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Futurama’ returns Thursday, uneven but unharmed

Yes, the Futurama gang is back! With spaceships! New ones!

Comedy Central

Yes, the Futurama gang is back! With spaceships! New ones!

If there's one thing tonight's return of Futurama proves, it's that there's no such thing as going back. Or is there?

Seven years after Fox canceled Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening's and David X. Cohen's satirical sci-fi quirkfest, Comedy Central has resurrected (quite literally, storywise) Fry and the gang, thanks to years of unwavering fan support, Cartoon Network reruns and solid sales of four uneven feature-length DVDs. But does that mean Futurama is back?

Well, yes. And no.

The good news, everyone, is that tonight's two premiere episodes, Rebirth and In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela, show the same wit and sense of humor of the series that was given short shrift in 2003. It is the Futurama that never was, a continuation of the pop smarts and pointed cultural sendups that made it a sleeper hit.

The bad news is that while the show hasn't changed much, its audience probably has, and that will make this return to the airwaves a rough ride — initially, at least.

It's no secret I'm one of the geeky masses who adored Futurama. I watched the reruns on Adult Swim obsessively, and purchased each of the four DVDs within days of each separate release. But while I noticed those lengthy ruminations on a show long put to bed were hit-or-miss, I had hoped the return to the show's half-hour format would resurrect the whipsmart formula I so cherished.

I was doomed to disappointment, however. Call it a sense of dorky entitlement, chalk it up to years of — ulp! — maturation, but Futurama's return heralds a certain inability to please, no matter how good or bad it may be perceived. I warn you, Futurama fans, this really is the show that was snatched away, a continuation that follows Into The Wild Green Yonder in such a way that we're not meant to skip a beat. The question we have to ask ourselves: Is that a good thing?

I was wounded to see the show canceled after being shifted and swapped in Fox's Sunday night schedule like a 22-minute shell game; part of the reason it was killed after four seasons is the fact no one ever knew when it was being broadcast. But if nothing else, the show went out on a high note: The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings was perhaps the series' best episode, and certainly featured its best musical offering, better even than the Don't Worry, Bee Happy song from The Sting, also from Season 4. The show ended in a sweet, sentimental way that showcased a writing team in top form: Intelligent jokes, self-referential shout-outs to fans — such as Bender's constant referrals to the definition of irony — and cracker-jack comedic timing.

That explains why rusty premiere episode Rebirth feels more like 1999's Space Pilot 3000, where in retrospect (after repeated viewings of the following 71 installments), everything felt slightly off. The one-liners weren't as clever, the plots sort of meandering, the tone just a bit off-kilter. The show hadn't found its pacing yet, nor the characters their personalities. It wasn't really until episode No. 6, A Fishful of Dollars, that Futurama really hit its stride. Maybe it was the cryogenically frozen Fry using part of his 1,000 years of bank-earned interest to buy a recording of Baby Got Back that won me over.

So while I felt betrayed over minor points — both new episodes are a bit slow, and there seems to be an inexplicable lack of proper proportion in the way the characters are drawn, despite being animated by Rough Draft Studios again — it dawned on me that perhaps it's not the show at all. Maybe, in the ensuing years between the onset of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, I had changed and the show had not. That would explain a certain impatience with droll Justin Timberlake jokes and nudity that's even more gratuitous than before ("there are a couple of episodes where we do push that edge a little bit, thanks to our being on Comedy Central," Cohen admitted to Entertainment Weekly).

I momentarily feared that the series had left behind its greater glory, that there was no hope for the Planet Express crew. Bender has turned into more of a jokey mascot shell than an actual character, and I tired of Zapp Brannigan's oversexed schtick — for the sake of poor Kif Kroker, I had really wanted to turn off the DVD player when Zapp bedded Amy Wong in The Beast With A Billion Backs. In fact, tearing through the veil of nostalgia, I began to think perhaps this show wasn't ever as funny as I recalled it being, that maybe every geek I know only considers it hilarious because it reminds us of a different time, and the jokes we continue to laugh at during repeat viewings have always elicited only mild grins or minor chuckles instead of belly laughs. Worse, it could end up as stale and disgusting as Family Guy, another animated Fox pastiche that returned from the dead. Horrors!

But then I read where Futurama was headed: ComicCon, robosexuality and a love scene between Zoidberg and Professor Farnsworth; saw that Mark Mothersbaugh and Patton Oswalt and Katee Sackhoff and Craig Ferguson all were guest starring in later episodes; and thought back to the first time I saw A Fishful of Dollars. So I banished those terrible thoughts from my jarless head.

Futurama is back. Just give the show (and its fans) time to thaw.

— Joshua Gillin writes about entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Futurama

The series returns with Rebirth at 10 tonight on Comedy Central. In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela follows at 10:30. New episodes will air at 10 p.m. Thursdays.

Futurama’ returns Thursday, uneven but unharmed 06/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010 9:29pm]

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