Futurama is TV's Schroedinger's cat.
It always seems like it's in this permanent state of on the air and off. It's had four different finales. It frequently lampoons current events, but because the show takes place in a the hypothetical future and works through metaphor, it takes on this evergreen quality (like most good metaphorical storytelling does). It at once felt like an off-shoot of golden age Simpsons and yet ultimately became transcendent of it. It's a show I watched chronologically at times and completely out of order at others. A show that feels entrenched in my memory and yet somehow gets funnier as time goes by. A show that never quite felt like it had its moment, and yet its moment has never really ended. Even now, five years after its (supposed) final demise, it's back in different form altogether. As the Schroedinger's cat of television, it is somehow everything.
And on one magical night, I was reminded how wonderful it is, most of all.
(note: crappy iphone photography from yours truly)
This past Tuesday I was invited to the media launch of Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow to celebrate the release of the new mobile game (out right now, Tuesday June 29th). If you've never been to these kinds of promotional things, the goal of them simple: get press, stars, and influencers (a word it takes a lot of restraint not to put in quotes) to come to the event and talk about it in order to promote the game. These events are usually put on by hydra of different companies associated with the project, from rights holders, to TV studios, game studios, and PR firms. And they often range in terms of both quality and desperation, depending on the budget behind them. Luckily, this event is the kind of genuinely fun one that not only takes place in a cool, historical space (the Avalon theater in downtown Hollywood), but serves free booze and really tries to put on a good show.
The event began with the steady stream of press being encouraged to walk back to a series of video stations in order to demo the new game. It was a simple set up of iPads connected to TVs and the instructors would take you through the game. The helpful crew were all part of the development team and actually understood what they were showcasing (these things are important, and often overlooked). And in their walkthroughs, they bounced between experienced gamers to neophytes alike. But as many proceeded to play and be shown through the ins and outs of Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow, there is a probably pertinent question on your mind:
Why is Futurama making a mobile game?
There are a few answers to that question, but let's start with the most honest: because they're cash cows. Much to the chagrin of "hardcore" gamers who tend to stay with PC / console based AAA blockbuster and indie titles, the world of mobile gaming has taken off in a rather extreme way. Specifically with the more "casual" gamer. But of course, there's nothing really casual about it. The hours of use is off the charts. But much has already been made about the addictive qualities of mobile games, along with the morally-screwy question of micro-transactions. So they are inarguably successful. Often just using simple mechanics that create repeatable, compelling actions. And of course, this combination of simplicity and success only leads to wave after wave of copy cat games, as there are a million versions of Bejeweled, Flappy Bird, and the like across the app stores. Most don't even try to hide their naked copy-cat behavior. So when most mobile games just seem to be changing their literal "skin," perhaps the question to ask of this is what does this particular mobile game have beyond its familiar and beloved skin?
Luckily, the game's featured selling point is how much it involves the main voice actors and several of the core writers from the show. Which leads us to the game's real selling point: it's going to be funny. And from what I've seen on a base level, it is. Sure, there are in-jokes but there is also a lot meta humor about mobile games (and you're sure-fire idiocy for taking part in them). Even in terms of gameplay, there's clearly more ambition here. On a core level it more reflects a mash-up of popular NES games with mario-like leveling, JRPG fight screens, and even some simple dialogue bossing, all while you build up your "home base" which is basically future New York. But when you put it all together it adds up to a stripped-down version of South Park: The Stick of Truth. How much stripped down? As in are you going to get a Stick of Truth caliber experience for the cost of a mobile game? The truth is probably not, but it's only a demo so I have no idea. All I really know is that it seems to be reaching for more and Neil Degrasse Tyson voices himself in a head jar, so there you go.
But my rueful admission is that the biggest impact on me was outside the realm of last-ability of play and other such valid questions. It was instead centered around the game's most undeniable selling point: Futurama itself. For it's always about the promise of fan-centric connection to something deeper. And maybe it was sitting in that room and looking about at a bunch of half-drunk, smiling faces, but there's something about playing with characters from a show that's now five years gone.
And something even more powerful that I was about to remember.
At 8pm, everyone was filtered in for the grand showcase of the evening: a live table read featuring the entire cast. It was hosted by Chris Hardwick because it was a hosting gig in Hollywood (I tease. The truth is that I've seen so many horrible jobs from other moderators and he is so remarkably adept at these things, I wouldn't want anyone else). And the entire cast came in one by one (save for the lovely Katey Segal, who regretfully could not make it). Heck, even Matt Groening came out for a friendly hello to get it started. And then soon enough, we were right in it: jumping into a live read of the famous "Proposition Infinity" episode about Robosexuality... As this happened, a grin suddenly stretched across my face, and over the course of the evening, three things then became very clear.
The first is that live reads work like gangbusters. There's a reason they caught on for awhile, specifically those Jason Reitman organized shows around Hollywood. It's all about the live energy of a room and the way it takes on its own kind of electrical charge. It's the loose sense of fun. It's the way you can see people come to life in the role (or even fall flat). It's the sense of capturing lighting in a bottle, while still echoing something so achingly familiar to us (which is often why live reads work best with well-known classic movies or episodes). When it's working, you just feel like you're a part of something special.
Second, this live read worked even better than most because voice actors are fucking amazing. It's one thing to see an actor messing around on the side and having some fun. It's something else to see a professional voice actor display their craft and put on a show for the fans. To say the Futurama lineup has its share of legends is an understatement. And getting to watch them all work together on stage and laugh at each other's asides was something otherworldly. Actually getting to watching Billy West bounce between Fry and the Professor was delightful, a simple switching exchange a lot of voice actors can do, but something that always impresses the shit out of us mortals. Same goes for the way Maurice Lamarche can bounce effortlessly between Kif, Calculon and Morbo. Heck, all of them were pulling double and triple duty: Tress Macnielle (who it turns out does a damn good Leela), Phil Lamarr, David Herman were great, and I love that the episode choice specifically gave Lauren Tom a chance to shine. And, of course, there was John Dimaggio as Bender, whose perfectly-crafted braggadocio filled the room in a way that left it in stitches. We were eating it up. And they were all eating it up in turn.
Which brings us to the third thing that became clear: Futurama is, and has always been, incredible. Every time I watch the show, I'm reminded of how much it kept in touch with that insanely sharp, rapid-fire writing sensibility from the late golden age of The Simpsons. Every time I watch I'm reminded of how much the sci-fi future of its setting lends itself even more beautifully to the absurdism that best characterizes it. And that night, all seemed so perfectly suited to co-creator David X Cohen's droll delivery, as he narrated the episodes action lines with his perfectly hilarious acumen. It's strange to say, but his voice acting of the "world" felt just as critical as every other actor's performance.
When the read ended, it's not that I came away from it with more love for the show than I had before, but I was reminded this is how I feel every time I watch. Because in the constant Schoedinger's Cat status of Futurama, it's so easy to keep getting lost in the lack of rhythm, to simply forget how truly great it is, to not see its permanent state of underrated-ness and undeniablity...
So really, I came away exactly as enthralled as I should have been.