I love shows that can indulge in fantastical wackiness, then use said wackiness to offer commentary on our society as a whole. And I also love “open sandbox” shows that can travel to any setting and do pretty much any story. When you put those two things together, Futurama ought to be my favourite show. It probably would be, if only it could only air two really good episodes in a row.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the quality of individual Futurama episodes always seemed to vary wildly. Season 4 was the one year that seemed to be mostly consistently great. Everything about it, from the stories and the way they’re constructed to the individual jokes seemed a bit, for the lack of a better word, fearless. It always seemed to me that this was another one of those seasons just for the fans. The ratings were dropping and there was a total lack of support from the network. So they just went for it and put out eighteen episodes that were totally unconcerned with their own weirdness.
In an interview following the end of the series (the second end of the series, to clarify), showrunner David X. Cohen discussed how as the show went along, the writers abandoned a long standing belief that true sci-fi concepts and comedy were incompatible. This was the season where those elements were mixed, often with stunning success. “The Sting” is definitely the best example. It’s got huge ideas, it’s rooted in the characters and their relationships with each other, there’s both dark comedy and genuinely unsettling anguish on the part of one character, and it all comes together perfectly. There are several other nearly as effective episodes and many more really good ones, and altogether, it’s a great season.
More personal nostalgia that boosts the season for me a bit. Fox strung these episodes out like crazy, the last season initially aired only eight episodes before the rest were dumped in the summer. It was kind of frustrating, but I’ve got to admit, it made every episode all the more special when it did come out. And second, if you get the DVDs, the audio commentaries are fantastic. It’s pretty much a group of people who are fond of each other and taking advantage of one last chance to gather together and talk about their show. (They didn’t know they’d be back…)
If I Had to Nitpick…: The weakest episodes, like “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch” and “Less than Hero,” are all at the top of the season. Still, Season 4 is never as wildly uneven as Season 3, which almost uniformly consists of the series best and worst episodes, no in between. Volume 4 maintains a generally high standard, the lows are never all that low and they’re out of the way early.
Notable Episodes: Hmm, great episodes that aren’t “The Sting.” Well, “The Why of Fry” hits pretty much the same beats, focusing on Fry’s seemingly lack of purpose. “Where No Fan has Gone Before” has an amazing guest cast. I’ve never been much of a Star Trek watcher, but the episode is still totally accessible to me for its commentary on the power and dangers of fandom. “Crimes of the Hot” is a fun cautionary tale on global warming, and “The Farnsworth Parabox” just has the characters meet parallel versions of themselves and lets the comedy flow from there.