Futurama Spanned TV’s Sci-Fi Evolution

Matt Groening’s sci-fi comedy enters the past on Sept. 4

Bad news, everyone: Comedy Central has decided not to order another season of Matt Groening’s Futurama, thus canceling the animated sci-fi comedy after 140 episodes. Set to return on June 19 for a 13-episode run, the offbeat series officially ceases transmission on Sept. 4. 

Futurama won 11 Emmys over the course of its rocky 14-year production run, which was marked by Kafkaesque scheduling, subsequent low ratings, and more than one resurrection. After four seasons, Fox pulled the plug on the series in 2003, whereupon Turner’s Adult Swim scooped it up, airing it alongside fellow cartoon Lazarus, Family Guy. Provisionally renewed in 2007 for four direct-to-DVD movies, Futurama was picked up by Comedy Central the following year, and the movies were edited down to a 16-episode fifth season.

So tortured was Futurama’s production schedule—eight seasons in 14 years—that the 100th episode includes a joke about how the Planet Express’ 100 deliveries worked out to “almost ten per year!”

Really, Futurama seemed doomed almost from the start. Hyped as the next big thing from Simpsons mastermind Groening, the show featured the talents of writer/showrunner David X. Cohen and actor Phil Hartman, who was tapped to voice the buffoonish space captain Zapp Brannigan.

But in 1998, while the show was still in development, Hartman’s wife Brynn Omdahl killed the actor before turning the gun on herself. As a tribute to the late actor, Billy West filled the role with an impression of Hartman’s own take on the character.

While Hartman’s death cast an understandable pall over the show, many Groening die-hards tuned in for the first season. Per Nielsen, Season 1 of Futurama averaged a respectable 8.34 million viewers and a 4.2 in the 18-49 demo, making it Fox’s fourth-highest rated animated series. (By comparison, The Simpsons that same year averaged 13.5 million viewers and a 6.8 in the demo.)

As Futurama was shuffled from Tuesday to Sunday nights, ratings flagged. With cancelation all but a certainty—Futurama’s ratings had fallen 55 percent from its freshman season—Ken Keeler, a one-time Bell Labs researcher and one of three PhDs on the science-and-math-heavy writing staff, wrote a bittersweet musical episode for the finale.

By 2007, fellow cancellee Family Guy had been brought back to great acclaim by Fox, which had witnessed the show’s popularity in syndication, and Groening and Cohen wanted to see their series get the same treatment. “We made it quite clear to (the Fox network) that we would like to be un-canceled,” Cohen told me at the time. “We’re back to 20th Century Fox Television—the studio. The network is out of the loop completely, and if they want to put us back on the air again, we would be very interested in that.”

With its syndication rights snapped up by Adult Swim for a mere $10 million—the opening caption of the 72nd and final Fox episode read “See You On Some Other Channel”—Futurama seemed destined to an afterlife of late-night cable repeats. But after a five-year hiatus, Comedy Central agreed to back all-new episodes of the cartoon, giving it a rare second chance in prime time. When the show finally blasts off into the sunset, Comedy Central nearly will have matched Fox’s original order, airing 68 original installments.

These days, epic sci-fi and fantasy shows (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) rule the cable universe, and broadcasters continue to take big swings with genre programming. For a while, that sort of enthusiasm may have been sufficient to sustain Futurama, which never departed from its math-jokes-and-meaninglessness roots.

Those allegiances have helped retain the show’s hard core, while winning it admirers in some odd circles. A Season 6 episode titled “Benderama” made a major enough contribution to an obscure branch of mathematics that its central proof—which Professor Farnsworth scrawls on the blackboard in the background—is now known as “The Futurama Theorem.” But the math hasn’t worked out for Futurama this past season. For the first half of its third season on Comedy Central, the show never managed to top a 0.8 rating, and its fate was more or less preordained. Could it have survived if it had been less unsparingly bleak? Perhaps, but the show, and game theory, would be the poorer for it.