Welcome to the world of tomorrow … again! It’s fitting that, just like its main character, Philip J. Fry, who wakes up in New New York in the year 3000 after being cryogenically frozen for 1,000 years, Futurama has been on ice — but Hulu is bringing the Matt Groening–created animated sitcom back for another rival, having ordered 20 new episodes. It’s the third time Futurama has been revived: The show was first canceled in 2003 when it aired on Fox, brought back for a series of direct-to-DVD movies that were chopped up and turned into season five later in that decade, picked up again by Comedy Central in 2010 for three more years, and finally resurrected by Hulu a decade since we last saw Fry, Leela, Bender, and the rest of the Planet Express crew.
All those revivals mean that despite the show’s being off the air for about half of the quarter-century since its debut, there are a lot of Futurama episodes. Not counting the new Hulu episodes, which premiere today, there are 140 half-hours of Futurama. And good news, everyone! We’re ranking the top 40 of the series. At its best, Futurama is hilarious and heartfelt, and the greatest episodes tend to not just make you laugh; they make you actually, truly care about a delivery boy, a one-eyed mutant, and an alcoholic robot. The 100 episodes that didn’t make the cut? They can bite my shiny metal ass.
Despite Futurama’s being revived so many times, almost all of the episodes after its initial cancellation are lacking compared with the first four seasons. It’s like The Simpsons’ decline in quality, only for this Groening show, there’s a clear demarcation, rather than just a vague sense that it happened somewhere between seasons eight and 13. It’s hard to say exactly what’s wrong with these episodes. Most are perfectly serviceable, but they’re too content to be self-referential, resting on a clever premise without fully developing it or the characters, who frequently feel like stock versions of themselves instead of people (or robots or aliens) actually living in the 31st century.
That said, some post-cancellation episodes are all-timers (including one of the best of the entire show, which we’ll get to in 30-odd entries). “Law and Oracle” is a pretty standard spin on the classic animated-sitcom trope in which the main character gets a new job for one episode, but Fry’s time as an agent in the New New York Police Department is a fun riff on Minority Report and features Chief O’Manahan, an unsubtle but hilarious gender swap of the dick-swinging police captain. Jokes about gender aren’t always Futurama’s forte, but here they’re infused with the right amount of parody.
“When Aliens Attack” pleasantly riffs on alien-invasion movies like Independence Day, relying on broader genre homages (such as the destruction of a bunch of monuments arranged on Monument Beach) rather than overly specific references that sometimes bog down these sorts of things (though it does nail Ally McBeal with Single Female Lawyer). It’s primarily interested in introducing the memorable Lrrr, ruler of Omicron Persei 8, to the series. The episode also features one of the most relatable lines, at least to anybody who has ever had to write for a living: “It took an hour to write; I thought it would take an hour to read.” Who among us?
Futurama’s second episode is aptly named, as the pilot that launched the show ended with the trio of main characters and Dr. Farnsworth blasting off into space. Episode two is a direct follow-up that sees them land on the moon, now transformed into a cheap theme park, and it proves the premiere’s success wasn’t a fluke. “The Series Has Landed” introduces the B-squad characters Dr. John A. Zoidberg, Amy Wong, and Hermes Conrad and adds some early pathos to the central concept. As exciting as the future may be, there’s something sad about seeing your wildest dreams commodified, and at its best, Futurama never forgets this inherent bittersweetness in a show that also has robot hookers.
Futurama never gave us anything as profound as the Simpsons episode that perfectly sums up the Democratic and Republican Parties or that Treehouse of Horror with Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but The Simpsons never gave us Richard Nixon’s jowly severed head. This early season-two episode introduces one of the few historical heads to become a recurring character, one exploiting the wonderfully stupid technicality that nobody can be elected president a third time.
One of Futurama’s many series finales that weren’t (this one written in the event that Comedy Central didn’t renew the show for another run of episodes), “Overclockwise” turns Bender into a hypercomputer with near-omnipotent abilities. There are fun scenes, including some courtroom shenanigans, but the would-be finale is best remembered for its ending — a lovely, understated moment in which Fry and Leela read Bender’s prediction for what their future will entail and we have only their reactions to go on. It’s a fitting way to handle a will-they-won’t-they that successive revivals left the show somewhat unsure of how to sustain.
At first, this one seems typical of all the things holding many post-cancellation episodes back. Pairs of characters are at odds with each other arbitrarily, just for the sake of getting them into a team-building exercise that becomes an Alien spoof. But the third act’s twist turns it into a riff on The Thing with a series of clever, hilarious reveals as character after character is shown to be the shape-shifting monster in increasingly unexpected ways.
“The Farnsworth Parabox” first aired in 2003, roughly two decades before everyone was exhausted by the idea of multiverses. That’s great news because rather than busy itself with meta humor, this season-four episode uses alternate versions of the Planet Express crew as a vehicle for clever jokes and character development: Owing to a coin flip in their universe, Fry and Leela are married in another reality. It’s a smart way to propel the pair’s relationship without altering the show’s status quo.
Sometimes, an episode-long parody of a single movie can feel lazy, the show too focused on replaying the original’s beats to put its own stamp on the material. Futurama is sometimes guilty of that, but the thing about “Mars University” is that it parodies Animal House, and Animal House rules. It’s a perfect framework to send the gang to college, where Fry battles, well, not wits but something with his intelligent monkey roommate and Bender does Robot House fraternity shenanigans to the dismay of the dean.
Perhaps more than any other show’s writing staff, the folks behind Futurama are, well, geeks. It’s no surprise that they’re Trekkies, but it’s a little surprising that this episode, which features the voice-acting talents of all the Original Series stars who were still living (except for the guy who played Scotty, replaced here by “Welshie”), is more than just fan service. It’s a testament to the world Futurama built — and to those geeky writers — that it feels not just natural but overdue that the USS Enterprise crew would make an appearance.
Futurama is capable of holding two truths at once: There are numerous ethical concerns when it comes to eating meat, and PETA is really, really annoying. “The Problem With Popples” has the Planet Express crew stumble upon a new fast-food craze that puts the Popeyes chicken sandwich to shame. The only downside is that they’re actually eating billions of Omicronian young, and Lrrr wants to eat humanity in return.
Futurama’s take on the iconic Simpsons side-stories episode “22 Short Films About Springfield” can’t reach the heights of its yellower cousin because Futurama doesn’t have as deep a bench of supporting characters. Still, this nontraditional installment, which eschews a main plot by following the core characters as they each figure out what to spend their $300 government rebate on, is a breezy, low-stakes half-hour. It feels like a hangout episode, something Futurama had earned this late into its original run. (I personally am seeking the caffeine-induced nirvana that Fry achieves here with his 300th cup of coffee.)
Prior to the Hulu pickup, this was Futurama’s final final finale. Now it’s just season seven, episode 26, but then again, it never positioned itself as the end, just as the start of another go-around in keeping with the cyclical theme of the show. Here, the Professor invents a machine that rewinds time by ten seconds, but when it gets into Fry’s hands he first finds himself trapped in a death loop, then stuck outside of time itself alongside Leela. They happily grow old together in a frozen world until they’re offered the chance to start over (on the Hulu streaming platform, it turns out).
The longer a show goes on, the more likely it is to base an episode on the idea that, uh, this character and that character have never really been in a plot together — and maybe that might be interesting? “Lethal Inspection” gives us the unlikely duo of Bender and Hermes, and it’s surprisingly effective, especially with the reveal that it was a young Hermes who broke the rules and allowed a baby Bender to make it off the production line despite his defect. It may have the most purely wholesome ending of a Futurama episode.
As wacky as Futurama is, there’s a sadness to its premise. Sure, Fry’s life in 1999 kinda sucked, but he left it all behind when he accidentally fell into that cryogenic freezer. Many of Futurama’s most emotional episodes revisit the year 1999 and what Fry lost when he went to the future. While this isn’t the tearjerker that some episodes are [glowers at “Jurassic Bark”], it’s a nice early series reminder of that inherent melancholy when Fry uses his $4.3 billion worth of accrued interest to re-create 1999 as best he can — even with anchovies, a highly sought-after pizza topping and miracle fuel source.
As far as “animated comedies that originally aired on Fox” go, American Dad probably wins the belt for the best Christmas (excuse me — “Xmas”) episodes. Futurama occupies a respectable second place, though, because a murderous Santa Claus robot who wants to kill everybody it deems “naughty” is a sweetly cynical way to celebrate the season.
“The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” sets up a lot of dominos for Futurama’s long game, such as Nibbler’s intelligence, Fry’s missing brain wave (the result of an icky solution to the Grandfather Paradox), and his special status (revealed next season in “The Why of Fry”). And while it’s nice to see patient world-building from animated sitcoms, which back then weren’t as lore-dense as shows like Rick and Morty are today, this episode is also just very funny as it gives Fry a chance to be the smart one for a change … and he still barely manages. Special mention goes to Katey Sagal for her line-reading when a dumbed-down Leela sheepishly inquires if there’s a “Mrs. Queequeg” when trapped in a Moby-Dick mental-scape.
The first Futurama anthology episode is the series’ best, in part because of how unseriously it takes its “what if?” premise. “What if Bender were 500 feet tall?” isn’t a question anyone was asking, nor did anyone expect the off-the-rails answer to the mundane question “What if Leela were just a little bit more impulsive?” Only the final bit is a meaningful query, bringing the likes of Al Gore, Stephen Hawking, and Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax in for a segment about what would have happened had Fry never been frozen. But the answer is that Fry was supposed to freeze, and because he doesn’t, the world ends, which is a great meta-dodge on the whole hypothetical. When freed of the shackles of consequence and continuity, Futurama got so dumb it circled back around to being smart.
“The Cryonic Woman” is another episode that revisits the past — not just 1999 and Michelle, Fry’s ex-girlfriend from the 20th century, but the first episode of the series and some world-building details that, conveniently, were mostly forgotten. (Remember “career chips”?) Voiced here by Sarah Silverman, Michelle gets unfrozen herself in the 31st century, and her (understandably) horrified reaction to the future is a nice reminder that, for all he lost, Fry really did luck out. Plus, “The Cryonic Woman” is rude to Los Angeles, which was funny when I was a kid and, personally, is funnier now that I live in that wasteland.
Futurama’s reveal that Leela isn’t actually the last of an alien species but a mutant who escaped a life in the New New York City sewers is one of the show’s best narrative drops. This comes in season four, however; the first three seasons make use of her then-status as a lonely person looking to fit in — and never more so than in “A Bicyclops Built for Two,” in which a horny shape-shifter nearly traps her in a life straight out of Married … With Children. (Fittingly so, given that Leela’s voice actress is also Peg Bundy.)
Futurama’s take on Starship Troopers and the sci-fi war genre (with a little M*A*S*H thrown in for good measure) is a great showcase for Zapp Brannigan, one of the show’s best characters. If you missed the not-at-all subtle subversion of Paul Verhoeven’s film, Futurama’s not going to let it go over your head, explicitly painting Brannigan and Nixon as the bad guys in this war of conquest against a race of alien balls.
Any episode that makes Brannigan out to be pathetic and gives Leela a little respect is a good one, and “Brannigan, Begin Again” does a great job of both — especially making Brannigan out to be pathetic. (I deliberately placed this episode in the middle of the list in solidarity with the Neutral Planet, which has suffered enough at Brannigan’s hands.)
It’s cool that writer Ken Keeler has a Ph.D. in mathematics and could use that know-how to invent a new theorem to solve the problem presented in this episode he penned: A machine lets two people switch bodies, but they can’t switch directly back. So how many people do you need to get everyone’s brain back into the right bod? That alone isn’t enough for a good episode of TV, though, and luckily “The Prisoner of Benda” is as clever as it is smart. It’s packed with jokes and has a clear understanding of who these characters are, which makes all their body-swapping escapades funny in the first place.
Here’s the thing about “Jurassic Bark,” which I’m betting many readers are surprised to find in the middle of this ranking rather than close to (or at) the top: It’s cheating. It’s by far the most tear-jerking of Futurama’s many emotional episodes, but it’s an 11th-hour rug pull involving a dog — an act of emotional terrorism that overshadows the rest of the episode. You have to respect a show that would do that to its unsuspecting audience, and “Jurassic Bark” is indeed effective, even bold. Yet its tendency to float to the top of rankings is based entirely on the sight of Seymour living out his loyal, lonely life having unintentionally been abandoned by his best friend. It’s a cruel irony that colors the previous 21 and a half minutes of the episode, not the makings of a series best.
Perhaps the most lore-dense installment of the entire series, “The Why of Fry” rewardingly pulls together a bunch of unresolved threads and Easter eggs: Fry’s immunity to the Brain Spawn from “The Day the Earth Stood Stupid” comes back into play, and he, of all people, saves the universe. More important, Fry exercises agency for once. His life sucked in the 20th century, he fell into a cryogenic tube, and when he woke up, he was still fated to remain a delivery boy. Here, he gets a chance to go back in time and actually choose to go to the future. It’s a surprisingly poignant situation, though not as important as remembering that Scooty Puff Jr. suuuccckkssssssss.
Less than a year after Futurama spent an episode parodying Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, an upstart cartoon that was occasionally accused of copying its Fox brethren did its own riff on the beloved film. You can almost give Family Guy a pass, though, because Willy Wonka is very ripe for parody, and besides — Futurama did it better. RIP Slurms MacKenzie: You’re partying in heaven now, you wonderful worm, you.
It’s remarkable how strong Futurama’s first three episodes are. They have to do so much setup since the show begins with a 1,000-year time jump instead of just another day in the status quo, yet the opening trio is a stellar welcome to New New York with jokes to beat. “I, Roommate” has Fry and his new robot BFF searching for an apartment, and most of the ones they look at are each more unlivable than the last (especially the otherwise perfect one that’s “technically in New Jersey”). By the end of the half-hour, we’ve gotten to know a lot about Fry and Bender’s relationship, and a new setting is established with the reveal that Bender’s old box of an apartment actually has a sprawling “closet” his new human roomie can live in.
Fry and Leela are up there in the pantheon of great will-they-won’t-they relationships, even if Futurama’s constant revivals kept backtracking their status. Their courtship over the initial run, though, is both heartfelt and just the right amount of pathetic. With “Parasites Lost,” Fry attempts to actually make himself worthy of Leela’s affection rather than just take the wormy shortcut. The ending, when Fry takes on the nigh-impossible task of mastering the holophonor to play a song about Leela, is sweeter than you might expect from an episode that earlier threatens a bowel movement so intense “he’ll be lucky if he has any bones left.”
One day, we will find a cure for terminal boneitis.
“The Sting” is an episode-long fever dream: an escalating series of disorienting twists and turns that leaves the viewer as lost as Leela in her grief-induced (but really giant-space-bee-venom-induced) hallucinations. It’s an experimental episode that could have lost audiences by never giving them firm ground to stand on, but it deftly keeps things centered on Leela’s emotional state even as her reality — and the jokes — gets increasingly warped.
Later seasons of Futurama would poke fun at traditional gender stereotypes in ways that rarely amount to much more than boorish men and nagging broads. But “Amazon Women in the Mood” towers over the show’s similarly themed episodes and not just because of its titular statuesque Amazonian aliens. Amy and Kiff, two secondary characters who get a surprisingly full arc for themselves, provide the heartfelt emotional grounding that balances out the crassness of “death by snu-snu” and Fry and Brannigan’s terrified yet psyched reaction to their fate.
The four direct-to-DVD movies that made up Futurama’s first revival are a mixed bag. Most used their supersized movie status to blow up their stakes and premise at the expense of coherency, character, and even humor. Thankfully, “Bender’s Big Score,” the first of Futurama’s many returns, is a fantastic start — a whirlwind tour of history (both the show’s and the past in the time-traveling sense) that doesn’t ever feel like a self-referential celebration rather than an actual story. The reveal that Lars, Fry’s new rival for Leela’s affection, is actually a different version of Fry who lived through more of the past than he did (long story) is fully earned.
Much like “Mars University” and “Fry and the Slurm Factory,” this season-one episode is basically a straight parody of a popular movie, and it largely works because the movie in question, a little indie flick called Titanic, is great source material. Futurama’s take is surprisingly earnest, finding time for Fry and Leela (and Amy) to deepen their budding relationships and even give Bender some humanity — er, robotmanity.
Futurama’s first finale is still its best. Picking up on the holophonor thread from “Parasites Lost,” Fry finds himself still unable to master the futuristic instrument, so he makes a deal with the Robot Devil, swapping his clumsy human fingers for the Devil’s robotic ones. This leads to a series of ironic twists that culminate in an opera in which Fry regains his original hands to prevent the Robot Devil from taking Leela’s hand in marriage. A bravura performance that would make Hedonismbot proud, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings” is a hilarious, sweet send-off, and if the last lines of the series had been Leela’s “I want to hear how it ends,” followed by Fry’s amateurish but sweet holophonor tune, it would have been a perfect final note.
Futurama teased Leela’s mutant heritage well before confirming it in season four, but even eagle-eyed fans who spied two mutants in a crowd shot of an earlier sewer-set episode and guessed the connection couldn’t have been prepared for how moving their reunion was. The final montage — showing the small ways Leela’s parents still care for her after giving her up in hopes that she will have a better life as an “alien” instead of a mutant — is enough to make any parent tear up.
There’s some jankiness to Futurama’s first episode: The voice actors haven’t quite settled into what the characters would sound like, and some setups don’t come into play very much. But in just 22 minutes, “Space Pilot 3000” takes us from 1999 to a thousand years in the future, introduces New New York and our core trio of characters, and establishes that this is the show that thinks the idea of a future automated “suicide booth” is funny. When so many sitcom pilots of the era simply started with things already up and running, Futurama was fittingly ahead of its time.
For its initial run, Futurama was deliberately careful not to cheapen the act of time travel. Fry makes it to the future the old-fashioned way (waiting on ice for 1,000 years), and this wasn’t going to be a show that returns to the past willy-nilly outside of flashbacks. So when the show did decide to break its own rules in season three and have the Planet Express crew go back in time, they do it in spectacular fashion, wreaking havoc in Roswell, New Mexico, and having Fry do the nasty with his own grandmother, thereby becoming his own grandfather. Only in Futurama could a gross joke like this end up an essential, load-bearing bit of the series’ lore.
Some good episodes of Futurama came out after its initial cancellation, but there’s only one great one: “The Late Philip J. Fry,” another installment that breaks the self-imposed “no-time-travel rule.” (Though it technically doesn’t because it turns out time is just circular, so Fry, Bender, and the Professor aren’t going back in time; they’re just going so far forward that they loop through it.) Expertly balancing the absurdity of even further futures than the 31st century with Fry and Leela’s lonely melancholy and longing and the strange catharsis of seeing something through to the end, it makes all the mediocre episodes worth it.
The out-of-control chronitons that cause time to blip forward unexpectedly in “Time Keeps on Slippin” are an incredible comedy invention as they hypercharge the jump cuts. This episode is just nonstop setups and punch lines, with any fat in between conveniently skipped over as time runs amok. Add to that one of the most sadly sweet endings the show has done (and that’s saying something) and the introduction of the Globetrotters as a race of showboating, basketball-loving aliens who are also physics geniuses, and you’ve got the makings of a top-tier half-hour.
Were “Godfellas” just a deeply poignant, and surprisingly dark, treatise on religion and the existence and nature of God, it would be a classic, albeit a heavy one. Luckily, it’s also really funny, as the godlike entity (who may be God himself?) that Bender encounters in the void of space likens his “light touch” approach to godhood to insurance fraud (“if you make it look like an electrical thing”). Billy West cements himself here as one of our great voice actors for my personal favorite line reading of all time: the blithely stupid, totally sincere way Fry says, “I’ve not heard of them.”
Futurama’s retro-sci-fi setting, geeky references, and parodies aren’t what makes it great. They make it funny, sure, but underneath all that is a show built on characters and relationships. Some of its best episodes harness the emotion in those relationships, finding the heart in the connections between two would-be lovers (Fry and Leela), parents and their children (Leela and her mutant parents), and, yes, a man and man’s best friend (Fry and Seymour).
Another relationship is at the core of the series’ best episode, “The Luck of the Fryrish.” Perennially unlucky Fry resents his older brother, Yancy, who was always mean to him when they were children and who Fry believes stole his lucky seven-leaf clover — along with his identity, hopes, and dreams — after he disappeared to the 31st century. The reveal that Yancy actually named his son after his uncle “to carry on his spirit” is heartwarming with just the right touch of melancholy. The Breakfast Club may need to surrender its claim to “Don’t You Forget About Me.”