Futurama returns tonight for another thirteen episodes worth of 31st century craziness. In honor of the show's latest triumphant return, we recommend the 10 episodes where Futurama is at its most hilarious, most cosmic, most emotional, and most brilliant.
Of course, this isn't meant to be a definitive list, and I invite you to offer up your own favorites in the comments. But after a ton of deliberation (and some hugely helpful input from fellow io9er and Futurama aficionado Lauren Davis), these are the ten episodes that I would say represent the show at its absolute best, and are all incredible examples of what makes Futurama so wonderfully different from...well, from pretty much any other show ever made.
Also, I will say right now that it kills me to leave off the likes of "Fry and the Slurm Factory", "The Birdbot of Icecatraz", "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid", "Jurassic Bark", "Crimes of the Hot", "Where No Fan Has Gone Before", "The Farnsworth Parabox", "300 Big Boys", Bender's Big Score, and "The Prisoner of Benda", which all easily could have made this list. And yes, there are plenty more honorable mentions where those came from. But with all that in mind, let's look at my top ten...
10. The Why of Fry
The larger mysteries and mythology around Fry were laid in right from the first minutes of the first episode, but this fourth season episode represented the big pay-off. Fry is feeling pretty low after being rebuffed by Leela (again) in favor of a sleazy mayoral aide voiced by Bob Odenkirk. He then discovers he's actually the most important person in the universe, as Nibbler recruits him to defeat the Brains that want to accumulate all knowledge in the universe, then destroy it. The Nibblonians' plan goes awry when Fry learns that they pushed him into cryogenic storage in the first place, and our lovable idiot is finally allowed to choose between a life in the present and one in the future. This isn't a joke-heavy episode - although Odenkirk's Chaz is a smarmy delight - but it's crammed with heady sci-fi concepts, big revelations, and wonderful insight into who Fry really is.
9. War is the H-Word
There was no way I could put together a list of the ten best Futurama episodes without a Zapp Brannigan episode, and this might just represent the space captain described as "40% Kirk, 60% Shatner" at his psychotic best. Fry and Bender join the army to get a 5% discount on ham-flavored gum, which turns out to be a very bad move when Earth immediately declares war on Spheron I. Zapp proudly declares the planet is devoid of any natural resources or strategic value and that they know absolutely nothing about who they will be fighting, but the enemy did tell him that we look like dorks. While Fry struggles with his cowardice, Zapp is forced to confront his apparent attraction to macho new recruit Lee Lemon, who may or may not be a barely disguised Leela (of course it is). The episode also features tons of great riffs on the episode's obvious inspiration Starship Troopers, a brilliant M*A*S*H parody complete with robotic Alan Alda, Fry being forced to serve as assistant to a surprisingly tyrannical Kif, the list of Bender's ten favorite words, the world's most epic collection of ball-related double entendres, and the one thing all the kids were clamoring for: a Henry Kissinger cameo.
8. The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings
While I'm obvious glad that Futurama is back and arguably in a far stronger place now than it ever was on Fox, it's hard to imagine the show ever coming up with a more perfect series finale than this episode. It finds little moments for pretty much the entire extended cast, with stalwarts like Scruffy, Calculon, Richard Nixon, and Zapp Brannigan all getting nice cameos (not to mention the relatively new addition Hedonism Bot). The episode also offers some nice moments of growth for Fry's relationships with both Leela and Bender. Leela is the more obvious one, of course, as he gains the Robot Devil's hands so that he can finally express his true feelings through the holophoner, the world's most impossibly difficult instrument. But it's also nice to see Bender and Fry share some sentimental moments, even if it's through the fractured prism of Bender acting like Fry's surrogate father. The big opera sequence at the end of the episode is the show's crowning achievement musically, and it's all tied together by a great guest appearance as the Robot Devil by Dan Castalellaneta, the star of that other Matt Groening show people keep telling me about.
7. The Late Philip J. Fry
Then again, if the show had ended with "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings", we never would have gotten this gem (not to mention "The Prisoner of Benda", which might just be the best episode not on this list). One of the smartest decisions the writers made when bringing Futurama back was to finally move Fry and Leela's relationship forward, and this episode offers some nice insight into why Leela would ever be attracted to Fry. For all his idiocy, Fry is at least always trying to do the right thing, as seen here in his spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to make it to a dinner date with Leela on time. Futurama's use of parallel narrative has resulted in some of its finest episodes, and the big payoff with Fry's birthday card and an aging Leela's message to Fry stranded a billion years in the future is some brilliant storytelling. As if that wasn't enough, this episode also crams in every possible vision of the future, mixing H.G. Wells with Terminator with Planet of the Apes with, of all things, human-enslaving super-intelligent giraffe kings. And even that leaves out the tour of the universe's death and rebirth and the Professor casually killing Hitler with a laser gun...although he did accidentally hit Eleanor Roosevelt the second time around.
6. The Sting
"The Sting" finds the Planet Express Crew on a return trip to the space beehive that killed the crew before them (and, by the sound of the black box, the crew before them as well). The hive lives up to its fatal reputation, as Fry is killed by a bee sting. Leela refuses to accept Fry's apparent death, and she begins to lose her mind with grief. Part of what makes Futurama so great is the amount of trust it puts in its audience. In the DVD commentary for this episode, show creator David X. Cohen points to Fry's apparent resurrection thanks to a mix of some DNA-rich royal jelly and a blood-encrusted couch. It feels like a slightly cheap device, one that Cohen argues you'd see on a show that's just a notch worse than Futurama, but it feels like a cop-out here, which is why you're almost relieved to learn it was just a dream and Fry is still dead. The whole episode functions like that - we know that Fry must still be alive and that a big reset switch is coming, and we have to trust Futurama will find a way to bring back Fry without making the last 22 minutes a waste of our time. The big twist is just as good as you'd expect of the show - indeed, I choked up a little bit during the reveal when watching this episode again - and if you rewatch the episode you'll find much of Fry's dialogue works perfectly once you know what he's really saying. But on the way there, we're treated to some gloriously surreal setpieces, from the Planet Express Crew singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" while merrily exploding to an epic shout-out to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Years before other great mind-based works like Life on Mars and Inception, "The Sting" proved you can tell a compelling and emotional (and funny, let's not forget) story, even if it technically is all just a dream.
5. Time Keeps on Slippin'
This episode might have the single most psychotic plot summary ever: the Harlem Globetrotters, who are now apparently their own alien race and are all brilliant mathematicians, challenge Earth to a basketball game, which leads to the release of dangerous particles known as chronitons that threaten to speed up time and destroy the entire universe, and the only solution is to blow up a bunch of stars. No other show is quite as fearless in mixing the cosmic and the goofy (although Doctor Who sometimes comes close), but even all that isn't enough for Futurama. This episode uses the time skips to get Fry and an extremely uninterested Leela married and then divorced, all in the space of about ten seconds. As the Professor and the Globetrotters try to save the universe, Fry desperately tries to figure out just how he won Leela's heart, because he refuses to accept Leela's belief that he simply tricked her. The episode ends with Fry discovering his answer just before the grand stellar detonation, all as Bender - who has dealt with his own heartbreak in his adorably quixotic quest to join the Globetrotters - sadly whistles the Globetrotters theme tune. Remember what I said about mixing cosmic, emotional, and goofy? The end of this episode is the apotheosis of that.
4. Parasites Lost
I've talked a lot on this list about episodes with great emotional impact and big sci-fi ideas. And well I should, as those are both big parts about what makes Futurama great, and "Parasites Lost" - in which Fry gets super-intelligent worms in his stomach after eating a truck stop sandwich, and finally becomes smart enough to express his love for Leela - has both in spades. But this episode is also one of the funniest half-hours of television I've ever seen. With that in mind, I'll mix things up by listing my favorite jokes from the episode. There's the slow build-up of Bender trying to light a cigar while drinking ethanol, Scruffy's observation that he will die the way he lived (followed by nonchalantly turning the page in his porn magazine), Zoidberg accusing Fry of being a hypochondriac when he shows up with a pipe through the chest, the Professor's angry explanation that tiny atoms are too expensive to allow for actual shrinking, Sal's ridiculously over-pluralized apology ("Sorrys ma'am. I've learnsed a lesson about not ogling cans that I won't soons forgets."), Bender's constant cries of "Abandon ship!" whenever anything goes wrong inside Fry's body, Zoidberg riding a giant sperm like a horse, the Professor's amazing line "Listen, this is going to be one hell of a bowel movement - afterwards, he'll be lucking if he has any bones left," Leela brutally murdering everyone's miniaturized selves with an ax and the sudden switch back to the far less dramatic reality, Fry dropping a miniaturized version of himself into his own ass, the worm king explaining he once thought he was in love "but then I remembered our species reproduces with a cloud of spores!", and finally a worm soldier randomly yelling "Wait a minute man!" as Fry is about to destroy his own brain. (That last one kind of needs to be heard in context to get the full effect, admittedly.) Outside all the jokes, the episode introduces the holophoner - which, as a diehard Asimov fan, makes me very happy indeed. It also offers up a darkly poignant encapsulation of what love is, as Fry proves he's willing to destroy his own brain to make sure it's really him that Leela loves. It's a deeply stupid, irrational move...and that's exactly the point.
Bender provides a pretty helpful summary of what happens in the episode itself: "First I was God, then I met God." When Bender is accidentally fired out of the ship's torpedo bay during a battle with space pirates, he becomes stranded in the vast empty nothingness of the universe. An asteroid carrying tiny intelligent life crashes into him, and he becomes god to its pint-sized inhabitants. Since this is Bender we're talking about, he makes for a god that's equal parts corrupt and adorably inept, and within days his followers have wiped each other out in full-on nuclear war. For all his evilness (as Fry points out, Bender did steal his blood on more than one occasion), Bender grieves for the people he let down, and it's then that he encounters a super-intelligent galaxy that may or may not be the actual God.
Meanwhile, a desperate Fry travels to the Himalayas, encountering a bunch of monks who owe a very clear debt to Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God" and are led by an awesomely dickish monk who sounds an awful lot like Alec Guinness. This episode has a ton of funny moments - I'd highlight the God Entity comparing what he does to a guy burning down a bar for the insurance money (but only if you make it look like an electrical thing), as well as Fry's conversation with the fortune-telling robot, which features my all-time favorite moment of Fry idiocy when he cries "Hey, Bender's name isn't Bonder...it's Bender!" But it's really the ideas of this episode that makes "Godfellas" special, and it features some of the most interesting ruminations on faith and religion I've ever seen in pop culture. And what's amazing is how effortless Futurama makes this all seem - as the God Entity himself observes, "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."
2. The Luck of the Fryrish
A lot of Futurama episodes have a strong emotional core, but there's only a few that really go for the full-blown emotional gut punch. The most (in)famous example of this is probably "Jurassic Bark" - AKA the Fry's dog episode - the ending of which is so brutally heartbreaking that I know a few people who have trouble re-watching it. And while I love "Jurassic Bark" (not to mention "Leela's Homeworld", which I find even more tear-inducing), I think the finest example of this form is "The Luck of the Fyrish", in which Fry finally makes peace with his brother Yancy a thousand years later.
Gleefully stealing the structure of The Godfather: Part II, the episode flashes between Fry's childhood in the 1980s and 1990s with his present life in the 31st century. We learn Fry led a surprisingly charmed life with the help of his lucky seven-leaf clover. His older brother Yancy coveted the clover, as he did seemingly everything that Fry ever had. Fry comes to believe Yancy stole the clover, used his newfound luck to become rich and famous, and ultimately accomplished Fry's dream of becoming the first man on Mars...and, to add insult to injury, stole Fry's name and became the Philip J. Fry that history remembers. Fry learns the real, far more poignant truth while on a trip to an orbiting cemetery (which also features some top quality grave-robbing by Bender). The episode ends with Fry realizing how much Yancy loved him as "Don't You (Forget About Me)" from The Breakfast Club soundtrack plays. That music might be good for clearing out wedding receptions, but it's perfect for ending this episode.
1. Roswell That Ends Well
This is hands down the show's finest half-hour, and I don't even think it's all that close. The show had studiously avoided time travel stories up to this point, and so they cram pretty much every conceivable trope into this half hour. Fry's attempts to save the life of his possibly gay grandfather Enos are ludicrously, wondrously counterproductive (my favorite is when they escape through a bombing range that used to be a minefield), while Dr. Zoidberg proves the least menacing alien the Air Force has ever captured. I could go on and on listing all that makes this episode amazing: there's the lone nut conspiracy theorist and his photography, Bender being trapped as a head underground for a thousand years, Mildred turning from sexy to maternal the very moment Fry realizes she really is his grandmother, Leela taking no crap from a delightfully sexist oven salesman, and of course everything to do with Harry Truman. ("Great Roosevelt's ghost!" indeed.)
This episode is also a triumph for the show's animation department, which is often overlooked in favor of the writing - the journey through the time vortex and the Planet Express Ship's assault on the air base are both incredible sequences purely from a visual standpoint, but there are tons of other more subtle moments that either help the characters come alive or make the world of 1947 feel that much more real. And, of course, there's Professor Farnsworth's angry retort to Fry's concerns about changing history, which I'd say is the series's all-time greatest line: "Oh, a lesson on not changing the past from Mr. I'm-My-Own-Grandpa!"