Futurama (Fox, this Sunday at 8:30 p.m.; starting April 6, Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m.)
In The Simpsons, a donut is not just a donut. It is a semiotically loaded piece of iconography nine years in the making: We have seen Homer steal the huge metal donut from the parking lot of Lard Lads Donuts to exact revenge for its "false advertising" (they wouldn't sell him a donut as big as the one outside). We have seen him pretend Grandpa Simpson was so senile he qualified for a helper monkey, which he then used to steal from donut shops. We know that at one point Homer actually sold his soul to the devil for a donut. In short, that small ring of frosted dough contains a universe of meaning for Simpsons viewers.
This detail goes a long way toward explaining the subdued critical response to the pilot of Matt Groening's new show Futurama, which aired last Sunday. Not only is there embedded history in every Simpsons character (and piece of pastry); the show's career had an easier start than Futurama's did: It first appeared in short segments woven into The Tracey Ullman Show. Those brief episodes built a base of common knowledge. Futurama, on the other hand, had to lay its foundation in its first episode. What we saw last Sunday was the setup: a debriefing on the time frame (the year 3000), characters, locales, and jokes that will pay off in future episodes.
Compared with the Simpson family, the characters on Futurama still seem a bit thin. There is Fry, a delivery boy who was accidentally cryogenically preserved for 1,000 years starting in 1999; Leela, a sexy one-eyed alien; and Professor Farnsworth, an aging scientist who is more interested in his drawerful of assorted lengths of wire than he is in his spaceship. But boy, is their environment fun to look at! And the pilot's multilayered animation, elaborate background sets, and saturated colors were not the only indicators that Futurama has a lot in it that's new. There's the matter of the so-called alien alphabet. Advertisements in the background are written in an unusual alphabet of squiggles that freeze-framers have already begun to decode by comparing English advertisements for the same products: "Drink Slurm!" (Slurm is a highly addictive soft drink) says an ad in the opening of the show. Later you see an ad that proclaims "[five symbols] Slurm!" (For a partial decoding of the alien alphabet click here.) As episodes continue, the audience will learn to decipher the language (Matt Groening has explained in interviews that the show will provide enough clues for viewers to decode it), providing another layer of information to a landscape already crowded with signs, advertisements, and aircraft.
There's also technology humor, mostly delivered through Bender, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, renegade robot who is by far the most interesting character on the show. Instead of drinking Olde English, Bender drinks Olde Fortran malt liquor. He insults humans as "meat bags" and "skin tubes." In a spread of Futurama pictures in Wired magazine, he was seen picking up a package of anti-virus software before a hot date and requesting that someone open up his stomach and press "ctrl-alt-delete" for him after he crashed.
Not all the in-jokes are technology-related. Other big sources are old science fiction films and now-ridiculous past visions of the future. The show's name was taken from a wildly popular ride at the 1939 World's Fair that presented "the world of 1960," full of floating airports, dirigible hangars, talking robots, videophones, automated highways, and other hopelessly overambitious inventions. And indeed, Futurama is full of ridiculous machines and inventions (suicide booths, pneumatic transportation tubes, "probulators," etc.), though most of them have an ironic bent lacking at the World's Fair.
Will Futurama be able to build its fan base sufficiently to survive the switch to Tuesday night, which is where Fox is moving it after this Sunday's episode? Well, consider the crop of Futurama Web sites that has already appeared, one of which has posted plot summaries of upcoming episodes that bode well for the future of Futurama. Here are some highlights: Episode 2 (coming up on Sunday): Fry visits the moon (an amusement park full of souvenir shops selling "I'm With Stupid on the Moon" T-shirts) and Bender romances a lunar farmer's robot daughter. Episode 6: Fry discovers that the 93 cents he had in his bank account in 1999 has accrued 4.3 billion dollars in interest. Episode 7: While making a delivery to a planet of liquid beings Fry accidentally drinks the Emperor. Drinking the Emperor? I'd say the future of Futurama is pretty secure.