Last night's Futurama pitted Planet Express's cutest intern and a benevolent cute alien against cute - but evil! - aliens in disguise. Maybe it was all just too cute: the Earth-threatening plot fell on the wrong side of silly.
This may not be an entirely fair criticism, but I really wish "That Darn Katz!" was a slightly different type of Futurama episode. Based on the promos, I was all set for another big invasion episode, which has produced some strong episodes and setpieces in the past, like "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid", "A Taste of Freedom", and the middle section of The Beast with a Billion Backs. In particular, the thought of Nixon or Zapp Brannigan dealing with an all-out kitty invasion seemed like a lot of fun.
So I was disappointed to discover I had misread the previews, and the alien invasion didn't extend much beyond the Planet Express building. I think there was a more general problem here, actually - the episode ultimately spun a tale that stretched back thousands of years, spanned half the galaxy, and put all humanity on the brink of extinction...and yet everything remained incredibly self-contained.
Futurama has spent a decade building up a brilliant larger universe of supporting characters, and much as it was fun to see Wormstrom and Bubblegum Tate again, this episode could have benefited from expanding its scale, if only to make the massive stakes - apparently, the survival of an entire planet - seem a little more real. But perhaps such a world-spanning episode isn't really possible for Futurama anymore.
I've noticed a lot of this season's episodes have picked two or three characters and focused on them almost exclusively (Bender and Hermes in "A Lethal Inspection", Fry and the Professor in "The Duh Vinci Code", Amy and Bender in "Proposition Infinity"), with the rest of the cast getting little more than a compressed b-story and some scattered one-liners to call their own. This has afforded the show an opportunity to examine closely some unlikely pairings and has made for some great character moments, although the scope and pacing of the show have suffered as a result. And it didn't help that tonight's pairing was one of the strangest, and honestly one of the least interesting: Amy and Nibbler.
As a general rule, I'm not too worried about continuity on Futurama. The series is first and foremost a comedy show, and I don't think it does too much damage to occasionally veer out of character or violate established backstory for the sake of a good joke or even a particularly clever idea. As such, it doesn't particularly bother me that Amy is now the professor's grad student when I could have sworn she was introduced as the Planet Express intern, or that this explanation for the pyramids seems to conflict with the one given in "A Pharaoh to Remember."
But I'm less comfortable with things that go against the overall structure of the series, and giving Nibbler a major speaking role in this episode without any explanation seems to fit in that category. In the past, the Nibblonians have been kept in reserve for only the more dire, universe-threatening dangers, and so watching him suddenly pipe up because Leela wasn't providing him stimulating enough conversation seemed a bit...off. (I realize that this more open relationship with the crew was set up in the DVD movies - I just don't think it's a strong direction to take Nibbler based on what's worked best for his character before.)
Considering he didn't really have much to do with the resolution of the episode (other than the cute dancing, I guess), I think the episode could have done just as well without him. Although I will admit the line about watching his best friend die in that sailor suit was a stroke of twisted genius, and there was an offhand brilliance in his declaration that the human puppets made for dogs to imitate people had been stolen by cats.
Suffice it to say, I've got my problems with "That Darn Katz." And yet...I kind of liked it, or at least specific parts of it. The opening section was a lot of fun, with more unusual drinks and unlikely Bender hook-ups. (Seriously, an alarm clock!?) The notion of Amy drinking herself to failure out of anxiety over her big thesis presentation was a refreshingly relateable little storyline, and the payoff at Mars University had some good moments as well. Professor Katz (or, as I should more accurately say, "Professor Katz") was a wonderfully sardonic character, and like I said before, I always welcome the return of Wormstrom and the Harlem Globetrotters.
And, as we've seen before this season, when the show couldn't come up with big jokes, it substituted big ideas. Although Futurama was never going to beat the ultimate secret history of cats, the plight of the feline planet was a wonderfully strange little story with some funny observations ("It seemed perfect - long nights for sleeping, and then long days...for sleeping!"), offbeat ideas (the cats would have destroyed Earth long ago, if Egyptian pampering hadn't made them lazy and domesticated), and, yes, cute moments (I loved those two cat astronomers). There's also something oddly pleasing about the idea that the Earth now spins backwards. (Here's hoping they keep that consistent in future episodes, although as I suggested earlier, I won't be overly bothered if they quietly ignore it. Besides, how often does the Earth's rotation come up anyway?)
I'd put "That Darn Katz!" in the same category as "The Duh Vinci Code", another episode with a fun central idea but not enough strong jokes (and a far too meandering plot) to keep up the momentum for 22 minutes. It's not a failure by any means, but it feels disposable, a pleasant enough way to pass a half hour but not something I'd actively seek out to watch again. That's not really such a bad thing, but I have to admit I'm a little disappointed I'm saying that about Futurama.