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Futurama: Season Three

In 1999, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening debuted a new show at the eager behest of Fox executives — Futurama, an animated science-fiction comedy that promised to bring Groening's smart-aleck sensibility to a new (and, hopefully, financially lucrative) new project. A long-time fan of science fiction, Groening cited such disparate authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Cordwainer Smith, and Robert Sheckley among the inspirations for his next cartoon. "When I was a kid, I would read these books and I was so excited by some of the adventurous ideas," he said at a press conference prior to the show's debut. "I thought, boy, it's really going to be great when I'm grown up and special effects get so much better, and they'll be able to do all the things that are depicted in these books. And I grew up and I found a lot of science fiction concepts really annoying. So this show is an opportunity to both honor some of the conventions of science fiction and satirize them." Unfortunately, to Groening's dismay, the same Fox executives who had begged him for three years to produce a new show then failed to promote Futurama or even to give it a stable time slot — the generally amiable Groening later told interviewers that his experience wrangling with Fox over Futurama was the most unpleasant of his career. Finally, after four years of non-support, Fox just left Futurama to die by not canceling it but, rather, simply not ordering any new shows. A few episodes trickled out sporadically during the show's fifth season but, with no promotion or even a regular time slot, viewers were never sure when it would be on the air. With 72 episodes in the can, however, the show was licensed to Cartoon Network for late-night exhibition as part of their "Adult Swim" programming and that, along with Fox Home Entertainment's snazzy DVD releases (ironic, given the Fox network's utter lack of support for the show) have gained Futurama an avid cult following. Futurama's central character is Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West), a 21st century pizza delivery boy who finds himself awakening in the 31st century after a mishap in a cryogenics lab. He seeks out his own great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great nephew, Prof. Farnsworth (also West), who runs Planet Express intergalactic delivery service, and joins up with beautiful, one-eyed alien pilot Leela (Katy Sagal), Rastafarian bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (Phil Lamarr), insufferably cute go-to girl Amy Wong (Lauren Tan) and lobster-like physician from planet Decapod 10, Dr. Zoidberg (West, yet again). Fry finds a best friend and comic foil in Bender (John DiMaggio), a hard-drinking, amoral, sarcastic robot who quickly emerges as the show's funniest character. In the course of their adventures the crew encounter an array of brilliantly rendered secondary characters like the egotistical space captain Zapp Brannigan and his smarter, eye-rolling alien lieutenant, Kif, a homicidal robot Santa Claus who wreaks havoc every Christmas Eve, and aliens who vow to destroy the world unless they're given a final episode of their favorite Earth TV show, "Single Female Lawyer," a thinly veiled parody of "Ally McBeal." Although the series offered a few episodes that fell flat, the overall writing, brilliant art direction and the amazing talent doing the voices made Futurama an exemplary program that equaled — and sometimes surpassed — The Simpsons in its ability to offer both hearty laughs and intelligent scripting.

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Much of the humor in Futurama is decidedly high-brow, which may be what gave the Fox execs pause — co-creator David X. Cohen holds a master's degree in computer science and has gone on the record to state, "We wanted to get in as much science as possible where it didn't clog up the gears of the story… Our hope is that, although such material will fly by most people unnoticed, it might make die-hard fans of the people who do appreciate it." Staff writers on Futurama had science-oriented backgrounds not usually held by comedy scribes — J. Stewart Burns graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard; Ken Keeler holds a Ph.D, also from Harvard (his doctoral thesis was on "Map Representations and Optimal Encoding for Image Segmentation"); and writer Jeff Westbrook has a Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton — he served as an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Yale and also worked at AT&T Labs before writing for Futurama. The result of this brain-trust were scripts that were not just hilarious but also chock-full of in-jokes designed purely for science nerds — "Bender's serial number is 1729, a historically significant integer to mathematicians everywhere "Keeler said in a 2003 interview. "That 'joke' alone is worth six years of grad school, I'd say." And on one of the first season DVD's commentary tracks, Cohen explains that one of Prof. Farnsworth's blackboard diagrams is actually a parody of a type of diagram used in particle physics, and that the diagram translates into a joke about dog poop. The 22 episodes of Futurama: Season Three are some of the most assured, smart and hilarious of the series' run. "A Tale of Two Santas" revisits that ultra-violent robotic Santa Claus that terrorized the world earlier in the show's run, the Emmy-winning "Roswell That Ends Well" sends the crew back in time to Roswell, N.M.. circa 1947, where Fry ends up becoming his own ancestor, "Amazon Women in the Mood" brings back the smarmy Zapp Brannigan as the crew crashes on the man-hating Planet Amazonia, and "Parasite Lost" finds Fry getting stronger and smarter after he ingests "intelligent worms" from a vending machine sandwich. And the show not only parodied science fiction but the entire genre of animated television itself with the brilliant "Time Keeps On Slippin'," in which the 31st century Harlem Globetrotters make an appearance, playing against a group of mutant basketball players created by Prof. Farnsworth whose very existence threatens the space/time continuum. Choosing one best episode from this season is impossible — but if one were to try, a stand-out gem is "I Dated a Robot," in which Fry's romance with a downloaded humanoid version of Lucy Liu inspires a parody of 1950's hygiene films, jokes about Napster, and a final, Matrix-like confrontation with, as Bender shrieks, "An army of Lucy Lius!"

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Fox's DVD release of Futurama's third season is presented with the same care for detail that marked the first two sets, from the easy-to-use, attractive packaging to the design of the interactive menus and even the opening gags — pop in the first disc and we're treated to a quartet of legal statements, the fourth printed in an alien language, followed by a parody MPAA rating which states that Futurama is rated MV-2/5 ("Viewers may not watch with more than two of their five eyes…"). Take too long to choose an episode from the menu and you'll be assaulted by random remarks from Bender like, "How many idiots does it take to work a remote control?" and "Hey, doofus! Ahhh, you looked!" The digitally mastered episodes themselves are beautiful, the crisp, brightly saturated, full-screen transfers looking far better than broadcast television ever presented them, with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio in English, Spanish or French with a choice of English or Spanish subtitles. Each episode features a full-length commentary from some combination of writers, producers, directors, and voice talent, with an extra yack-track focusing on the animation aspects of "Roswell That Ends Well." There's also a wealth of deleted scenes, animatics and storyboards, plus still galleries, 3-D models, and a fun "How to Draw Characters" feature.
—Dawn Taylor



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