Futurama has spent most of its life in the animated shadows of bigger shows. It debuted in 1999 as Matt Groening’s “other” show, never finding nearly as much support among audiences or Fox network executives as The Simpsons. After it was canceled in the mid-2000s by Fox, it found a new following through Adult Swim reruns and DVDs and was subsequently revived; even then, it was only the second-most notable show to tread that unlikely path, behind Family Guy. And so it’s only fitting that Futurama wraps up its final season in the same summer as the much more high-profile departures of Breaking Bad and Dexter.
Because it's dabbled in so many tones and genre styles over the course of its 140 episodes, Futurama can be difficult to get a handle on. The series' quality has varied widely, occasionally content to lazily rehash familiar parodies, but it's often taken full and fruitful advantage of the imaginative possibilities offered by its setting.
At the top of its game, Futurama balanced incisive cynicism with disarming sweetness, dark comedy with jaunty slapstick. These 10 episodes aren’t necessarily the series’ best, but they’re representative of the peaks the Planet Express gang frequently hit as they traversed the 31st century. Take a look, then share your own favorite episodes, moments, and characters from Futurama’s 14-year off-and-on duration in the comments.
Note: The following season and episode listings are based on TV airing order, rather than production order. They may be numbered differently on DVD or online streaming services.
“Hell is Other Robots,” Season 1, Episode 9
The series was frequently over-enamored of Bender-centric episodes, but its first one remains one of its best. If nothing else, it earns a place on this list for introducing a venerable returning character in the Robot Devil and giving us the Dante-inspired, Beastie Boys-featuring “Robot Hell.”
“When Aliens Attack,” Season 2, Episode 3
The debut of Lrr and his cohorts from Omicron Persei 8 was precipitated, naturally, by the cancellation of that smash interstellar hit Single Female Lawyer. Spoofing David E. Kelley and Roland Emmerich in equal measure pretty clearly dates this episode to the late 1990s, but that winds up making a neat comment on what science-fiction has in common with parody: The future always looks like a version of the present, warped to varying degrees.
"The Luck of the Fryrish," Season 3, Episode 10
Perhaps overshadowed by “Jurassic Bark” over the years, this early look back at the twentieth-century life of ol’ Philip J. Fry is equally affecting. It helped a high-concept series keep one foot in a small, sentimental place, paving the way for its future forays into character-based dramedy.
“Roswell That Ends Well,” Season 4, Episode 1
What this episode lacks in sexy teen alien drama, it more than made up for in history-twisting and incest-centric time-travel paradoxes. Small wonder it took home Futurama’s first Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
“Godfellas,” Season 4, Episode 8
Like any good work of sci-fi, philosophical questions always crept in around Futurama’s margins. The saga of how Bender becomes, then maybe meets, a deity shows the series at its most existential. (Plus, I’m pretty sure the First Amalgamated Church Fry visits is a model for the final episode of Lost.)
“Jurassic Bark,” Season 5, Episode 2
Not gonna lie, I spent about 10 minutes considering omitting this episode just to watch the comments section explode in a hail of pitchforks and torches. The tear-jerking final minutes are perhaps the most memorable in the series’ entire run, but the episode constructs such a surprisingly sincere story that the emotion is fully earned, rather than easy manipulation. Now, if you’ll excuse me… I’m just gonna need a minute before we continue.
“Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” Season 4, Episode 12
I’m not sure any TV show has ever Mary Sue’d itself into a work of fan fiction quite as thoroughly as this one, nor ever will again. With most of the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series represented, this episode is one of the purest, if one of the broadest, distillations of Futurama’s signature homage to/lampooning of its sci-fi roots.
“The Sting,” Season 5, Episode 9
Part puzzle-box, part “what if” scenario, “The Sting” uses a series of off-kilter situations to take a deep, direct look at Fry and Leela’s relationship. It's a rare dual showcase for both the show’s penchant for genre fiction oddity and its ability to treat its core characters as genuine people.
“Lethal Inspection,” Season 6A, Episode 6
Bender’s humanity was always a fluid concept throughout the series’ run; like Homer Simpson’s intelligence, it waxed and waned depending on the needs of a given story. But there’s nothing more human than coming to grips with your own mortality, as Bender does here. I’m sure the Hermes-Bender backstory revealed at the end is rife with retconning, but nonetheless it’s a sweet glimpse at one of the least-seen Planet Express relationships.
"The Late Philip J. Fry,” Season 6A, Episode 7
Nabbing Futurama its second Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2011, this is another Fry-Leela episode that's more poignant than its preposterous inciting incident might suggest. Like many of Futurama's best stories, it revels in huge, convoluted sci-fi notions and tropes, but all in service to an intimate story about a central relationship.
“Brannigan, Begin Again” (Season 2, Episode 6), “Xmas Story” (Season 2, Episode 8), “How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back” (Season 2, Episode 11), “The Cryonic Woman” (Season 2, Episode 19), “Anthology of Interest I” (Season 2, Episode 20), "Parasites Lost" (Season 3, Episode 4), “The Day the Earth Stood Stoopid” (Season 3, Episode 7), “That’s Lobstertainment!” (Season 3, Episode 8), “Love and Rocket” (Season 4, Episode 4), “Teenage Mutant Leela’s Hurdles” (Season 5, Episode 7), "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings” (Season 5, Episode 16), “Reincarnation” (Season 6B, Episode 13), “Game of Tones” (Season 7B, Episode 10).
What episodes would make your list?
AIRED ON 9/4/2013
Season 10 : Episode 13