Sunday, 28 September 2014

Slurms McKenzie and the Ultimate Sacrifice

“Party on contest winners, party on.”

Slurms McKenzie gave everything a giant slug had to offer. He partied on, and he partied out. He died as he lived, lost in the hedonistic buzz that can only come from boogying on down.

Slurms McKenzie and his 'party girls' in happier times.
I am, of course, talking about the moment in the last episode of Futurama’s first series where Fry, Bender and Leela visit the Slurm factory, only to discover the drink company’s dark secret. The Slurm corporation’s groovy mascot, Slurms Mckenzie, saves the gang by blocking the evil Slurm queen from the last escape route. Alas, it was to prove a suicidal mission.

As the heroic Slurms dismisses his ever-faithful bikini-clad party girls, we are reminded of Futurama’s most special qualities. That is, in a matter of nanoseconds, it can twist its audience’s emotions from laughter, to sadness, and return to hilarity without a line of script out of place. Indeed, Futurama is as poignant a comedy as there has ever been on television, film or the theatrical stage. On occasions, Matt Groening and his team of writers made Checkhov and Mamet look like happy-go-lucky types. Any fan of the show who says they have not welled up at least once with tears is a bad liar.

Who could forget the heart-breaking epilogue to Jurassic Bark (S4 ep7), where we see Fry’s loving pet dog, Seymour, live out his last years waiting in vain for his master’s return? Or how about the moment Zoidberg misses his only chance to find a mating partner and witnesses his species perish on his home planet’s shallow shores? If I wanted to bore you, and depress your sensitive souls, I would list the plethora of similarly elegaic points in the animated show’s fifteen years of existence. Yes, you heard that right; it’s been fifteen years since the world was introduced to Bender and Professor Farnsworth! They have certainly aged well.

Aside from Slurms McKenzie’s last stand, my most abiding memory of Futurama’s hidden emotional depths is from The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings (S5 ep15). Fry attempts to impress Leela by playing an instrument which projects story images into the air. To master the musical device, the buffoonish everyman steals the hands of the robot devil. But when the devil threatens Leela, the treachery is revealed and Fry is forced to return the limbs and lose his rhythmic gift. Our defeated hero is dejected, until Leela insists Fry finish his romantic song. Without the devil’s skilful hands, the resulting tune is basic and childish. Nevertheless, Fry’s love for Leela is achingly clear in his sincere projection, stripped to its basic tenderness, and free of flashy gimmickry (see below).  In the context of the show, the sentiment is a truly beautiful summary of Fry’s ceaseless goodness. Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane: none had a moment in their long flirtations which match this bittersweet note. It was to be a fitting dampener to end the show’s original run – the next new episode was not aired for five long years.

For a show that started out as a spin-off to The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s second child has achieved more than anyone could have expected, even arguably surpassing its older sibling over the last decade. For a cartoon too, it has led the field with pathos-driven stories, suffused with broad humour and relatable characters, even if they are some of the biggest freaks in science-fiction.
How did Futurama reach this level of brilliance? Well, it used the same techniques as Shakespeare, obviously. Inverting the usual genre tropes, their comedies are stuffed with tragic characteristics. As Jack Lemmon said in his interview with the Actor’s Studio, it is easier to make audience’s cry than laugh, but the biggest challenge is to inspire both reactions at the same time. As I hope you will agree, I believe Futurama found that magic time and time again.


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