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Fox's 'Futurama' funny, freaky, fetching

Sunday, December 09, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The highly regarded but little seen Fox comedy "Futurama" returns for its third season premiere tonight at 7. It hasn't been an easy mission for this animated series that's part sci-fi parody, part skewering of present-day pop culture.

The show was frequently delayed or pre-empted by football last fall, and even when it did air, it's on so early in the evening that many people have yet to settle in for a night of television.

Perhaps there's no way "Futurama" would be a hit series. Maybe its science fiction-derived humor is too obscure for the mainstream audience. Yet tonight's episode proves "Futurama" has some truly inspired moments as it melds a semblance of "Simpsons"-style humor with a "Jetsons" setting.

Set in the 31st century, "Futurama" began when a 25-year-old pizza delivery boy awoke after a thousand-year slumber that began in 1999. Fry (voice of Billy West) landed a job with Planet Express delivery service where he pals around with the robot Bender (John DiMaggio) and longs for the one-eyed Leela (Katey Sagal). Other characters include doddering scientist Prof. Farnsworth (West again) and intern Amy (Lauren Tom).



When: 7 tonight on Fox.

Voices of: Billy West, Katey Sagal, Tress MacNeille, Phil LaMarr.


The show's humor is varied, including:

Weird non sequiturs: "She's built like a steak house, but she handles like a bistro," says macho starship captain Zapp Brannigan as he takes command of an orbiting restaurant.

Jokes that relate to present-day annoyances: A wrong number recording says, "The number you have dialed has crashed into a planet, please make a note of it."

Comedy that mocks science fiction and its fans: "Eternity with nerds. It's the Pasadena 'Star Trek' convention all over again," said Nichelle Nichols (Uhura on "Star Trek") in a guest voice appearance last season.

In tonight's amusing season premiere, "Roswell That Ends Well," Fry and company go to observe the death of a star.

"I've never seen a supernova, but if it's anything like my old Chevy Nova, it'll light up the night sky," Fry says.

Things go wrong, and their ship is swept through a time tunnel to crash land on Earth in Roswell, N.M., in 1947. Turns out they're the alien invaders, specifically the squid-like Dr. Zoidberg (West again), who fight the U.S. Army and become legendary "proof" of extraterrestrials to UFO enthusiasts.

Prof. Farnsworth warns everyone about altering events in the past that could change the future, but Fry proceeds to track down his Gomer Pyle-like grandfather anyway. Relations among the generations become complicated - and unnerving - by episode's end, goofing on the plots of all sorts of time travel movies, most notably "Back to the Future."

Executive producer David X. Cohen reports the series' "lost" Christmas special from last season will air Dec. 23 at 9:30 p.m. Fox held it last year because the network deemed it inappropriate for the show's regular 7 p.m. time slot. Coolio does a guest turn as the voice of a character called Kwanza Bot.

Cohen said additional guest voices this season will include Sigourney Weaver and Al Gore, making his second appearance on the series (Gore's daughter Kristin writes for "Futurama").

"Futurama" will seem like a "Star Trek" convention in an upcoming episode that features the voices of "Trek" cast members William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols.

It probably takes a certain sensibility to appreciate the style of humor in "Futurama," which may explain its low profile. At a party this summer, series creator Matt Groening bemoaned the show's placement on the Fox schedule.

"It's very disappointing that the show is on so early," Groening said. "It was never meant to be seen at 7 p.m. We're trying to do an adult show that deals with serious science fiction themes, but the time slot and lack of promotion is very frustrating."

Groening said he doesn't think any executives at Fox or any other network "get the show."

"I hope they show more support for the show in the future," he said. "We're doing a great show, and fans who do see it seem to love it."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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