In the premiere episode of Hulu’s “Futurama’s” revival, Planet Express delivery boy Fry (Billy West) is stunned to discover that he’s been in the century 3000 for 23 years (the fact that he hasn’t aged a day is a question not worth thinking about). Faced with an existential crisis about the years gone by, he decides to dedicate his life purpose to watching every TV show ever made, through use of the world’s “fourth most popular streaming service,” “Fulu.”
“The Impossible Stream” takes aim at the evolution of streaming culture that’s occurred since “Futurama” left airwaves back in 2013, portraying it as a chaotic, miserable space where people are constantly overworked and absolute garbage gets shoveled onto platforms to pad their libraries. In a gag that’s particularly relevant now, the writing team on soap opera “All My Circuits” get worked to literal death. Fry is eventually so overwhelmed by the amount of content to watch that he straps into a “binging” google suit that drills straight into his brain, allowing him to watch “All My Circuits” on a continuous stream without any interruption. For the rest of the episode, Fry disappears, getting encased in the clunky suit without the ability to talk to his loved ones.
It’s a decently funny joke. It’s also an apt metaphor for what these new episodes, the first of which premieres Monday on Hulu, do to its own characters, burying them in stale commentary about the modern day, and losing sight of its own identity in the process.
When “Futurama” first premiered in 1999, what immediately made the show stand out compared to other Fox animated series of its ilk was the possibilities of its sci-fi setting and the inherent sadness of its premise. In the pilot, Fry, a slacker pizza boy from the modern day, gets unwittingly cryogenically frozen and emerges on New Year’s Eve 2999, to a world filled with aliens, robots, and suicide booths. A classic fish-out-of-water, Fry spent the earliest episodes struggling to adjust to a world that’s passed him by, where the moon — once a symbol for man’s quest to venture out into space — has now been reduced to a theme park spewing out (inaccurate) trivia about humanity’s first trips to the stars.
As the show, created by Matt Groening of “The Simpsons” fame and co-developed with David X. Cohen, evolved over its first season, it quickly proved to be a versatile work, capable of doing a lot of things well. It was very funny, with a nerdy sense of humor and strong sitcom timing. It was often insanely ambitious, with experimental episodes like parallel universe story “The Farnsworth Parabox” or dark fever dream “The Sting.” And it proved surprisingly sincere and emotional, with episodes like “The Luck of the Fryrish” and “Leela’s Homeworld” bringing as much drama and character development as laughs.
When the show addressed the real world in its first two runs on Fox and Comedy Central, it usually did so through geeky pop culture pastiches like the iconic “Star Trek” reunion episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” or “Starship Troopers” parody “War is the H Word.” The rare episodes that did get topical usually found a way to mesh their commentary with the show’s established world — for example, “Proposition Infinity” from the show’s Comedy Central years parodied the anti-gay marriage legislation Proposition 8 through a story about human robot relationships, an in-universe taboo first brought up all the way back in the show’s first episode.
The Hulu revival, however, pounces on the opportunity to comment on hot button topics, in a way that comes across less as a natural evolution of the series and more insecurity about the show’s self-perceived irrelevance. Fry’s main arc in the show’s first few seasons was learning to accept his circumstances and embrace his new surroundings; the new episodes of “Futurama” seem to want to do the same thing in adjusting to its new decade, but lose sight of the fundamentals that make it what it is in the process, with character dynamics getting lost in the shuffle and the big wide universe of the show feeling shrunk down and depressingly mundane. Over the course of the first six episodes in the season, the Planet Express crew makes a whopping one delivery, and don’t go further than the moon; for a show where the ostensible premise focuses on the crew’s interplanetary adventures, that’s not a great percentage of episodes that abandon format.
If the topical humor managed to feel particularly strong, this approach could be chalked up to the show evolving into something new, but instead “Futurama” often feels like it’s trading in what made it unique in favor of becoming just another run-of-the-mill animated sitcom. “The Impossible Stream’s” bite-the-hand jabs at Hulu call back to the original run’s constant swipes at Fox, and its parody of the unsustainable working conditions of the industry certainly come at a fitting time, but the execution is tired, forcing characters like Leela (Katey Sagal) and Bender (John DiMaggio) to deliver quips about the industry that never quite feel true to what we know about them. And all of the satire amounts to very basic variations of jokes that have been done a hundred times before on other streaming comedies like “The Other Two” or Hulu’s own “Reboot.”
Installments that otherwise have potential get weighed down by the desire to push a topical button; the third episode of the season, “How the West was 1010001,” is mostly an excuse for the cast to star in a classic western pastiche, and has some decent fun with references to various classics in the genre. But the entire episode is predicated on a clunky crypto currency parody, with Farnsworth forcing the crew to travel west so he can literally mine Bitcoin and save the company from bankruptcy. Its satire of crypto’s instability feels about a year behind the times, making for a story more out-of-date than any given episode from the show’s 1999 first season.
The most disappointing of the six episodes provided for review is “Related to Items You’ve Viewed,” which begins with a premise that could serve as a game changer for the core trio of Fry, Leela, and Bender. Fry and Leela’s romantic relationship, always a frustrating “two step forward one step back” journey, takes a big leap when they finally move in together, causing a rift in their friendship with Bender, who still lives with Fry and begins to feel like a perpetual third wheel.
But instead of throwing the trio into a situation that would highlight these new shades in their dynamics, the episode instead turns its attention to “Momazon,” an Amazon parody retail website, which competes with the smaller Planet Express service and eventually hires Bender into its robotic sweatshop. Various signature elements of Amazon, including an Alexa pastiche, get grafted into “Futurama’s” existing universe, and Mom, a deliciously evil recurring antagonist voiced by the fantastic Tress MacNeille, is clumsily slotted into the Bezos role of the parody, flattening her specificity in the process. None of the episode’s insights — that Amazon drives small businesses into the ground, that AI surveys our every move, that mega-corporations exploit its workers — are scathing or singular enough to justify scuttling off Bender’s conflict with Leela and Fry into B-plot territory, when it could easily carry a 25-minute episode on its own.
Not every episode of the “Futurama” Hulu revival is a complete wash, with the episodes that prioritize its characters instead of references — such as “Children of a Lesser Bog,” about Planet Express intern Amy (Lauren Tom) struggling to adapt to motherhood — still retaining flashes of the show’s once signature imagination and ambition. As of now, critics have only been sent six episodes of the season; four more will follow through September 25 (a glance at the show’s IMDB reveals that future episodes will be titled “Rage Against the Vaccine” and “Zap Gets Cancelled,” so maybe it’s too soon to hope that this trend will cease in future episodes), and a second part of 10 episodes will follow sometime in 2024. There’s still time for “Hulurama,” as the opening credits christen it, to justify its existence, and give fans the character work and feverish imagination they’ve come to expect from the scrappy, brilliant program. But to do so, it would help the creators to get their heads out of the year 2023, and start worrying more about 3023.
“Futurama” is now streaming on Hulu. New episodes stream Mondays through September 25.