If "The Simpsons" seemed a little off this year, maybe it was because creator Matt Groening had his mind elsewhere -- like out in space and on the future, thinking about "Futurama," his new animated series that debuts tomorrow night on Fox.
"Futurama," the saga of a 25-year-old delivery guy named Fry (voiced by Billy West) and his rocket shipmates, has all the imagination, fun and wily pop culture references so notably absent from Springfield this year.
It is not the greatest half-hour pilot I've ever seen, but it is mighty impressive in how much storytelling it compresses and how many cultural buttons it manages to push in 22 minutes.
"Futurama" opens on New Year's Eve 1999 in New York City, in the middle of Fry's sorry life. He's playing a video game set in outer space, trying to impress a teen-ager. Good luck. When was the last time Homer impressed Bart? But that's OK, it's only the first in a long, sad string of humiliations for Fry.
He is sent out with a pizza to deliver. The box is stamped with a warning not to tip the delivery boy. As he mounts his bike, he sees a cab pull up at a stoplight. It's his girlfriend with another man. She tells him they are through and that his clothes are on the street. Happy New Year, Fry.
The delivery is to a cryogenics lab, but no one seems to be around. Fry's idiocy leads to an accident, and the accident results in Fry's being frozen like a Popsicle for 1,000 years.
You might think, if this guy had trouble coping in 1999, what's he going to do in 2999? But he couldn't be a bigger loser than he was 1,000 years earlier. That's the way Fry figures it anyway.
By the end of the episode, he's hurtling through outer space in a rocket ship as part of a weird team that includes a one-eyed female alien named Leela (Katey Sagal) and a degenerate robot, Bender (John DiMaggio), who is really into pornography, which for him consists mainly of circuit diagrams. In only 1,000 years, Fry has evolved all the way up the food chain to intergalactic delivery boy.
The team known as Planet Express delivers cargo to all five quadrants of the universe. It's a cross between "Star Wars," "The A-Team," "Three's Company" and something you might find in a boy's action-adventure show on Saturday morning kids' TV.
In fact, according to a list of "Character Facts" supplied by Groening, Fry "learned how to handle delicate social situations by watching an inordinate amount of 'Three's Company.' " In case you haven't guessed, Groening's list of facts also informs us that Fry "isn't too bright."
The greatest fun of this pilot is in Groening's take on the year 3000. The world Fry finds himself in includes a Museum of Heads -- talking heads in fish-bowl-like containers.
The head talking head at the museum is that of Leonard Nimoy (voiced by Nimoy). One of the heads Fry and his friends run afoul of is that of Richard Nixon, who calls them a "bunch of bums." And guess whose head is the host of ABC's "A Rockin' New Year's Eve" telecast on Dec. 31, 2999? Hint: Even today, some wonder whether he's the result of cryogenics.
As with any Groening production, I strongly recommend taping and then playing the tape back, using freeze frames for another wonderful level of pop references and jokes. A hint: Check out some of the other heads in the museum, which the camera moves past too quickly to identify in regular time.
I'm already hooked on Bender, the robot, a graduate of Bending State University, where he majored in girder bending. Some of his character facts: He celebrates Robanukah, the holiest two weeks on the robot calendar, and he "harbors a secret desire to be a folk singer." His repertoire includes "Blowin' in the Wind" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain." He also suffers bouts of robot depression, which often lead to heavy drinking.
One of the most marvelous and least appreciated aspects of television is how many new universes it creates and transports us to each season -- even in a bad year. The future world according to Groening is one of the most pleasant prime-time trips I've taken this year.
When: 8: 30 p.m.-9 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Fox (WBFF, Channel 45)
Pub Date: 3/27/99