After the immediate success of "The Simpsons" in 1990, creator Matt Groening could have struck a three-series deal and started churning out programs like any number of TV producers have done. But Groening waited almost 10 years before launching "Futurama," and this new animated sci-fi satire appears to be worth the wait.
Fox only provided critics with the first episode, airing Sunday at 8:30 p.m., so it's not entirely clear how the show will develop, but the pilot has all the markings of a winner.
Like "The Simpsons," "Futurama" features skewed humor that pokes fun at pop culture and American culture in general. It's not as smart and funny as many "Simpsons" episodes have been, probably because there's a lot of time spent on exposition and introducing the characters (typical for a series pilot).
The episode begins on Dec. 31, 1999, when 25-year-old delivery boy Fry (voice of Billy West) gets trapped in a cryogenic chamber that's set to defrost him 1,000 years later. He awakens to find New York destroyed by aliens and rebuilt as New New York. But his Fate Assignment Officer, one-eyed alien Leela (Katey Sagal), reveals his destiny in 3000 is still to be a delivery boy.
"At least here you'll be treated with dignity," she says. "Now strip naked and get on the probulator."
In the future as depicted on "Futurama," people travel around by a pneumatic tube, some pay to commit suicide in a Stop 'N Drop booth and a smart-mouthed robot drops a brick from its posterior region when scared.
Late 20th-century celebrities live on, or at least their heads float in jars, in a Head Museum. Leonard Nimoy (Spock on "Star Trek") and Dick Clark (for "Rockin' New Year's Eve 3000") make vocal guest appearances in Sunday's premiere.
So far the most outstanding element of "Futurama" is the show's look. The animation is more sophisticated than what we're used to seeing on "The Simpsons" (some of it is computer-generated), and the visual gags zip past just as fast. The future concocted here comes straight out of sci-fi comics of the 1950s with art deco style in a "Jetsons"-like future. The characters remain very Simpsons-esque, because, Groening says, "That's the only way I can draw, with big eyeballs and no chins."
Music composer Christopher Tyng uses bells to create a joyous, carefree world of tomorrow - sort of a less wholesome version of Disneyland's World of Tomorrow.
Written by Groening and executive producer David X. Cohen, Sunday's episode also introduces Bender (John DiMaggio) as Fry's robot pal and Professor Farnsworth (Billy West again) as Fry's uncle, a wizened scientist. Additional characters will arrive in future episodes, including the Mom of Mom's Old-Fashioned Robot Oil.
It's too soon to proclaim this future perfect, but it's off to a good start.
"Futurama" will air after "The Simpsons" at 8:30 p.m. for the next two Sundays before moving to its regular time slot, Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. beginning April 6.
HOLOCAUST DRAMA: Onto a more serious television production.
Although some children may have seen "Schindler's List" or the more recent "Life Is Beautiful," neither of those films was made with adolescents as its intended audience. "The Devil's Arithmetic," premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime, filters the Holocaust experience through the eyes of a late 1990s teen-age girl.
Although surprisingly less involving than its adult predecessors, "The Devil's Arithmetic" is a noble effort nonetheless. For adults who have seen previous Holocaust dramas, it may seem a little bit too paint-by-numbers, but it's unlikely to seem that way to teens and children who aren't as familiar with the atrocities committed during World War II.
Kirsten Dunst stars as Hannah Stern, a 16-year-old spoiled New Rochelle, N.Y., high school student indifferent to her family's Jewish faith and their history. Rather than take a Passover Seder seriously, she gulps wine, excited to get a buzz.
After opening the door for Elijah, Hannah gets tossed back in time to 1941 Poland. A girl of the same age, Rivkah (Brittany Murphy), explains she and Hannah are cousins and that Hannah has been sick with a fever. The two girls are from completely different worlds ("Your taste is too virginal for me," Hannah tells Rivkah), but they become friends.
About 30 minutes into "The Devil's Arithmetic" the Nazis show up and the whole town is corralled and forced to relocate to a concentration camp. It's here that Hannah begins to appreciate the lessons and history her elderly relatives in 1999 tried to share with her. Stripped of her nail polish and choice whether or not to get a tattoo, Hannah comes to understand the horrors of the Holocaust.
Based on the young adult novel by Jane Yolen, "The Devil's Arithmetic" was executive produced by Dustin Hoffman (he introduces the movie) and Mimi Rogers (she plays Hannah's mom in 1999).
Though it's less moving than other films in what's become the Holocaust genre, "The Devil's Arithmetic" (rated TV-PG) is disturbing nonetheless. Younger children and teens are likely to be upset by some of the concentration camp scenes, as well they should be.
Many TV shows claim to be family-oriented, but "The Devil's Arithmetic" provides an opportunity for children to watch with their parents, who can then explain that although the movie is a work of fiction, its story is real.
When: Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. on Fox.
'THE DEVIL'S ARITHMETIC'
When: Sunday night at 8 on Showtime.