Back before the advent of home video, when a show aired you either saw it or you didn’t. Miss something all of your friends were talking about the next day and you were at the whim of re-runs until your favorite show hit syndication – if it hit syndication. When VCRs were popularized you had the option of recording television shows for later use, but re-watching a show was a great deal more difficult than it is now. When children’s shows were sold on VHS they were usually obnoxiously expensive costing upwards of twenty dollars for an episode or two. The home video market for television just wasn’t something studios paid much attention to, at least not until DVD made it a whole lot easier, and cheaper, to sell television shows to fans.
Futurama owes a great deal to home video and syndication. When the show originally debuted on the Fox Network it struggled to find consistent air time. Often banished to that time-slot before The Simpsons on Sunday nights, it was the first thing bumped if an NFL game ran too long. Many blame the poor time-slots of the show on its lack of success, because once the show was cancelled and appearing in syndication on Cartoon Network’s adult swim block, it suddenly found an audience. DVDs of the first few seasons sold well enough that Fox brought the series back, as it did with Family Guy before it. The only change was that Fox declined to broadcast the new shows and instead optioned the series to Comedy Central, who would eventually gain control of the first four seasons from Cartoon Network. After four direct-to-video Futurama movies were released, the show returned with “Re-birth” in 2010 and would run for two more seasons totaling 52 episodes.
During its original run, Futurama gave birth to two Christmas specials – “Xmas Story” and “A Tale of Two Santas.” For the return season we were gifted with “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.” The general opinion by most fans is that the post-cancellation episodes are inferior when compared with the pre-cancellation ones. There are of course those who feel the show came back better than ever, or at least as good as it always was, but I tend to agree with those who feel the post-cancellation episodes were lacking when compared with the others. In that sense, “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is similar because it’s not as good as the previous two Christmas specials (I guess I should say Xmas Specials), but it’s still an enjoyable episode with some good holiday jokes and puns.
Unlike the first two Xmas specials, this one is a non-canon anthology episode like the Anthology of Interest episodes and the anthology ones that followed. It’s broken up into three segments that focus on three holidays. Only the first one is an Xmas story and the homicidal Robot Santa makes a return in this segment. The second segment concerns Bender’s made up holiday, Robanukah, which he came up with as an excuse to avoid work in the season one episode “Fear of a Bot Planet.” And the third segment is about Kwanzaa with Hermes being a celebrator of that holiday. It also features the return of Kwanzaa-bot, voiced by Coolio, who first appeared in “A Tale of Two Santas.”
Our first segment opens with an ad for Gunderson’s Nuts – they’re “nut” so good, as we pan around the Planet Express headquarters. Inside the crew is decorating for Xmas and Fry is feeling blue, much like he was back in “Xmas Story.” He’s just down because the future version of Xmas is more about survival than good cheer, and we’re soon visited by Robot Santa after Fry asks for everyone to, once again, explain this crazy holiday and do it preferably through song. A little song is sung and we get some visual gags of fruit cake bombs and egg nog molotov cocktails. Robot Santa enters and departs just as quickly, letting them know that to properly celebrate Xmas they need a “tree that’s coniferous.” Also, Scruffy dies.
Fry wants to get a real Xmas tree, but Professor Farnsworth explains that the pine tree has been extinct for generations and that they’ll need to head to a seed vault in Norway. Gaining access to the vault is surprisingly easy as the guard, surrounded by barking snakes in a callback to the first segment, is willing to let them in to rummage about. Next door to the vault is the germ warfare vault and Leela expresses concerns about cross-contamination with the seeds. Inside, the guard happily gives them some pine tree seeds and reveals the tree is extinct due to an emergency toilet paper need during the Fifty Year Squirts. Amy notices the seeds have traces of green crud, but no one is overly concerned.
Back home, Fry plants his seeds and a year later we see he has a sickly looking pine tree for his efforts. Passer-by’s think it looks great, including President Nixon who is immediately advised by Vice President Dick Cheney that he needs to steal it to improve his poll numbers. He apparently does, because soon after The White House is hosting a tree lighting ceremony, and very much like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the sickly little tree suddenly appears a lot more full once decorated. Fry and the gang are there too, so apparently they weren’t too sore about their tree being stolen, but soon the tree grows massive. It was apparently mutated by being stored near the germ warfare containment vault (duh!), and at first Leela thinks it might be a good thing it mutated since it suddenly looks a lot more healthy than it did before. Soon it starts shooting off pine cones, pine cones that in addition to exploding also lead to massive reforestation.
Soon the entire planet is covered in pine trees. Leela, ever the optimist, still believes this could be a good thing and the Professor remarks that global warming has all but been eradicated as a result, and we get our required Al Gore cameo here. The Professor quickly realizes that oxygen levels are climbing dangerously high, and Bender remarks that he hasn’t done anything for awhile and lights a cigar. The air starts to sparkle before it catches fire and we get a view from space of the whole word being destroyed. Robot Santa flies into view laughing about how everyone is dead and tells us to stay tuned for more hilarity!
The second segment centers on Bender’s made-up holiday Robanukah. It’s just after Xmas and Professor Farnsworth remarks they need to destroy all of the Xmas gifts they failed to deliver. Bender immediately gets salty about how they have to celebrate every dumb human holiday but not the robot ones. Everyone is well aware that Bender’s holiday was made up by him to avoid work, but that doesn’t stop Bender from singing a song about Robanukah in a bid to legitimize it. During that song we get a taste of the holiday and it basically takes all of the Chanukah customs and perverts them, most notably by including six and a half weeks of fembot oil wrestling. When Bender finds out they only have enough petroleum oil for four and a half weeks of wrestling, he makes the crew set out to acquire more.
At Mombil, they learn that petroleum oil is all gone, and Al Gore pops in again to reprimand the viewers that he warned this would happen. Bender isn’t satisfied and is determined to find more petroleum oil and he makes the crew head for the center of the earth. There they drill for oil, but the intense pressure kills everyone except Bender. Five-hundred million years pass and Bender, after apparently occupying his time by singing about how great he is, notices his friends have become petroleum oil. He heads back to HQ with his oil friends to find the two fembots still wrestling in oil – a Robanukah miracle!
Our third segment opens with the Planet Express crew arriving at the home of the Konrads and Leela is concerned her chocolate cake may be offensive in some way. They are there for Kwanzaa, and even Barbados Slim shows up shirtless and covered in snow, much to the dismay of Hermes. When everyone is gathered for dinner, it’s decided we need our third song of the episode to explain the holiday featured in the segment, so Kwanzaa-bot bursts in Kool-Aid style to rap about the holiday. The joke of the song is that even he isn’t completely sure about anything concerning the holiday, but he does know they need authentic beeswax candles to celebrate or else they might as well be white. It’s noticed that the Konrads do not have authentic candles, so Hermes takes the crew out to acquire some on the last night of Kwanzaa.
Like the trees and oil, beeswax proves hard to come by and the crew is forced to return to the hive from “The Sting” to get the necessary wax to create their candles. There they find the space bees have been infected by some kind of mite and they’re in some distress. The mites are causing the drones to crash and explode, and the workers are at odds with each other. The queen bee is the only one who appears unaffected, despite the presence of mites on her, and she explains the situation to Hermes. During this, Leela is able to acquire plenty of beeswax but Hermes can’t leave the bees like this, not on Kwanzaa! He explains the meaning of Kwanzaa to the bees, and his message of unity together with the spirit of Kwanzaa causes the bees to embrace each other and the mites to fall off and die. With their minds fully functioning once more, the bees turn their attention to the Planet Express crew. Kwanzaa-bot returns offscreen to save them, and is quickly killed, also offscreen. The bees attack and we fade to black and re-emerge to be wished a Happy Kwanzaa by Hermes who is encased in wax. The camera pans back to reveal the entire crew as wax candles and a curtain falls on the special.
Al Gore emerges, still as a floating head, to assure us, the viewers, that the crew will return next year in all new episodes. We get one final send-off from Gunderson’s, and the holiday special is ended. In re-watching it for this post I will say this episode is funnier than I remember. It still suffers from too much fan-service as many jokes exist just as a call-back to an older season (“My ice cream man-which!”) which just feels kind of lazy. There’s still plenty of witty dialogue and exchanges between characters, but the anthology format sacrifices pay-off as the stories are forced to be quick and concise with less room for everything, including jokes.
As a Christmas special, “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is mostly underwhelming because only a third of it is devoted to Christmas, and a bastardized version of the holiday at that. And with most of the Xmas parody handled by the past episodes, there’s little left for the show to tackle here. The inclusion of songs is the easiest form of parody, but they sometimes feel too much like padding as not a lot happens in these short segments. The best Futurama episodes are able to be funny while telling a meaningful story containing characters we genuinely care about. I suppose killing off these characters in three separate segments is kind of a play on holiday specials itself, but it’s not really as funny as it could be. It’s cool that they found room for more holiday lampooning, and not just Christmas, even if the Kwanzaa jokes felt a bit too easy. There’s always room for more holidays, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s the most obvious aspect of this special that makes it stand out. Criticisms aside, this one may do little to evoke the Christmas spirit, but it’s still a worthwhile inclusion in your annual holiday viewing.
If you want to watch this one this year, Futurama is shown on Comedy Central and they will play the crap out of the Christmas episodes (as of this update, the episode is scheduled to air Thursday December 21 at 5:20 PM EST). The show is also now syndicated on the Syfy channel and that channel is also set to air the Christmas specials this year. Syfy is showing a Christmas Eve marathon of Futurama including all of the movies and ending with the three Christmas specials. This one will be last to air at midnight, right when Santa is arriving!