It took me a while, but I finally caught up on all the "Futurama" direct-to video movies and the first half of the sixth season, just in time for second half, which will premiere on Comedy Central this summer. While the first few episodes of season six were airing last year, I heard a lot of complaints about how the show just wasn't the same, and comparisons were made to the decline of "The Simpsons," which started to lose steam around its eighth season. I think a lot of this has to do with the "Futurama" direct-to-video films, which are now officially considered season five. You can't watch the films without getting the sense that the creators were trying to wrap up the show, and the end of the last film provides a natural place for the series to end. What could be left to tell after going out with such a bang? What could you possibly do after finally letting the show's main couple get together, revealing the identity of Professor Farnsworth's illegitimate son, and cramming every single character in the show's universe into a single shot?
So some feeling of regression was natural. "Futurama" came back to television after a boggling seven-year hiatus from regular series status and a quartet of epic-scale features, only to return to the status quo. They did acknowledge prior events - Fry and Leela became a couple, Nibbler kept talking, and so forth. However, this was keeping within the norm for "Futurama." One of the biggest ways in which the show is different from "The Simpsons" or "South Park" is that the characters can change and grow. The Leela we met in the first episode of the first season is different from the one crusading for mutant rights and being stood-up by Fry on their dinner dates in season six. They can't change too much, of course, because "Futurama" is fundamentally a workplace sitcom that relies on the regularity of the cast's personalities, but the differences are there.
I thought the ratio of good to mediocre episodes in season six was about the same as it had been in the first two seasons, and proved there were still a lot of places that the show hadn't gone yet. My favorites are usually the more heartwarming character-centric installments and the more cerebral, ambitious ones. "Lethal Inspection," gave supporting player Hermes a rare turn in the spotlight, and a glimpse into his unseen past. "The Prisoner of Benda" took the old body-switching concept to wonderful, ridiculous extremes, and episode writer Ken Keeler actually created a new mathematical proof in order to figure out how to logically sort everyone back into the right bodies at the end. And then there was "The Late Philip J. Fry," the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Fry and Leela romance. As with all "Futurama" episodes, ever the weaker ones had their moments. "That Darn Katz!" allowed perpetual intern Amy to finally receive her doctorate. Alas, she ends up back at Planet Express, having no other job prospects.
Another factor that "Futurama" has against it is its age. The series premiered on FOX well over a decade ago, and was in reruns on basic cable for years. As with all television that garners a significant amount of nostalgia, its fans tend to mentally erase the weaker episodes and only focus on the highlights. People are always going to remember "Jurassic Bark" and "Luck of the Fryish," and compare the new episodes against them instead of "That's Lobstertainment!" This may be too much for even the most consistently brilliant show to live up to. However, after the season six episodes we've seen so far, I still see so much potential in "Futurama." The more diverse cast of characters and the science-fiction trappings allow for a wider variety of stories than "The Simpsons." And I don't see "Futurama" getting repetitive or bogged down in its own minutiae for a long while yet, not when we're still seeing little changes in the show's ensemble like Nibbler getting assertive with the crew and Amy revealing her brainier side.
Also, "Futurama" feels like a show of the current era of television, even though it's been with us for so long. The humor and references, even in the earliest episodes, have barely dated at all. In fact, it might have been a little too far ahead of its time back in 1999, which is why it took a while to catch on with mainstream audiences. I remember "Futurama" as the show that the geeks (myself included) were all into back in college, and now those geeks are running the world, everyone is obsessed with gadgetry, and more niche, tech-savvy genre shows have risen to prominence. "The Simpsons" is struggling to keep parodying a family sitcom landscape that largely no longer exists. "Futurama," oddly enough, has become the more timely comedy. You could stick GlaDOS in an episode somewhere, and no one would blink.
I'm sure that someday the cultural relevance of "Futurama" will fade away too. But not yet.