Despite having very little in common apart from their creator, Futurama always seemed to be living in The Simpsons’ shadow. It’s ironic that now it’s been cancelled, we see Groening’s new show Disenchantment being unfavourably compared to Futurama, with Dreamland in the shadow of New New York. That’s all probably an argument for another time though, as The Sting highlights everything that’s brilliant about Futurama, including how and why they were able to pull off high concept episodes which much more ease than their yellow cousins.

The constant comparison between The Simpsons and Futurama can definitely be tiresome, but it is necessary here. The Simpsons could never do an episode like The Sting, and not just because of the sci fi, futuristic content. The Simpsons is obviously a brilliant show in its own right, but even in the glory years struggled to ever give an episode over to an a-plot fully.

The family dynamic creates a need for a b-plot, and while in the long run it serves to bring audiences much closer to the family as a whole, it meant they had a more structured, less free approach to storytelling than Futurama did, especially in The Sting.

It begins with Fry, Bender and Leela on equal footing, but quickly evolves into a Leela episode.

The Planet Express crew are sent to collect space honey from space bees, giving some backstory a visual gag from the very first episode. This culminates in a swarm attacking them, with a stinger going straight through Fry and hitting Leela. Spoiler alert, I guess, but everything we see from this point is actually a dream; Leela is barely scathed by the stinger while Fry is killed after it impales him.

What we don’t find out until the end is that in reality, all of the venom hit Leela and immediately sent her into a coma, while Fry being impaled is an easily fixable wound in the year 3000. This is the first great element of the episode, and perhaps the most underrated. It holds up so well because the transition from reality to dream is seamless, yet the final reveal withstands proper scrutiny.

While the bookends of the episode are key in ensuring the episode survives multiple rewatches, it’s everything in the centre which elevates it to one of the best Futurama episodes ever.

There’s a dreamlike element to the episode post-Fry’s ‘death’, punctuated by the chorus of Fry begging Leela to wake up. We slip into Leela’s hallucinations as easily as the coma began in the first place, and this fluid feeling is essential to the episode’s themes.

The episode might be ‘about’ Fry and Leela getting stung by space bees, but what it’s really about is revealing how deep Fry and Leela’s connection to each other truly is. Fry’s love for Leela has already had some emotional punches at this point in the series, and we’ve even seen a few times when she’s reciprocated, though it’s always been short lived or born out of sympathy/affection rather than a real mirroring of Fry’s feelings. Here though, we see how crucial the pair are to each other.

Leela is distraught at Fry’s ‘death’ and the guilt at causing it, but her pain goes deeper. It’s not just that Fry is dead, it’s that he’s not there anymore. He’s not there for her. Leela even takes a lethal dose of space honey as the episode ends, wanting to be with Fry forever, while back in the real world he’s never left her side.

The groundwork of their relationship has already been laid, but the impact of the finale doesn’t hit as hard without The Sting highlighting how much the pair need each other; that’s not something I see it ever getting much credit for, which is strange when you consider that Futurama always had a more arcing narrative than the episode stylings of its contemporaries Family Guy, South Park and, yes, The Simpsons.

On an animation front, the episode is spectacular. I’m a huge Futurama fan, but the animation has never been that big of a draw for me. Animation? Draw? Geddit?

Some of the world building through background art is incredibly detailed, and they have a huge range of character designs across the season; certainly, a lot of work goes into the animation of Futurama. There’s no denying that. But big sequences never seemed to be their style. Some of the space escapes can be superbly intense, but on a character to character level, the animation always felt like it just served it’s purpose; no more, no less.

Here though, with the rules relaxed via dream logic, the show goes wild. The ‘Don’t Worry, Bee Happy’ musical number makes excellent use of the character’s personalities while having fun with the sequence, while the faces on the wall as Leela sits in bed with her space honey is a great way to illustrate how suffocated she feels by her role in Fry’s death as it feeds into the trippy visuals the dreams within dreams within dreams structure provides. Elsewhere, as Leela meets Fry in her sleep, it’s the usual Futurama with gorgeous backgrounds flowing past Fry and Leela on their various exotic escapes.

The Sting is an episode which gets all of Futurama’s usual strengths right, but also brings some new ideas to the table, adds depth to the characters and manages to tell a vibrant, fantastical story with a grounded point. Well worth putting the spotlight on.

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