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Every Futurama finale was of its time

Futurama’s new Hulu season makes for a great time to reflect on all the past ‘definitive’ endings

Fry standing with his foot up on a desk speaking Image: Hulu

“It just won’t stay dead!” reads the subtitle of Bender’s Big Score, the bombastic feature-length return of Futurama after it was canceled in 2003.

Looking back, the tagline seems like quite the statement to make after being canceled just once. The show would ultimately end again in 2013, after climbing back out of the mud following its initial cancellation. Futurama’s trips between the graveyard and the screen have become something of a 21st-century tradition, with the latest renewal arriving on Hulu on Monday.

Despite being taken out back with a loaded shotgun on two occasions, each cancellation carried a silver lining — the creators of the show were able to craft definitive finales every time, giving birth to “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” “Meanwhile,” and the feature-length, direct-to-DVD film Into the Wild Green Yonder, which was produced when the series was in limbo between syndication deals. (Another potential finale, “Overclockwise,” was aired at the end of the sixth season.)

The ending to a show should attempt to find some resolution to the series’ main tensions while offering one last dose of what gave the show its fundamental identity. For Futurama, that meant resolving the will-they-won’t-they tennis match between Fry and Leela amid a wacky sci-fi adventure. Each finale shoots for that exact balance, but they don’t all hit it head on — though they all show love for a particular strand of Futurama’s identity.

All roads lead to Fry and Leela

Fry in the middle of proposing to Leela, captured in a icy rock, attached to a ring in a ring box being held open by tentacles in a still from Futurama’s “Meanwhile” episode Image: 20th Century Fox

The show put in a lot of work to ensure that Fry and Leela’s romantic tension sustained its entire run, often having to walk back previous definitive endings or find creative solutions as to why they aren’t together just yet. Some are more successful than others — Leela’s proclamation that “you’re a boy, I’m a girl, we’re just too different” stands out as one of the more wonderfully silly reasons to elongate their unresolved tension.

Though every finale sees Fry and Leela finally find their way to each other, that storyline is not always at the center of the plot. However, the most effective finales in this regard — “Meanwhile” and “Devil’s Hands” — revolve around the pair. The former sees Fry break time completely, giving himself and Leela eternity to travel the cosmos and harness their love for each other. The latter is more of a depiction of Fry’s courtship as he makes a deal with the literal (robot) devil in hopes of wooing Leela.

“Devil’s Hands” proves to be somewhat indefinite, ending with Fry fumbling through his big performance, his audience abandoning him except for Leela, who claims she “wants to hear how it ends” as the series fades to black. It’s touching, and its open-endedness stops the finale from feeling like it’s racing to a conclusion. “Meanwhile” provides more of a concrete outcome, with the couple growing old together in a frozen universe, something deeply romantic and satisfying to see after spending over a decade with these characters.

Into the Wild Green Yonder sees a grand kiss as Fry and Leela stand on the verge of certain death. The film has an undercurrent mapping out their relationship as they occupy opposite sides of a political issue and eventually find their way to each other — a microcosm of these two characters’ journeys. They started the series separated by 1,000 years, but ended up together nonetheless.

“Overclockwise,” in its outsized plot, finds time to give Fry and Leela a silent, hilarious, and touching moment where they read a letter detailing their fate generated by the simulations of a godlike Bender. Futurama found closure in multiple forms, never running out of creative ways to finally form that eternal bond between Fry and Leela. Every ending suited the time, too: “Devil’s Hands” was representative of a show with more story to tell but no time to tell it; Yonder was a climactic end to a feature film; “Overclockwise” was a calm, sweet moment that works as an ending to a season as well as the series as a whole; and “Meanwhile,” which stopped time to give what seemed to be the final finale.

How sci-fi trends changed Futurama finales

Fry and Leela sitting on Bender while the Futurama extended cast is looped to his arms like monkeys from a barrel of a monkeys Image: 20th Century Fox

Sci-fi can be used for immense spectacle as well as deeply intimate character studies. It’s a staple of the genre to take a small technological concept like overclocking or a modern conflict like climate change and apply it to the heightened world of tomorrow.

Into the Wild Green Yonder uses sci-fi as a tool for political satire, seeing Leela, Amy, and a group of female activists looking to stop Amy’s father from building his interplanetary “giant mini golf” course, which would end up destroying the habitats of various planets. Its ecological message takes priority over many of the characters here, making it a grand goodbye to the show, but one where it ceases to really feel like Futurama at times. Yonder and “Overclockwise” share this flaw, leaving character behind in the name of spectacle.

From the time that Futurama first ended in 2003 to the airing of “Overclockwise” in 2011, nerd culture had burst from behind the curtain of pop culture to establish its dominance. During Futurama’s initial run, things like comic book movies still felt like the obsessions of outsiders. This could be why the show’s initial run ends with “Devil’s Hands,” a familiar play on “deals with the devil” stories, rather than the more technical tales of future finales after science fiction emerged as a mainstream force.

These changing methods of storytelling showed how Futurama was able to weave sci-fi into stories varying in scale. Though it often led to stories that may have been too grandiose for their own good, the most recent finale, 2013’s “Meanwhile,” struck gold.

The A-plot is more Fry/Leela drama: After Leela’s brush with death, Fry is afraid of her being taken away from him and decides to propose. In a subplot, the professor invents a button that sends time 10 seconds into the past as well as a bubble that protects the user from the button’s effects. Thinking that Leela has rejected him, Fry jumps from the Vampire State building, an instantly regrettable decision. Remembering the professor’s time button, he looks for a way to cheat death, only to find that he had been falling for longer than 10 seconds. The resulting time loop ends up with Fry demolishing the button while he and Leela stand in the protective bubble. The entirety of time around them comes to a halt.

It’s the perfect marriage of sci-fi and romance, with a take on each genre we barely see, but one that fits together beautifully. Fry and Leela get a romantic odyssey as they decide to spend eternity as the only two breathing beings in existence. They travel the cosmos, the only beating hearts in a frozen universe. “Meanwhile” is a gorgeous dedication to how the rest of the universe is insignificant when you clutch the hand of the person you love.

True to Futurama’s roots

Professor Farnsworth stands in a glass case trying to grab money while some of his Futurama cast stare on from the background Image: 20th Century Fox

Bidding a show farewell should be an emotional experience. A finale can be flawed, but it cannot disregard the spirit of the show. Futurama’s reputation for comedy, tender character work, and creative sci-fi ideas are swirled into each finale.

Picking up after “Devil’s Hands” and “Overclockwise” were more straightforward tasks, as they’re episodes that maintain their sitcom DNA, with everything more or less back to normal at the end of the episode. This makes sense for the latter, an episode designed to be an emergency finale in case another cancellation was around the corner. “Devil’s Hands,” however, feels like something left open-ended due to the creators’ feelings that they had more story to tell after just four seasons. The cult following of the show and the deep connection to it felt by its creators meant that Groening and company were always fighting for the show to return.

Yonder had to deal with the fact that the characters were heading to their doom, resulting in the convoluted, slightly nonsensical “Rebirth” at the start of the next season. We see the professor conceive a gloopy contraption that breathes life into the corpses of the entire Planet Express crew, except for Leela. The quest to replace her involves robot duplicates galore in an attempt to not resolve death with a death-undoing machine. Yonder is a classic case of writing yourself into a corner, since it was seen as a feature-length last hurrah for the series. Any episode would struggle to undo a plummet to the death.

The first episode of the Futurama revival on Hulu is tasked with following up “Meanwhile.” Though it is often regarded as a perfect end for the show, it refuses to be diminished by future episodes; “Meanwhile” stands immune as a parallel universe story. But that doesn’t mean the Hulu incarnation of the series won’t be tasked with carving out its own identity once again: The new season needs to reckon with the passage of almost a decade in which adult animated sitcoms like Rick and Morty have found dominance in Futurama’s once uncontested sci-fi niche. In many ways, the modern adult animated landscape owes a lot to Futurama, expanding on its base ideas in multiple ways. But Rick and Morty has been at the forefront of a multiverse craze and is a show with the license to push its science fiction concepts deeper into fantasy.

Even animated shows like Bojack Horseman have taken on Futurama’s ability to deliver an emotional gut punch. During its first two runs, Futurama’s contemporaries, such as Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers, and American Dad, were never as innovative with the sitcom format. This worked to create Futurama’s core fan base but alienated it from a truly mainstream audience. The modern landscapes of Solar Opposites, Rick and Morty, and Final Space are unafraid of experimentation. The things that made Futurama unique in the 2000s aren’t so rare anymore.

The finales past and adult animated shows present weigh heavy on the lifespan of Futurama’s latest revival. But that’s the thing about this show — it just won’t stay dead.

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