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Where does Futurama sit in modern adult animation?

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Futurama has always occupied a unique space. In the execution of its high concept and deep character development, it was foundational to some of today’s TV animation behemoths. A curse comes with that reputation though – a lack of appreciation during its prime years. This sci-fi premise taken to the strangest of places left a disconnect between the goals of the creators and the expectations of the audience sitting down for a Matt Groening animated sitcom. 

However, Futurama’s deep roots in nerdom is what allowed for its uniqueness and for it to age gracefully as nerd culture slowly consumes pop culture. In the time of its various runs between 1999 and 2014, it was rare for a status quo sitcom to possess the sheer scale of Futurama. The Simpsons was not sending you through time and to multiple dimensions while using these situations for both comedy and character growth. Now, Futurama is set to return to an adult animation landscape in which the qualities that made the show unique are commonplace.

Rick and Morty was on hand to fill the gap left by Futurama with its own sci-fi premise – a child and his grandfather on an odyssey across the multiverse, while shows like BoJack Horseman expanded on the character growth Futurama exhibited. Since Futurama’s final breath, higher concepts and bigger emotional gut punches have been dealt by adult animation, making its return to this arena a fine balancing act. The aforementioned shows have had a significant impact on what audiences expect from animated shows, from sci-fi shows and from comedy. If Futurama looks to chase those same things, it is in danger of losing what made it so unique to begin with. 

A More Meta Future

Outside of crypto-bro scheming, the term ‘meta’ has been prevalent in descriptions of an increasingly self-referential comedy landscape. Rick and Morty’s sensibilities are a huge factor in this spike of meta humour. The popularity of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s creation has sparked an uptake in meta commentary across media, but the sci-fi premise which Rick and Morty employs makes for a unique interpretation on the style. This is exemplified in the episode Never Ricking Morty where the duo are transported to a literal story train and are made to live out the story circle, an idea akin to the hero’s journey popularised by Harmon.

Such concepts set a new standard of what audiences expect from an animated sci-fi show. Futurama rarely took the risks that come with the territory with Rick and Morty, the team ever careful not to make an episode about the concepts and not the characters. Additionally, meta humour is not something at the core of Futurama. Self-referential gags are kept at a minimum. For Harmon and co., the sci-fi premise is an opportunity for a more heightened brand of comedy with character development being more of an afterthought, save for select episodes. 

Both shows have tackled time travel over their runs, with their uses of the storytelling mechanic reflecting this dissonance in their aims. Rattlestar Ricklactica acts as a large scale parody of various time travel tropes, with a focus on The Terminator, as warrior snakes from the future look to either kill or protect Rick and Morty. While Futurama is known to parody and reference modern pop culture, it rarely forms the basis of the comedy nor the wider appeal of the show. The Late Philip J. Fry has a time travel premise which sees three main characters accidentally blast their way into the distant future, away from all that they loved in the year 3000. There is plenty of time for jokes, including a Planet of the Apes reference, but the focus is on the relationships that suddenly disappeared and their forever unfulfilled potential. 

Both episodes are successful. Rattlestar Ricklactica delivers on a promise of sci-fi absurdity unique to the show, and ‘The Late Philip J. Fry’ brings us closer to our characters and enriches their relationships. Finding intense, concentrated character growth amongst the chaos of an animated sitcom is another thing that set Futurama apart during its run and is something it must not lose. In the years since, the artform has taken cues from Futurama, its influence particularly present in Bojack Horseman. Futurama caught audiences off-guard with its surprising blend of maturity and silliness, a dichotomy that Bojack Horseman made central to its premise. Bojack will see our protagonist flee Hollywoo after being responsible for a daughter-figure’s overdose in the same run of episodes where the election for the governor of California is decided by a ski race.

BoJack foregoes a handicap on character development which kept Futurama tied to the ground – the status quo. When something changes in BoJack Horseman, it changes forever. The concept of things going back to normal in next week’s episode which gives shows like Futurama, The Simpsons and Family Guy that comfortability is gutted. BoJack is a show that wants to make the audience uncomfortable, that wants to get them to question their allegiance to the main character. The lack of status quo means that the characters live carrying their full history in every moment, the familiar environments stained with their mistakes. If Futurama were to abandon the status quo in light of BoJack’s breakthrough, would it still feel like Futurama?

Between Influence and Emulation

There are worse shows to take influence from than Bojack and Rick and Morty. Finding a balance between the sci-fi chaos of the latter and the deep, grounded emotion of the former could produce something special and see Futurama innovate once more. 

No show should return nine years after cancellation as exactly the same thing. Audiences change, creators change, we want to see the personal growth of artists reflected in the art rather than a changed person cosplaying as what they were before. However, an exercise in finding what makes a show itself is necessary. For creatives, influence is subconscious and one can easily see that influence cross over into emulation. It is important to set parameters that keep the show unique and allow it room to evolve, a precarious balance.

Aside from their potential influence on creators and the raising the expectations of audiences, the most positive impact of the new wave of animated sitcoms is that the world is finally ready for Futurama. The show always carried the burden of being made a decade or two too early for it to be loved by more than a cult fanbase. In 2023, we will have been given six seasons of BoJack Horseman, at least five seasons of Rick and Morty, a slew of animated shows with their own unique gimmick looking to stand out in this densely populated landscape. Futurama could end up being a tepid drop in the water in this new era, or it could thrive, backed by an audience finally able to appreciate the world of tomorrow. 

Futurama is set to return in 2023

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