Futurama has had a rocky history with pop culture critique. Its latest episode, "Calculon 2.0," succeeds because it actually has something to say. Something really mean.
This episode will not go down in history as having the best jokes. It has a couple of good one-liners and one spectacular scene, but it's more focused on cultural commentary than wise cracks. After "Attack of the Killer App," the mention of cultural commentary will have many viewers shifting in their chairs, but unlike "App", which was just throwing out phenomena — Apple! Twitter! Susan Boyle! — "Calculon 2.0" has something to say about how pop culture is changing.
After Calculon dies, "in a failed attempt to make his death scene more convincing," Bender resurrects him. The new Calculon finds himself unwanted because of the other new Calculon, a slimmed-down acting bot called Vaxtron who now has all the best roles and all the glory. Vaxtron allows the show to update Calculon's dated stereotype. Calculon was an over-the-top Olivier whose main acting trick was the dramatic . . . . . . . . . . . . pause. We don't see many of those kinds of bad actors anymore.
Instead, Vaxtron shows us a new breed of bad actor. He's so detached that he seems almost comatose, and his expressionless face, motionless body, and blank voice are as dull as Calculon was annoying. Most viewers will disagree on exactly who they're spoofing, but that makes for good debate during the commercials. (I think it's Ryan Gosling. I don't think he's a bad actor at all, so please don't maul me, but he hasn't had a role that made him raise either his voice or his eyebrows since Crazy, Stupid, Love. Plus the hair on Vaxtron reminds me of his hair in Drive.)
This central theme, the transition from hammy old actors to catatonic new ones, keeps the episode together. The best part by far, though, is when Calculon tries to make his comeback by performing performing as HAL from 2001. It's worth the whole episode. The contrast between HAL's expressionless voice and Calculon's unhinged acting style is priceless. I could listen to Calculon scream, "DAISEEEEEEEEEEE! DAISEEEEEEEEEE! MY MIIIIIIIIIIIIND IS GOOOOOOOOOOOIIIIIIING!" for hours.