There's No Bismuth Like Show Bismuth
This season of Futurama started strong, went through a slight mid-midseason slump and now has returned to form for the impending midseason finale in just two weeks. Two weeks! Of course, that Wednesday will also have two episodes to air but let's not dwell on the future, back to the past! Last night's "Near-Death Wish" had (un)surprisingly little to do with Charles Bronson rape-revenge thriller from the 70s but it did return us to the world visited in "A Clone of My Own," an episode that, being the tenth of Season 2, happened to air one year and ten days after The Matrix was released. Just in case you were wondering. Oh, and Bismuth is not only number 83 on the periodic table of the elements but also a pentavalent poor metal and, even if slightly radioactive, is the highest-atomic-mass element that is stable. Now that we're all caught up let's check in at The Clippie Awards!
"They Delivered Memories..."
"Near-Death Wish" opens at the prestigious ceremony that recognizes delivery boy excellence and one of the first awards of the night finds Dwight Conrad losing the race for Best Newcomer on a Bike. But don't worry, his parents are still proud. Not as proud as say, if he won the award, however, at least they came at least to watch him lose. Fry is stuck at the gala alone (Leela and/or Bender could have gone but that wouldn't help make a point about family) and not only wins but reenacts a scene from Austin Powers 3, embarrassing himself at the podium by pointing out that his 'dad' didn't even bother to show up. Of course, he knew this before he went up on stage to accept the 'Clippie' from the ADS for the Newspaper, Phonebook and Miscellaneous category. Go Miscellaneous! There aren't many ways to win back the favor of an audience who just watched you beat out three delivery boys who died in the line of duty but discarding your surrogating father figure's tissue of lies could be one of them. Insulting the limp fish sticks, on the other hand, probably didn't win Fry any friends.
"They look just like you Fry! Arms. Legs. Ugly."
While Bender and Scruffy admire the skull bashing potential of Fry's Clippie, signed upon receiving, the Professor explains how he couldn't make it because of his searing case of who gives a crap. Instead of the foreshadowed skull bashing, Fry decides to seek out his other remaining family members for, you know love and stuff, and that means a trip to the Near-Death Star. The first time they visited ("Clone"), they had to sneak past the robotic arm but there's no waiting for Clippie Award winners and Fry quickly hover rolls to find the old people. The geezers are all locked in a Matrix like 'virtual reality human batteries' situation and I'm usually not one that finds directly acknowledging (and ripping on) the piece of popular culture you're parodying as the best way to create laughs, however, since "Clone" came out so soon after the Wachowskis' film, it not only allows the revisit to toss in an outright nod, it seems oddly fitting. It also allows the Comedy Central comedy to show off its much improved animation skills and the sequences 'entering the Matrix' as well as flying through the stacks and stacks of cells are stunning.
"I'll miss you guys! I don't think Gram-Gram likes that place. And I know Shabbadon't."
Fry finally finds Gram-Gram and Shabbadoo's address and, using Bender's 40% safe hookup, the three (the aforementioned two plus Leela) drop in at 'Trop Vieux Manor' - a virtual retirement home that translates from the French to 'Very Old Manor' - through the visitor portal. Leela lies about having only one word to describe the horrible, terrible place and it isn't long before Fry's turned away at the door by Shabbadoo for being a film-flam man. They finally get the old couple to open up for reverse mortgages and soon after convince them Philip is indeed their relative. Once they forget even trying about the whole frozen for centuries thing anyway. Estelle Harris (George Costanza's mom) is guesting as Gram-Gram but I think Shabbadoo is being handled by a regular. As he hoovers some virtual ham casserole, Fry fills his distant future relatives in on his past before they share a moment talking about how crotchety the Professor both is and was as a child.
"I was accepted to MIT at the age of 14 but my parents crushed my dreams like a discarded frog head."
But all good things must come to an end and Philip can't watch Shabbadoo pull grandpa parlour tricks all day or complain about the rigged bingo (my favorite two seconds of the entire episode). Or at least not once Bender wakes up from his virtual nap. After saying a rushed goodbye, Fry debates his relatives existence back in the real world and leans in for a final kiss accidentally releasing the elders. Leela has to use them to jump start the dying hover craft and thanks to some sweet Fry-batsmanship from Bender and a crucial mis-step by their pursuers, turning left at Miriam Feinberg instead of Feingold, they safety get away with the Farnworths. Back at Planet Express, the rest of the crew get to meet the Professors parents (Zoidberg's introduction was hilarious), and Fry is completely satisfied having found new members of his family. This is when "Near-Death Wish" moves on to the second, and unexpectedly rewarding, part of the story when Professor Farnsworth, not his great uncle Fry, is the one in need of some old fashioned family healing.
"It's the Professor!"
When he finds out that the old people waiting for him are not zombies but instead his mommy and daddy, Hubert loses his cool and orders them to stay out of his life. Hermes, however, uses the opportunity to land a few age-based zingers before Fry resumes having good times with his grandparents (they're right, it's just easier to say grandparents). The montage of the Professor spying on his family's activities was well executed and I especially liked his 'Phantom of the Opera'-like exit from Fry's holophoner recital. The funniest visual gag, however, came next, as we watch from Amy and Leela's POV as Professor Farnsworth slinks back into the Planet Express building, Ace Ventura style, only for them to soon find him crying in the tub. His request for them to come closer to hear his sob story has Leela not only churning up an opaque bubble layer but also starts the first of two narrated flashbacks. Since both are so good, not to mention complement each other, the reliance on the storytelling devices doesn't at all come across like a crutch.
"Ahem. Uh. This may not be the best time but, uh, a couple years ago, a homeless rodeo clown named Floyd came to the door claiming he was-"
The Professor's tale is of a sad childhood where his parents weren't only too tired to play with him but his unhealthy respect for education also clause them to uproot the family to a peaceful farm. Squeakers did not come out ahead on that move and, once he was old enough, Hubert then ran away from home never to speak to his parents again. But instead of talking to them about it like a normal person, the crazy, uncircumcised, old man runs away to cry some more, this time back at the family farm in Queens. So the place isn't what it used to be but they do find the Professor in his childhood bedroom which leads to the second narrated flashback, this time told from the parents perspective. It turns out that there was a nut job Farnsworth older brother - of course it's Hubert all along but I bought the bait and switch until they said he ran away - and Gram-Gram and Shabbadoo did all they could to calm his night terrors as well as help his, uh, sweating the bed by reading from his favorite book. Bismuth! While admittance to a prestigious mental institution on full wackademic scholarship couldn't cure wait ailed old Hubert, the reconciliation with his parents and reprogrammed play at the Near-Death Star, did wonders.
"One more chance to play, if you're not too tired."
"Near-Death Wish" is one of the better episodes of an already impressive season. After a fantastic start, there were a few weaker installments slipped into the middle of season 7A but Futurama hinted at something special with "Fun on a Bun" and "Free Will Hunting" before topping them both last night. "Near-Dear Wish" was structured quite brilliantly, having Fry's issues open up an even larger can for his great nephew with the Professor dominating the second half of the story. It didn't leave much room for the supporting cast, in this case everyone not in the Farnsworth extended family (except Qubert, who got no mention at all) was reduced to one liners or exposition but this time the more focused narrative payed out bigger emotional dividends. I thought (what turned out to be) the first resolution - at the Farm - was satisfying enough, not to mention Fry's wrap up mid-episode, then "Near-Death Wish" one upped itself with an even more rewarding last scene. Part of me thinks that they should have worked Fry into the final picture, but perhaps in this case, four would have been a crowd. Oh, and good thing Floyd has that Doctorate in Rodeo Studies to fall back on, whew!
Futurama returns with “Viva Mars Vegas,” Episode 11 of Season 7A, Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on Comedy Central. Created by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, it stars Billy West, Katey Sagal and John DiMaggio.