Futurama episodes don’t need to be completely out there and based on absurd science-fiction to be good… but it certainly helps. Partially it’s because after 120 episodes, the show has really covered a lot of the more mainstream sci-fi concepts. Plus, it being a Matt Groening show, it also has resistance to change, so that there are diminishing returns on episodes based upon character relationships—there’s only so many times that episodes based upon Fry courting Leela really work before it gets tiresome. “The Butterjunk Effect” doesn’t have those problems because it’s so different from pretty much everything, let alone previous episodes. While its sports-based plot is just vaguely reminiscent of the time Bender became a woman to cheat in the Olympics, otherwise it’s unique and strange and wonderful.
Following a shipment to moon, the Planet Express crew ends up watching an utterly ridiculous and violent sport, where two-women teams attach butterfly wings to themselves and beat each other up. For no particularly good reason whatsoever, Leela and Amy join the league and after being repeatedly walloped, start taking performance-enhancing nectar to improve their flapping muscles. It’s not until later, when they go to Kiff’s planet to harvest more nectar and Fry becomes an actual alien butterfly, though, when things really head off into unknown territory.
Probably due to the weirdness of the storyline, the rest of “The Butterjunk Effect” seemed less reliant on one-liners and phoned-in quips than the season so far. Just by tweaking that quotient a little bit, the humor felt more intelligent and more like Futurama’s original run than a season six or seven episode. It still featured recognizable tropes, such as Bender just kinda being around for no particular reason, but they felt more in service to the story.
What also helped was that “The Butterjunk Effect” didn’t feel the need to explain any of these strange happenings or point out how nonsensical they were, something the show has increasingly had trouble with. This included not just Fry’s transformation into a butterfly, but also the backstory. Anyone who watches the show already knows Kiff’s parents are swarms and that the moon is largely inhabited by hicks. This made these elements of the universe feel integrated, since the episode largely did away with exposition. The exposition we did get, about the nectar’s planet of origin, was immediately useful and just moved the plot along.
Of course, the best thing of all about “The Butterjunk Efffect” was that it was funny. The ridiculousness certainly helped that, as did its swift pacing, but really it was just packed with great jokes that felt a few notches above what we’ve seen in the rest of the season. Since its return, Futurama has seemed like it needs a few episodes to get back into its groove every year, and that may just be what happened here. Whatever the reason, it’s the first great episode of the season.
•”She doesn’t even want to cuddle anymore, she just wants to hit me with various chairs.”
•”You’ll rue the day you came to the butterfly reserve.”
•I’m a pretty big fan of any reference to McGruff the crime dog.