Futurama Returns with Uneven but Often Funny New Season on Hulu

You just can’t kill Philip J. Fry. When Matt Groening premiered “Futurama” on FOX back in 1999, he probably foresaw it running for decades, much like his beloved TV staple “The Simpsons.” That wasn’t meant to be, and FOX canceled the witty animated sci-fi comedy in 2003, but reruns on Adult Swim did well enough to entice Comedy Central to reboot the show in 2010. The axe fell again in 2013, but the current era of neverending nostalgia reboots kind of made another season of “Futurama” feel inevitable, and that day has finally come this week as Hulu launches the first part of a 20-episode order for Fry and the gang. A decade off the air hasn’t really changed “Futurama” much, which feels intentional, and the show is at its best when it avoids current pop culture references or commentary on its own bizarre resurrection cycle. Most of all, the six episodes sent to press have a high enough batting average in the laugh department to justify the return. Hardcore fans should be ecstatic. Casual ones like yours truly are just happy for a few laughs.

The real draw of a new season of “Futurama” is the return of beloved characters and the performers who voice them. Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr, and Lauren Tom are back. And not only does the voice work feel entirely of a piece with where the show was at in the 2000s and 2010s, but so does the animation. In fact, the show arguably looks dated with simple art that feels designed to be consistent with what more of the form looked like in the FOX iteration of the show than what it does today. It gives the program an old-fashioned sensibility, considering how far TV animation has come in two days that plays to its greatest strengths.

To that end, “Futurama” has always worked best when it has leaned into an almost Vaudevillian sense of humor. Most of that “Catskills Comedian” set-up/punchline material comes from DiMaggio’s Bender, still a consistently hysterical character. The little bits are the sharpest in “Futurama,” like when Bender draws an extra 0 on the end of 50-lb weights to try and make them heavier and seems legitimately surprised when it doesn’t work. To that end, the episodes in the first part of this season that use old-fashioned templates are the best, including a second chapter that sees a sort of custody battle with Amy & Kif’s children and a genre send-up in the next chapter titled “How the West Was 1010001.”

When the writers of “Futurama” try to get topical, they falter a bit. The premiere is a direct send-up of the streaming wars as Fry gets caught in an endless binge-viewing machine, and later episodes include spoofs of Amazon and even a jab at Ivermectin. This stuff feels more like generic stand-up, attempts to make the show feel more current than the writers need to bother trying to do. Just lean into what works best about “Futurama” and what fans love about it.

Will this be the renewal of “Futurama” that finally takes and leaves it running for years? Maybe. Hulu has proven to be very supportive of their animated hits—look at the push for “Solar Opposites,” for example. Anyway, even if it does get canceled, that probably won’t be the end of “Futurama.” At this point, it feels like canceling this show is just a temporary condition.

Six episodes were screened for review. “Futurama” premieres today, July 24th on Hulu.

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