When Futurama began, it really felt like The Simpsons in, well, the future. That is to say that while it had a flexible reality, it still had physics; it still had some rules (keeping in mind that this was before The Simpsons threw those out the window). Anything was possible, but it had a certain level of consistency to it all and explanations, however ridiculous (the were-car comes to mind), were necessary. Since the show moved to Comedy Central, a lot of the time that part has been thrown out and there’s been a certain laziness to how this happens. The “science is magic” trope has really taken over, to the point that it doesn’t even skip a beat before Futurama goes into pure fairy tales.
Weirdly, though, sometimes that works, especially when it’s not an offhanded remark but rather a full story devoted to how magic beans growing into beanstalks make sense. It’s not the magic aspect that was ever a problem; it’s the way it’s sometimes used as a deus ex machina for any problem that slips into an episode. When science isn’t just the gear that makes Futurama’s world turn but rather something with an actual explanation, the whole show feels like it has more stakes. A castle in the sky with unicorns is odd, but one with unicorns that have been made through insane biological experiments is far more interesting.
That’s what makes “Leela and the Genestalk” a fun, surprising episode, despite not being particularly funny. Weirdly, the slightly less jokey tone was one of its strong points, as unlike last week’s episode, “Genestalk” never felt like it was forcing jokes to happen. Instead, it created a strange situation in which Leela is slowly turning into a squid monster, a bit like her mother but far worse, and just seeing where that takes things. Midway through it begins cribbing notes from fairy tales, with Fry buying magic beans and climbing up her tentacles Rapunzel-style, and then mixes this with a healthy dash of The Island of Dr. Moreau. There were so many odd events going on that the strange story being woven took over and became engrossing, offering us genuine science fiction rather than just a parody.
It didn’t entirely mesh, and the beginning in particular irked me. Moments into the episode, Bender announces that he beat up their neighbor (Carlos, the elderly one-legged cowboy), who we’ve never seen, and stole his cowboy hat so they need to go to a redneck bar. It’s a meta-joke about the way Futurama, and to a large extent any show, gets its plots in motion. Mostly, though, it felt like a lazy way of skipping a story. Remember Mom, the corporate billionaire who does evil things? Well, she solved a problem where Leela grew tentacles, end of story. It’s the kind of joke that Futurama has started doing a lot, and its focus on cleverness while removing consequences cheapens the show for me.
For the most part, though, the strangeness of fitting these disparate elements of science fiction together was what made the episode so enjoyable. It was neither a typical science fiction concept nor a pop culture parody, but a strange swirl of both combined with a large dose of social commentary. Even this worked out strangely well, as Futurama was smart enough not to really espouse in either direction for genetically engineered food. Mom made a compelling argument, and so did the last shot of the episode in which her super beans were crushing New York. Both takes were unexpected and clever, and this ambiguity is something other comedies that occasionally drift into message (i.e. South Park) would never feel comfortable with. It was one more element of a strange, enjoyable episode, one that without being particularly funny was still an excellent addition to Futurama.