Futurama Fridays – S2E17 “War is the H-Word”

The Planet Express crew is going to war… for a pack of gum.

SUMMARY

Fry (Billy West) and Bender (John DiMaggio) join the military reserves so they can get a 5% military discount on ham-flavored gum. They plan on quitting after buying the gum, but a second after they join, war is declared and they’re drafted. Leela (Katey Sagal) tries to enlist to keep them safe, but the army of the future is men-only, due to Zapp Brannigan’s (West) constant sexual harassment. She signs up anyway as a man named Lee Lemon, who Zapp crushes on.

S2EH - 1Poster.png
Well, there went the subtlety.

After getting through basic training, the three are dropped onto planet Spheron I, a planet which Zapp admits has no natural resources or strategic value. It turns out to be populated by living balls. During the first battle, Fry hides, resulting in other members of the platoon being injured, while Bender jumps on a bomb to save the others. Fry is punished by being made Kif’s (Maurice LaMarche) assistant, while Bender is fixed under orders of President Nixon (West).

S2EH - 2Balls.png
They’ve got a lot of Chutzpah.

Bender is sent along with Henry Kissinger’s Head (DiMaggio) to negotiate with the leaders of Spheron, the Brain Balls. However, Leela finds out that Nixon had a bomb put in Bender’s chest which will activate when he says the word “ass.” Leela and Fry steal a helicopter from Zapp, revealing that Lee Lemon is a woman in the process, to Zapp’s relief, and arrive in time to stop Bender from blowing up the planet. The Spherons surrender, revealing that this is their homeworld which Earth has invaded for no real reason, and Fry and Bender leave the military. Being unable to remove the bomb, the Professor changes the codeword, which Bender correctly guesses as “antiquing.” However, he survives the explosion.

S2EH - 3End.jpg
Yep, there goes the subtlety.

END SUMMARY

This is Futurama’s take on war, specifically the kind of asymmetrical warfare which had been waged during the 90s… and would mostly be waged after this episode aired. We see the Earth Army, composed of professionals with spaceships and laser weapons, attacking the Spherons, whose most sophisticated weapon is a cartoonish bomb. They mostly attack by bouncing on top of the humans, something that doesn’t seem to be lethal (until they’re sent to Zoidberg (West) for their injuries). This war is completely one-sided and, perhaps most depressingly, completely without any merit. In previous episodes, we’d seen Earth on the losing side of this (like “When Aliens Attack”), but now we see humans as the pointless aggressors, stealing another race’s planet for, again, literally no strategic reason.

S2EH - 4Zoidberg
He attacks more people than the balls do.

Much like in Blackadder Goes Forth, this episode also depicts the divide between the soldiers fighting the war and the people who make the decisions to wage it. Nixon is never in danger, nor, really, is Zapp, who at one point even is depicted more worried about his horse being spooked than the men around him being overrun by balls. Even Kif, who ostensibly is subordinate to Zapp, is still more concerned about the fact that his nut bowl isn’t sufficiently mixed than the fact that they’re fighting a war. It’s a common theme, but it’s well represented here.

S2EH - 5Scotch
The Pre-War Scotch is key.

The depiction of Fry in this episode seems fairly consistent with his development, when he’s a coward who eventually learns to overcome his fear to save his friends. Leela gets a little more development when she uses her disguise as Lee Lemon to find out if Fry has a crush on her, then seems flattered to find out that he does, hinting that she is realizing that she returns his feelings (something she’ll go back and forth on for the rest of the series).

S2EH - 6LeeLemon
Where she found a purple beard that quickly is still a mystery.

In contrast, we see one of the most out of character moments for Bender in the series, when he jumps on top of a bomb to save others. They do try to couch his self-sacrifice by having him say that he wants a young version of himself on a stamp, but it still seems weird that Bender, of all people/robots, would jump on the grenade. Still, it gave us an easy segue to the M*A*S*H parody that remains one of my favorite short references in the series.

S2EH - 7IHawk
The easiest way to understand M*A*S*H is this scene.

This episode is also crammed with references, from M*A*S*H to Starship Troopers to Star Wars to, well, real life. I’m always on the fence about how they depict Henry Kissinger here, but I suppose that’s because Kissinger is a tough figure. On the one hand, he encouraged the US to commit numerous acts (like carpet-bombing Cambodia, supporting the Bangladeshi genocide, the use of Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam) which don’t look great in retrospect. However, he also literally stopped a Nuclear War once by claiming Nixon was too drunk to make any decisions, masterminded the opening of trade between China and the US, and repeatedly lowered tensions between the USSR and the US to avoid the big boom that would end the world. That’s why it’s interesting to see him here, presumably ending a war through diplomacy that he also helped start. Tom Lehrer once said political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but this episode actually uses him to keep it alive. Well done.

S2EH - 8Kissinger
Is the episode comparing these two morally? Maybe…

FAVORITE JOKE

It’s not even a close contest. The funniest line in this episode is this exchange:

Leela: You know, Zapp, someone ought to teach you a lesson.

Zapp: If it’s a lesson in love, watch out; I suffer from a very sexy learning disability. What do I call it, Kif?

Kif: “Sex-lexia”.

S2EH - 9Sexlexia.gif

Only a character as absolutely amazingly crafted as Zapp Brannigan could even hope to make this work. This is like a guy bragging that the fact that he has a lot of STDs is a sign that he’s had sex and therefore you should sleep with him. He’s so confident that he’s being seductive that it’s almost overwhelming. If Kif didn’t sound so despondent when answering, it might even work as a somewhat legitimate pick-up line. Hell, if I can find someone to do it with me, I might even try to figure out a way to use it.

Well, that’s it for this week.

See you next week, meatbags.

PREVIOUS – Episode 29: Anthology of Interest I

NEXT – Episode 31: The Honking

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27) Abyssinia, Henry (M*A*S*H)

M*A*S*H was already on the list once. Let me give you the description again:

M*A*S*H was a comedy about war. That’s a pretty dark place to start, and M*A*S*H was pretty famous for being able to bounce back and forth between off-the-wall humor and dark, maudlin drama.

Ihawk.gif
The entire show in 5 seconds

In fact, in an episode of Futurama, iHawk, acharacter based on Hawkeye (Alan Alda), has a switch that causes him to oscillate between irreverent humor and maudlin drinking. That was not an inaccurate portrayal of the characters on the show, especially Hawkeye. In order to live on the battlefield and to treat the wounded, the crew of the M*A*S*H tent have to balance accepting the horrible reality in front of them with standing back and mocking life’s cruelties. It made M*A*S*H a show where the audience could not guess what the theme of the next show was going to be like.

From the title, people who regularly watched M*A*S*H knew this was going to be the departure of Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), because Abyssinia had been used by Blake as a way to say goodbye (because it sounds like “I’ll-be-seein-ya”). Up until this point, Blake had been the commander of the 4077th M*A*S*H, and had been notable for being a fairly laid-back character, allowing Hawkeye and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers, later Pernell Roberts) to get away with their typical hijinks, while opposing the more military discipline hard-liners Major Frank Burns (Larry Linville) and Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit). Section 8 seeker Klinger (Jamie Farr), not-too-preachy spearchucker.jpgchaplain Father Mulcahy (William Christopher), and naïve Iowa farm boy Radar (Gary Burghoff) rounded out the cast for the first 3 seasons. And for the first season they had a black neurosurgeon named “Spearchucker Jones,” played by Timothy Brown. He’s not in this episode, I just like reminding people that that was a thing that happened, and was found on after-school re-runs during my childhood with no further context given. Take it as you will.

SUMMARY

The episode opens with a message that informs the cast of Henry Blake’s impending honorable discharge. Despite how much they know they’re going to miss him, Hawkeye and Trapper John acknowledge that they don’t begrudge him anything, because they also want to finish their service. Henry calls home, telling his wife and kids that he’ll be coming back soon. During the build-up to the call, we hear Henry recount his wife and children’s weekly schedules, which he knows intimately, from halfway around the world. It’s touching. Radar and Henry then engage in a fairly serious and emotional exchange, since Radar had come to view Henry as a surrogate father. At first, Henry tries to downplay it, but then ends up giving him a family heirloom, which, in typical M*A*S*H fashion, is a rectal thermometer.

MASHHenry
Man had the greatest army hat ever

MASHHenry2Most of the rest of the episode is a celebration in honor of Henry’s service and his general awesomeness as a person. Hawkeye, Radar, and Trapper John get drunk with him and reminisce. The next morning, Major Burns is now in charge, and tries to show the strength of his new extremely disciplined attitude towards the unit, before Henry, on his way out, tells Burns to “take it easy” and “stuff that whistle someplace.” Finally, before Henry leaves, he hugs Radar and tells him to behave himself, or he’ll “come back and kick [his] butt.” With that, he departs back to his family.

****STOP HERE FOR (FAKE) HAPPY ENDING****

And then, the end comes. In the last scene, in the camp O.R., Radar comes in on Trapper John and Hawkeye performing surgery. He barely manages to relay the famous message: “Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun MASHRADARin… there were no survivors.” Hawkeye and Trapper John professionally and dutifully finish operating on their patient as the audience is shown that the usually uptight and adversarial Burns and Houlihan have broken down crying at the news. And it is with this juxtaposition, Hawkeye and Trapper John firmly doing their duty and Burns and Houlihan breaking down in emotion, that the episode closes. There is a small tribute to McLean Stevenson afterwards before the credits.

When this episode aired, this kind of thing didn’t happen. You didn’t just kill a character off after you’d given him his happy ending, especially when it was such a beloved character as Henry. People hated it so much, that in some re-runs, they cut the ending. But, honestly, it was perfect for what M*A*S*H was going for. War sucks. People die randomly, whether they deserved it or not. It’s why it’s supposed to be avoided unless it is worth that high cost. Trying to ignore the cost is not the solution. M*A*S*H decided to shock America by reminding them of that cost, and, in 1975, it was something that they definitely didn’t want to hear. Nonetheless, it bears repeating:

War is Hell.

PREVIOUS – 28: Taxi

NEXT – 26: Star Trek

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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Abyssinia Henry from Michael Taylor on Vimeo.

73) The Interview (M*A*S*H)

M*A*S*H was a comedy about war. That’s a pretty dark place to start, and M*A*S*H was pretty famous for being able to bounce back and forth between off-the-wall humor and dark, maudlin drama. In fact, in an episode of Futurama, iHawk, a character based on Hawkeye (Alan Alda), has a switch that causes him to oscillate between irreverent humor and maudlin drinking. That was not an inaccurate portrayal of the characters on the show, especially Hawkeye.

Ihawk

In order to live on the battlefield and to treat the wounded, the crew of the M*A*S*H tent have to balance accepting the horrible reality in front of them with standing back and mocking life’s cruelties. It made M*A*S*H a show where the audience could not guess what the theme of the next show was going to be like.

mashedwardrmurrow.jpgSmall amount of background for this episode: During the Korean War, Edward R. Murrow, the legendary newsman, conducted a series of battlefield interviews with Marines. While other documentaries had been done between then and the airing of M*A*S*H, most people cite Murrow’s interviews as the inspiration for this episode. The content of the questions definitely seems to drive this comparison home.

SUMMARY

MASHCleteRoberts.jpgThe episode begins by saying that it’s going to be an interview by Clete Roberts (an actual war correspondent) of the members of the Medical Tent in the Korean War. He warns the viewer that they may hear some language that will be bleeped from the episode (note: M*A*S*H never used bleeps before now). And that’s where the “interviews at the frontline” theme ends. The episode isn’t really set-up to be a series of interviews with the characters in order for them to say the things that you’d normally hear during a conversation with soldiers. Instead, the show is an opportunity to allow the characters to answer questions that might never have come up in an actual episode. It allows for several different things to happen throughout the episode: 1) the characters are allowed to answer several questions the audience was begging for, 2) the characters were encouraged to openly speak about the nature of war, and 3) it allowed series creator Larry Gelbart to get a few things off his chest about what he considered to be the realities of the government’s involvement in Vietnam, even though the show was set in Korea (note: this was 1976. The answer on everybody’s minds was “bad decision”).

MASHAldaCleteTo Gelbart’s credit, he never said anything bad about the soldiers, only the nature of war. When asked if war could, or should, ever be glamorized, Hawkeye comments that he can’t even enjoy Hemingway anymore after all that he’s seen. He does, however, say that war may have a lasting value only because it produces men like those he works with, who are the finest kind of men out there. When B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farell, who had just replaced “Trapper John”) was asked if he’d ever be friends with his fellow members of the 4077 after the war, he tells the interviewer that he can’t know for sure. Part of him would love to know his friends forever, but another part of him would rather forget that part of his life. I’ve only known a handful of soldiers, some friends, some family, but I can say that this has been a sentiment I’ve seen carried by most of the ones in a war-zone.

END SUMMARY

M*A*S*H was able to both satisfy the audience’s love for the characters, while simultaneously showing how miserable they are. Quite a feat.

PREVIOUS – 74: The Prisoner

NEXT – 72: Burns and Allen

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Here’s the entire episode:

 

MASH – The Interview from Felin on Vimeo.