In the parlance of binge-drinking, chain-smoking robot Bender (John DiMaggio) - 'Futurama' is back baby! Paaaaartayyyyy!
That's right, after several seasons on Fox with minimal marketing support and a dunderheaded air time (the often risqué material aired at 7, an hour before 'The Simpsons' on Sunday nights), the series picked up steam after being rerun on Cartoon Network's [adult swim] programming block and later Comedy Central. It was revived in the bizarre fashion of four direct-to-video movies (that were in turn divided and turned into "episodes" that aired later on Comedy Central), in which conceptual grandiosity trumped overall quality. But, apparently it was enough of a success to bring the series back for an honest-to-goodness new season. This time, it aired on Comedy Central. And while it didn't break any records it did secure "good-for-Comedy Central"-sized ratings.
The first half of this new season has been collected and been erroneously stamped with the "Volume 5" tag (any 'Futurama' fan can tell you that the movies made up "season five" and what's more, since the season is only half-over, it should be "Volume 6.1" at the very least) and guess what? It's on Blu-ray! Again, quoting Bender - WOO!
A brief catch-up if you've never seen 'Futurama': it takes place in the year 3000. Our hero, Fry (voice actor Billy West), was a delivery boy in the year 2000. He accidentally trips and is frozen, only to be awoken in the year 3000. And, again, he's a delivery boy. This time it's for the intergalactic delivery service called Planet Express, but instead of delivering pizzas he's flying off to far-flung reaches of the galaxy with cohorts like the Cyclops Leela (Katey Segal of 'Married… with Children' and 'Sons of Anarchy') and wobbly alien Dr. Zoidberg (West, again).
"Volume 5" comes across exceptionally well, despite a drastic cut in each episode's production budget (at some point the powers-that-be threatened to fire the entire voice cast, which would have been dire). This meant that the visual scope of the series had to be somewhat contained, which should have been more jarring considering the opulence of the movies, and that much of the core writing staff was let go. (Some were still brought back as freelancers for one-off episodes.) It's also interesting to note that, given the looser censorship of basic cable, the series is a bit more, er, raw. Things are considerably grosser and more squishy than before. But hey, you have to give them credit for exploiting the newfound leniency.
As for the quality of the episodes themselves, season 6, er, "Volume 5" was a mixed bag. Sometimes the episodes felt repetitive (there's one episode about the Garden of Eden and another about evolution, which seemed a little redundant), sometimes too out-there ("The Duh-Vinci Code" featured a planet full of Leonardo DiVincis) and sometimes too outdated ("That Darn Katz" was an episode centered around evil LOLZ Cats… in the year 2010) But what was really striking were the episodes that were all-time series best contenders - the heat-tugging episode "Lethal Inspection" revealed a hidden connection between Hermes and Bender; "The Late Phillip J. Fry" was a poignant portrayal about the way time slips away from us; and "The Prisoner of Benda" was one of the most insanely hilarious and clever half hours of television aired last year.
Even when the episodes weren't great, there was always something to snicker (or titter) at. There was also, at the very least, the comfort in knowing that next week there would be another episode which had just as great a chance at being balls-out brilliant. And, true to form, even if you didn't dig on "Volume 5," there's another batch of episodes airing this year on Comedy Central.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Futurama,' Volume 5 is the first proper season (or, at least, half-season) to make its way onto Blu-ray (this is discounting the movies; more on why in the "video" section of this review); it does so on a pair of 50GB Blu-ray discs. The discs are Region A locked. It is BD-Live enabled (and, shocker, there's actually something accessible on there right this very instant!) Also, given the environmental angle the show often takes (and that Al Gore's daughter, Kristin, used to write for the series and Al himself is a frequent guest star), the packaging is a more earth-conscience paper model. It might not hold up as well (it's pretty flimsy), but you're doing the planet a solid, which is even better.
'Futurama's' 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer (1.78:1 aspect ratio) looks absolutely gorgeous - even if you watched it in HD when it originally aired, you'll still be floored.
The sixth season of 'Futurama' was the first season that aired in HD and was animated with a widescreen aspect ratio, both of which make this transfer a divine fit for Blu-ray. Colors pop, detail is immaculate (like in the Da Vinci contraptions), and the entire thing looks lush and impressively dimensional. Even though they were working on a smaller budget, and many of the episodes were less sophisticated than previous seasons', this transfer will make you give out a little yelp of glee. Or maybe that was just me.
There weren't any noticeable technical hiccups either; lines look clean and crisp, there isn't any noise or disruption. This is as pristine a presentation as you could have hoped for, and another example of why animation benefits so greatly from the high-definition treatment. While it may not be as flawless as the latest Pixar release, it's still plenty impressive. Well done!
While not quite as impressive as the video quality, the two discs' DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes still give you a lot to love.
While the focus of the mix is on dialogue - which is crisp and clear, front and center - since this is the animated version of a sitcom, basically, there are still some nice flourishes if not an out-and-out sensation of atmosphere and depth.
For instance, there is a moment in the episode "The Late Phillip J. Fry" when our heroes watch the universe end. And I was really taken with the sophistication of the sound design, the way that the universe seemed to swoop to a close, and while there wasn't a tremendous amount of surround elements or directionality, there was still a dynamism in the way that the mix was created, and the sound effects layered in, that I was suitably impressed.
There are moments like this sprinkled throughout the season, which add a lot to the overall presentation of the mix. So while it isn't the most active or dimensional surround mix you'll ever hear, there's enough going on in the mix, from time to time, to keep you riveted. It's just kind of amazing to hear the show sound this good after watching it for so long in crappy basic cable late night reruns.
The DTS-HD English language mix is the only audio option on both discs, but there are subtitles available in English SDH, Spanish and French.
'Futurama' has always been known for its wealth of extras, and the trend continues with this new set. There's tons of great, laugh-out-loud stuff, and even a nifty HD exclusive. Read on!
'Futurama' Volume 5 was a whole lot of fun. The show came back with a vengeance, layering on the silly and the icky in equal measure (thanks to basic cable looseness), and ended up with a winningly hilarious season that included a handful of all-time-great episodes. The Blu-ray set does a great job making the show's first HD season look and sound even better, with wonderful A/V and a fantastic array of special features. If you're a fan of the show, this is a no-brainer, if you're just a casual viewer, this is still highly recommended. The hyno-toad commands it!