Futurama misses its chance to explore the downside of the new iPhone and Twitter

Illustration for article titled Futurama misses its chance to explore the downside of the new iPhone and Twitter

The 31st century show placed itself firmly in the world of 21st century technology last night, exploring the obsession with the new "eyePhone" and getting a million followers on "Twitcher." Unfortunately, the episode couldn't do much with this fertile territory.

Let's get it out of the way right now: "Attack of the Killer App" really isn't a very good episode. It pains me to say it, and maybe it'll improve when I watch it again, but this episode just isn't up to the standard of last week's episodes, let alone Futurama as a whole. Still, I'm not going to rush to judgment on this new season, and I actually think a lot of went wrong in this episode can be easily fixed or avoided from here on out. There were three basic problems with the episode, so let's take a look at them one at a time.

Probably the biggest problem with the episode was its focus on current internet and technology trends. I've yet to see a show really find anything interesting or intelligent to say about whatever the latest web phenomenon is, and part of the problem is the internet moves much, much faster than TV production schedules. To its credit, Futurama did manage to time the episode's broadcast to coincide with the release of the new iPhone, but that timeliness arguably works against the show because it makes it feel even more instantly dated. It was jarring enough to hear Zapp Brannigan talk about CSI: Miami last week, but it strains credulity well past the breaking point to have our heroes in the year 3010 precisely reenact the tech trends of a millennium ago.


Now, make no mistake - Futurama has done timely very well in the past. "A Head in the Polls" was a great commentary on the voter apathy that led up to the 2000 election and the widespread belief that Al Gore and George W. Bush were pretty much identical candidates (no, seriously...that's actually a thing people once thought). "Crimes of the Hot" managed to parody a lot of the prevailing arguments on all sides of the global warming debate and the eternally short-term thinking that plagues human efforts to tackle environmental issues.

Those episodes were absolutely rooted in current events, and indeed they were great because of it. But those two episodes alone featured such wondrously absurd concepts like cloned presidential candidates, Bender selling his body and driving his head around in a little car, the head of Richard Nixon and the headless body of Spiro Agnew, mining Halley's Comet for giant ice cubes to drop in the ocean, and a gigantic robot party on the Galapagos Islands that ended with all the world's robots venting their fuel exhausts to move the Earth further away from the Sun. In other words, those episodes took mundane present day issues and wrapped them up in gleefully insane science fiction concepts.

This episode, on the other hand, just felt way too on-the-nose in its parody. Very little of what happened here couldn't have happened on a contemporary animated show like, well, The Simpsons. (And considering what The Simpsons has become, that isn't really a compliment.) People standing in lines that stretch across the city for the new phone, people vapidly posting everything about themselves to their loyal followers, people foolishly trying to use their phones while driving...these jokes are just sort of obvious and, frankly, already stale. Yeah, putting the new phones in the characters' eyes was a sort of cool idea, and it made for some moderately interesting visuals, but otherwise it felt an awful lot like the only thing the writers had done to parody iPhone and Twitter was change their spellings. Even the final gag where Mom's evil "Twit-worm" that was supposed to turn between a million and two million people into zombies really just made them buy a new eyePhone felt less like cutting satire and more like the writers had run out of ideas.

Maybe the most obvious issue with this episode was it just wasn't all that funny. I'm straining to think of any memorable one-liners from this episode. (It says something when I was praying the anti-humor of a Scruffy non-sequitur could provide a moment of levity, but even his line fell strangely flat.) The scenes with Mom were probably the closest the episode came to consistently amusing, but even that felt like a pretty pale shadow of what the show has done with those characters before. The Infosquito was pretty great though, I must admit.


Still, I'll admit that the stuff about the two-headed goat constantly vomiting out of one head and crapping out of the other into a swimming pool was, if not exactly hilarious, at least admirable in its commitment to the ludicrous, disgusting gag. But the less said about that whole "Susan Boil" business, the better. I'll give Futurama credit for not making it quite as cringeworthy as it could have been, but it was still pretty awful, and I really look forward to having no idea what the hell that joke was referencing when I rewatch this a decade from now.

The final problem with this episode was, much like last week's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela", this episode felt overstuffed. More than that, it just felt shapeless, as though the writers had a few moderately good ideas about technology and the internet that were each about four or five minutes long, so they just sort of slapped them together. This was a problem that plagued some of the DVD movies and was generally seen as a byproduct of writing ninety-minute movies that could also work as four individual TV episodes. So it's a bit weird to see this an episode that feels so haphazardly plotted and aimless - seriously, what did that detour to the Third World planet have to do with anything that followed? - now that the show is back to its traditional half-hour format.


I think the thing to keep in mind on that last point is that the show has been off the air since 2003. It would hardly be surprising if the writers are still figuring out how to make episodic Futurama again. After all, the first few episodes of the original run are noticeably rougher around the edges than those that followed, as the writers, directors, and actors were still teaching themselves the rules of their incredibly rich and complex universe as they went. (Admittedly, none of those early episodes misstepped quite so badly as "Attack of the Killer App.") My hope is that what we're seeing here is just the necessary trial and error of rediscovering Futurama's voice, and I plan to remain optimistic for at least a few more weeks.

Indeed, I think there's good reason to think the show's about to turn the corner, perhaps as soon as next week. The next scheduled episode, "Proposition Infinity", examines the 31st century over robosexual marriage, which is pretty much exactly the type of scifi-filtered commentary on current events that Futurama traditionally does so well. A lot of upcoming episodes also sound like they have much richer plots than "Hey, aren't the iPhone and Twitter kinda dumb?" and so hopefully will have at least the decent pacing and momentum of last week's episodes. And as for being funny? Well, there's no obvious remedy for that other than write better jokes, something I still trust the Futurama writers to do. Although it's a shame they so wasted the absurd comic genius of Craig Ferguson.


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Actually, the first dozen or so episodes of Futurama hold up pretty well, particularly in comparison with The Simpsons, which didn't really hit its stride until the third season or so (not that anyone noticed with the insane popularity the show enjoyed when it premiered). Futurama always felt as if it had a much stronger sense of identity out of the gate, and I always got the feeling that Groening likes it better than his other, more famous show.