"Futurama's" general lot in life was underappreciation. Matt Groening and David X. Cohen's lovably nerdy cartoon series premiered in 1999 on Fox to mixed reviews and the afterglow of Groening's "Simpsons" success. In what has to be one of the longest drifts into niche oblivion for a TV show, "Futurama" returned from cancellation and found a small but supportive fan base on cable, first on Cartoon Network and then on Comedy Central.
Now, 14 years later (but with only 140 episodes, accounting for long breaks), the show is having its last hurrah, starting with two new episodes Wednesday night and concluding in early September.
It's nice to occasionally stumble upon "Futurama" (rerun or fresh) and marvel once more at its sharp sociological satire, which has been intact ever since its lead character, the Gen X slacker Fry (voiced by Billy West), woke from an accidental 1,000-year nap and discovered a 31st-century America in which all our technological and cultural worries came to pass.
"Futurama" envisions a high-tech, junked-out Tomorrowland rife with inconsistencies: Space travel integrates our world with alien cultures, which only brings trickier dynamics of diversity and species-based racism. Robots are twitchy and unreliably self-interested, and, in the case of Fry's mechanical pal, Bender (John DiMaggio), habitually drunk. "Futurama's" future is by no means dystopian, but it is far from the Gene Roddenberry ideal. (In fact, one episode revealed that "Star Trek" had become a banned religion.)
The show conveniently debuted amid real-life worry that power grids and the Internet would fail on Jan. 1, 2000, because our dumb computers wouldn't recognize the calendar rollover — a crisis that turned out to be laughably overhyped. "Futurama" was here to tell us that our real problems, human or almost-so, will remain no matter what the calendar says: Governments and alien tyrannies rise and fall; boy bands and LinkedIn are a permanent scourge; science is both a salvation and a curse; and laboratories make an excellent refuge from the alien clamor of political and infotainment culture.
Wednesday's new episodes are no great shakes, but they do find "Futurama" humming along. Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) joins a "Fast and Furious"-style rocketship gang, but his intra-dimensional warp drive strands him, Fry and Leela (Katey Sagal) in the second dimension, where they are rendered as flat drawings.
It's a clever little bit, as the characters move awkwardly from left to right against a white background, honoring both Groening's pen-on-paper cartooning heritage and "Futurama's" wonderfully absurd attention to physics and higher math. Wednesday's other episode sends Fry and Leela on a romantic getaway to another of Groening's fixations, the Planet of the Apes.
The laughs are the same, but you can sense the show is running low on fuel; compared with "Archer" and a host of weirder, dirtier cartoons aimed at adult viewers, "Futurama" often feels like an exercise in late-'90s retro. It had a sporadic existence, but a good one — and I wouldn't be at all surprised, in a future where fans have the power to exhume and reboot any show they like, to see "Futurama" roused once more from its cryogenic sleep.
- - -
"Futurama" (one hour; two episodes) returns Wednesday on Comedy Central. Check local listings for specific times.