Sunday, January 13, 2002 by

Every time Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeinfeld or Star Trek find their BBC2 runs interrupted by snooker, darts or ice skating, the fanbase rises as one and shouts “I wish Channel 4 had this series”. For the last 20 years, Channel 4 have been the home for most of the big American series (indeed, Mark Lamarr’s 1997 US entertainment series Planet Showbiz was renamed at the last minute from American Excess, in case C4′s viewers thought it was a comment on the channel’s programming). And its marquee imports of FriendsFrasier and ER are certainly an important part of the channel’s schedules.

But what about The West WingSouth ParkSpin CityFamily GuyAngelThe Fugitive …? All these imports have made their debuts on C4 amid acres of publicity in prime slots, only to find themselves mysteriously dropped or subtly rescheduled to off-peak timeslots the second the viewing figures dipped slightly. Another series to have suffered from this policy is perhaps the funniest, best written series on the channel - Futurama.

Matt Groening’s first post-Simpsons series was always going to be big news, and Channel 4 wasted no time in grabbing hold of it when the rights were available. The first episode was screened at 9.30pm on a Saturday night in September 2000, before nestling into a regular weekday 6pm slot. This wasn’t great scheduling, but it was the same slot The Simpsons fills on BBC2, so maybe that was fair enough. However within a few weeks, it started creeping forward, and found itself at 5.30pm sometimes, to make way for repeats of Friends. Thankfully it returned to 6pm soon after, and stayed there until Christmas.

The second C4 run began in July of last year, again at 6pm, but this time in double bills. This was quite good, but then the double bills started including repeats, and the odd new episode started cropping up on Sunday lunchtimes as well. Then in September, the new episodes just disappeared. Perhaps you could assign that to the problems of running a series set in New York immediately post-11 September; but in fact repeats were still running – one actually went out on the evening of 11 September itself. Then the repeats finished, and that was it until now, when a brand new episode cropped up with no publicity as part of the Sunday morning T4 strand.

If anyone actually saw it, they were in for a treat. From the message in the titles – “Painstakingly drawn in front of a live audience” – the programme went on to prove that it deserves a much better audience than just hungover teenagers. Alright, so it isn’t as good asThe Simpsons, but it’s still substantially funnier than most other programmes – animated or not. Each episode is absolutely crammed with visual jokes, great lines and superb voices.

This week’s edition – “Anthology of Interest” – saw the Professor unveil a “What If?” machine, which allowed various members of the Planet Express crew find out what would happen if their lives took a different turn. The show was clearly modelled on the Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons, with the episode split into three separate vignettes, and like the Treehouse episodes, a more anarchic, self-referential tone and a host of out-of-character moments. All three of the “Tales of Interest” were parodies of a particular fictional genre, and at least two of them were among the funniest moments of the whole series.

The first tale saw Bender saying “As a robot, I find it hard to fit into a world controlled by humans, so I’d like to know – what if I was 500 feet tall?” The result was a Godzilla parody, with Bender befriending Fry and them getting involved in a host of clichéd adventures to the soundtrack of Mmmmbop by Hanson – until Bender killed Hanson. He then went on the rampage around New New York (“There goes the neighbourhood – there goes another neighbourhood.”) and the Professor decided that the best way to combat a terrifying giant was to create another terrifying giant to fight it. Zoidberg was therefore enlarged, but then proceeded to take out revenge on all the places that had annoyed him (“So, the world famous Apollo Theatre; boo me off on open mic night, will you?”) Eventually Bender was killed by falling on a tower, leading Fry to berate the crowds for murdering a robot who had come to earth just to kill all humans, asking “Who’s the real giant monster robot here?”

The second tale was perhaps the most successful of the three, and saw Leela, overshadowed by Fry making breakfast on his head, asking “What if I was more impulsive – just a little bit?” What happened was that, after being told she stood to inherit the Professor’s entire fortune when he died, Leela kicked him into a cage of man-eating anteaters (“You’ve killed me! You’ve killed me!” “Oh God, what have I done?” “I just said, you’ve killed me!”) and then, to stop anyone finding out, went on a killing spree. The only person who never found out was Fry, who, immediately before Zoidberg revealed who it was, announced “I’m bored!” and went to bed.

The third story was less successful than the others, perhaps because as Channel 4 had kept the episode on a shelf for ages, the use of Al Gore as a major player had now dated it somewhat. It attempted to find out what would have happened if Fry had never gone into the future, and involved him getting kidnapped by a bunch of famous nerds – Gore, Uhuru off Star Trek and Stephen Hawking (well done to whoever did his voice) – who attempted to keep the space-time continuum intact. Eventually Fry’s stupidity led to the universe being destroyed.

Despite Channel 4′s stupidity – notably sticking on an ad break with literally 30 seconds of the second tale remaining – this was an absolute highlight of the week’s schedules, full of hilarious situations and brilliant lines (“I killed one person, then I had to kill another, and another!” “Well, that would explain the first three.”) So of course we’ll be watching next week. Oh, hang on, it’s been replaced by a repeat of Eden. Maybe we’ll actually get the next episode before the year 3000, though given Channel 4, probably not.


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