Why “Futurama” was subtly superversive

A couple of people on my article about the “Futurama” episode “Godfellas” at Castalia House questioned my assertion that “Futurama” was one of the most superversive shows ever made. My replies got so long that it was getting somewhat absurd; so here I will make my case in this post. Spoilers will be unmarked her on out.

It is true that many episodes of the show focus on adult topics like sex, and the show likes to satirize pop culture quite a bit. Being a Matt Groening show, it will take more swipes at conservatives and religious than at leftists and the irreligious or atheists. And the characters don’t exactly live virtuous lives.

HOWEVER – for all of that, there’s a real sense of optimism to “Futurama” that’s hard for me to ignore (I know this seems counterintuitive to the premise, so I’ll explain). The story starts off very callously; Fry wakes up in the year 3000 actually HAPPY that he can leave his rotten family and rotten life behind him. This is certainly not superversive.

BUT – starting with the classic “The Luck of the Fryrish” – possibly the show’s best episode – we start seeing signs that Fry’s original view of his past is actually wrong. His brother loved him enough to name his son after him; his beloved dog Seymour waited for him until he died. His mother spent her nights dreaming about spending just one more day with Fry.

In other words – Fry’s cynical view of the world is shown to be, in no uncertain terms, wrong. This isn’t some sort of hidden conclusion I’m teasing out; the show goes out of its way several times to make this very clear.

So how does this square with the show’s optimism? Well, every time Fry is given a chance to go back to his old life, he always decides not to. The key here is why. Never is it because he realizes his old life really was Just That Bad. Never does he decide that it’s all a lie and his family doesn’t love him. He always chooses to stay because of the new relationships he built in the 3000’s – specifically, because he fell in love with Leela (occasionally it’s also so he could save the earth from destruction, but that’s hardly less superversive anyway). “Futurama” is, in an odd but very real way, all about making the decision to take a chance with someone you love. And in the end it rewards Fry’s hopes and dreams: The ultimate finale to the show, a classic episode, sees him marry Leela and live a happily ever after.

I want to pause and note, again, that this isn’t a subtle thread I’m pulling at here. This is a huge plotline running throughout the series. “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings”, the original series finale, all but confirms that this is actually the point of the show: It ends with, after everybody storms out on Fry’s opera, Leela deciding to stay on her own because she’s touched at Fry’s vision of their future together. After Leela is nearly killed and falls into a two week coma, Fry manages to revive her by staying at her bedside and begging her to wake up.

The importance of family is also a major running theme of the show. Fry’s revelation that his nephew was named after him is an incredibly touching moment. Once again, the show makes a serious effort to make the point that Fry’s memories of his family are tainted by all of the bad luck being thrown at his life the day he got frozen; that they – or at least his mother and brother – really loved him and cared about him is supposed to be heartwarming.

Another moving episode involved Leela learning that the parents she never knew gave her up and hid from her to ensure that she was able to live the sort of good life they could never give her. The fact that Leela grew up without a family is tragic; the moment she learns her parents loved her and looked after her her entire life is touching. And one of the major themes of “Godfellas” is, of course, how Fry’s friendship with and love for Bender ultimately leads to his rescue by God. Fry and Leela, who both lack families (or did for many years) form a surrogate one with the crew of the Planet Express. Family in “Futurama” is important; those who lack one feel the effects, and those who have one benefit.

So yes, after some thought, I stand by my comments: “Futurama” was not only superversive, it was one of the most superversive shows on television. I will concede, though, that the premise was effectively broad enough that the show could engage in subversion as well. Even so, I think the superversion was absolutely overt enough to be worth being commented on. And “Godfellas” is still brilliant.

  • I think in this case, the easiest way to look at it is that the proof is in pudding: for a show that deconstructs a lot, and features a lot of low-life and/or stupid characters… it’s surprisingly not mean-spirited. They’re all quite loveable.

    • Anthony M

      Yeah, that’s my point. It doesn’t seem like it should be, but it’s a surprisingly optimistic, uncynical show. The future is just the past with a different coat of paint, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find love there. And it doesn’t mean the past was devoid of love either.