BY: LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES – For Bender fans, the new season of “Futurama” is mandatory. For romantics eager to see Fry and lovely Leela draw closer, it’s a must-see. And devotees of Japanese anime, get ready for a treat.
In other words, skip the Emmy-winning “Futurama” in its second year on Comedy Central, starting 10 p.m. EDT Thursday, and you’ll be sorry — whether you’re a science fiction fan or not.
The former Fox animated series tracks the adventures of pizza delivery boy Philip Fry (voiced by Billy West), who inadvertently turned himself into a human Popsicle in 1999 and woke up 1,000 years later. Employment (whew!) was available.
At Planet Express, an intergalactic delivery service, Fry works alongside Leela (Katey Sagal), a tough, one-eyed babe, and best friend Bender (John DiMaggio), a robot whose grip on morality and manners is tenuous.
The 13-episode run kicks off on a funky note with the episode titled, “Neutopia.” The Planet Express crew crashes on a planet inhabited by a being who, unfamiliar with the concept of gender, decides to experiment on our heroes and heroines.
Pitch-perfect satire ensues, with both sexes taking it on the chin. At one point, the women risk a fiery death to check out an apparent clearance sale.
“I can’t believe that sale was just a mirage. Now we’re goin’ die without so much as a factory-second clutch purse to show for it,” moans LaBarbara Conrad (Dawnn Lewis).
The men, also trying to save themselves but hopelessly lost, encounter a friendly native.
“Hi, there, you fellas need some directions?” he asks. Their response: a stubborn chorus of “No!” and “Don’t worry about it.”
In the June 30 “Benderama” episode, the robot with the cigar habit and no discernible work ethic learns how to replicate himself, creating an army of Benders that scale smaller and smaller but cause big trouble.
“People always say `More Bender!’ Well, believe me …” said series creator Matt Groening, chuckles overtaking his words as he contemplates the havoc wrought by multiple Benders.
“What I love about Bender is he can do all this obnoxious stuff that we couldn’t get away with if he were a human character,” he said. “He’s a robot, not a role model.”
In another episode, Bender dies — “There’s a science-fiction explanation for this,” Groening offers — and his ghost haunts the Planet Express offices.
Groening’s affection for the miscreant is clear, although he acknowledges that as a child he was alternately obsessed with and terrified by his collection of classic robots.
“If a robot wants to kill you, you can’t stop him. You can’t reason with a robot,” he said, recounting his childhood reasoning. “I think most humor comes from what you’re anxious about. I think people always give themselves away with what they make jokes about.”
Groening, “The Simpsons” mastermind who developed “Futurama” with David X. Cohen, is most enthused about the season’s final episode, “Reincarnation” (the airdate has yet to be announced).
“We reconceive the episode in three animation styles,” Groening said. One is circa 1930s with “bouncy black-and-white animation” and singing characters, while the second is modeled on the look of a 1980s video game.
The third, which re-imagines the story as Japanese anime, “was so good, we said we should just do the show that way from now on,” Groening said.
There are two more seasons of “Futurama” ahead, with work under way on another 26 episodes.
As for the future of Fry and Leela, “Yes, we will continue exploring their relationship. … Fans are invested” in it, Groening said. “So many contemporary animated shows are joke machines, really good ones, but just tons and tons of jokes. I think what really keeps people coming back is the mushy stuff.”
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