride - as the Professor puts it, he "really screws the granny this time" - causing a swift British victory and an altered, still colonial 31st century America.
Before we get into the analysis of this episode, I should say that I am a massive, massive presidents buff. I'm the sort of presidential history nerd who writes lengthy treatises on possible alternate commanders-in-chief, and somewhere out in the ether there may even be a clip of me on Beauty and the Geek naming all the presidents backwards. (Unless that was just an elaborate fever dream. I kinda hope it was.) As such, I'm guessing my reaction to this episode was a bit different from other viewers', because as soon as I heard about this episode, I was banking on nothing but 22 minutes of arcane, ultra obscure presidential in-jokes.
Obviously, that may not have been a reasonable expectation. And don't get me wrong, we still got some of that, particularly a subtle nod to Calvin Coolidge's reputation for being Silent Cal - of course he's not going to complain if you keep your beers in his jar. But most of the gags were more just about being absurd with the presidents, which is fun too - I mean, this episode portrayed James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and the principal author of the Bill of Rights, as a creepy elbow-loving pervert. What's not to love?
I also found the pun about Ulysses S. Grant "vomiting in the bushes" to be extremely satisfying, as much for linguistic reasons as for any lingering political resentments. I'm actually pretty sure that's the first time George W. Bush has ever appeared on a Matt Groening show, and that seems like quite an appropriate introduction. Throw in Gerald Ford's lovable stupidity, James K. Polk's random DJing, John Tyler inexplicably talking like Droopy Dog, and a never not funny gag about Chester Alan Arthur's middle initial, and quick nods to Taft's gluttony, Harding's affairs, and LBJ's fondness for drunken partying...well, I'm satisfied. Although where was the joke about Grover Cleveland serving non-consecutive terms!?
Next, there's all the colonial stuff. Previous time travel episodes - including the show's finest half-hour, "Roswell that Ends Well" - have generally tried to be basically historically accurate, or at the very least evoke some period details and create the sense that our heroes are visiting a fully-realized time and place. The 1775 of this episode, on the other hand, is something else entirely, a gloriously inaccurate world where New York is just two buildings and a cow.Of course, there's no sane way to incorporate Bender or Leela into this era anyway, so the episode goes for broke with all the things our Founding Fathers mistake Bender for, including a crock pot, a steam engine, scrap metal, and, most awesomely, a cannon. (Also, Peru is full of cyclopes!)
The whole journey through colonial times reads like the writers took a half-assed history report they wrote in the fourth grade and then used that as their sole bit of research...and I mean that as a high compliment. I loved Paul Revere's extremely half-hearted attempts to disguise his anti-British sentiments, Thomas Jefferson's joke about Ben Franklin that Fry didn't get, and...well, really anything to do with Ben Franklin, honestly, from his bizarre inventions to his satanic approach to our nation's currency. Plus, the writers addressed the whole "s's that look like f's" thing, which had a spectacular, Bender's aff-related payoff, as you can see below.
The trip to the British 31st century offers a fun look at the now colonial New New York, complete with an improbably thatched Planet Express, a double-decker hoverbus, a Harrods shout-out (which just has to be a first for American animation), and, best of all, a cameo from the Doctor and the TARDIS. I kind of wish they had really gone for it and crammed in all eleven Doctors - running in fast-motion to the Benny Hill music, which was noticeably absent from all the stereotypical Britishness - but considering this is the show's first proper Doctor Who reference after twelve years, I guess I can't really complain. (And no, by all accounts Leela is not named after Louise Jameson's savage 70s companion.)
As someone who is not only a presidents buff but also a Brit, I'll say two things about the British sequence: all the gags were thoroughly obvious, and the accents were pretty much uniformly awful, outside maybe Phil LaMarr's Hermes and, weirdly enough, John DiMaggio's Bender. However, I'm pretty sure that was the whole point. Futurama loves its outsize, over-the-top meta-parodies, and a lot of the British gags fall squarely into that category. At this point, I more enjoy and appreciate that form of humor than find it all that funny, although I did unreservedly love Dr. Zoidsmythe and the dreadlocked, Manhattan United supporting Hermes.
This probably says nothing good about either me or the episode, but three of my favorite gags had to do with horrendous acts of animal abuse. There was Bender's, uh, unique take on clubbing, the Professor's offhand remark that Bender had kicked their horse to death, and of course Ben Franklin's ultimate weapon, the Franklinator, which is just a club with a badger tied to it - or, if you're unlucky, a chipmunk.
Overall, I'd say this is one of the new season's better episodes. It falls just short of a classic in my book - it doesn't have quite enough jokes or quite enough big ideas to make that leap. That said, it's got a goodly amount of both gags and crazy ideas, and I suspect this is an episode that will stand up particularly well to a lot of repeat viewings. It's also one of the most beautiful episodes to look at, what with all the unusual costumes and settings and ludicrously prominent Leela cleavage. And the TARDIS! Any episode with the TARDIS is all right in my book.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some presidents to recite. I think I might try it reverse alphabetically this time.