When Comedy Central announced Monday that it would not renew Futurama, deflated sighs of geek despair echoed across the blogosphere. But if the portion of season seven that aired in 2012 was any indication, the Futurama we’ve grown accustomed to mourning is already dead.
Creator Matt Groening told Entertainment Weekly he’d love to continue the series. "But if we don't, this is a really great way to go out... I think these episodes are the best ones we've ever done." If it was Groening’s intention to replace the sharp wit and thinly-veiled social commentary that once gave the show its geeky charm with cheap, slapstick humor and grating melodramas, mission accomplished, I guess.
That might sound harsh, but I’m not a random hater. I’m a diehard Futurama fan who’s seen every single episode to date including all the movies. I even dressed up as Leela for Halloween in 2011. So the thing that makes me want to sail through the air and kick the coffin lid shut on this series is that in the last season, they’ve turned Leela’s character from a feminist icon into a weak, domesticated fucktoy.
Up until season seven, Leela was portrayed as the assertive, logical, and fiercely independent space captain who typically saves the day when the other characters flounder. Confident in every area but the relationship department, she’s plagued with insecurity over her perceived physical defect, a giant cyclops eye.
This portrait has enabled the Futurama’s writers to parody the frustrating situations that attractive, smart women in stereotypically male roles face—most notably when Zapp Brannigan is around to sexually harass her, demean her skills, and take credit for her accomplishments. In season seven, the writers decide to create a romance between Leela’s mom and Zapp Brannigan, and Leela’s only recourse is to throw herself at him—marking the degradation of her character and self-respect.
Then there’s the cat-and-mouse game that is Leela and Fry’s relationship. Since the show launched, Fry was always chasing after his idealized Leela, who resisted him sexually because, let’s face it: she’s out of his league. While Fry is sweet, he regularly behaves like someone with brain damage and can’t be trusted to handle even the most basic of adult responsibilities. In response to a concerted effort on Fry’s part to thoughtfully woo her, Leela comes around little by little in a way that is almost believable, and Fry matures a bit along with her. But in the last season Leela is suddenly Fry’s girlfriend and their dynamic takes on a disappointing element.
At a futuristic Oktoberfest, Fry behaves boorishly, chugging a barrel of other people’s spit to get drunk, but still somehow manages to elicit the sympathy of the viewer, demonizing Leela as judgmental. By the end of the episode, the tables are turned and it’s clear that Leela needs Fry. For the rest of the season, their relationship woes becomes the nagging focus of plotlines. Not only do the writers drain Leela’s independence, but they make us question why Fry even wanted Leela in the first place after all these years of pining after her. The answer is periodically revealed by Leela’s new obsession with sex, as she’s transformed into Fry’s docile plaything. There are multiple references to Fry having threesomes with Leela and Amy, though none to a connection between the women, portraying the ultimate “score” for guys who see women as objects.
So Leela goes from the geek’s fantasy to the geek’s fantasy girlfriend, shedding her independence and even rationality at times. Meanwhile, Fry remains the same. And I think this is the real male fantasy—that if they’re persistent enough, the woman they want will ultimately settle. However, it also confirms the ultimate fear of independent women, that we have to lower our standards if we want to find relationship stability. This is illustrated in “A Farewell to Arms” when, as Fry tries to save Leela by extending an arm from a planet that smoothly skirts by Earth so close that they are within arm’s reach, he rips her arm off, along with his own.
When apologizing, Leela sweetly says: “You were willing to sacrifice yourself so that I could live. I mean, you failed, miserably. But you’re the only person who loves me enough to try.” Never mind the fact that this scenario completely violates the scientific elegance that Futurama is known for in episodes like The Late Philip J. Fry—the message to independent women is clear and disturbing: settle, because you’ll be unloved otherwise. Got it.
So out of all the fantastical scenarios in Futurama, it was apparently too out there Fry to grow up and become the man Leela deserves, or for Leela to break her weird dependency with Fry and find one.
Sealing Leela’s fate, the series finale will apparently revolve around Fry and Leela’s wedding, which producer David X. Cohen described as “a tasteful, emotional gorefest.” Hopefully this means they all die, because if the writers can’t imagine a future where there’s a progressive alternative for a lovestruck but fundamentally incompatible couple—or a TV series that resolves in any other way than a wedding—that’s the only outcome that makes sense.
Much like The Simpsons, part of Futurama’s brilliance was derived from using an animated landscape to create an absurdist context in which we can suspend disbelief. This way we can watch the issues on the forefront of our own cultural reality transpire in Matt Groening’s fantasy lands, as it did regarding gender for six excellent seasons. But minus the wit, all that’s left is an outlandish adventure plot lacking the sophistication to differentiate it from anything slated for grades K-12 on the Cartoon Network.
It’s unclear if the writers just got lazy, or if working under the suits at Fox inspired a rebellious edge that the Comedy Central era of the show couldn't quite tap into. Either way, if they have any hope of preserving Futurama’s image, it’s time they put their pencils down.