How did ‘Futurama’ pull off its upset for Best Animated Program?

Among the biggest surprises at the Creative Arts Emmys over the weekend was “Futurama‘s” victory for Best Animated Program, defeating frontrunner and ten-time winner “The Simpsons.” “Futurama” was also a previous winner, in 2002, but the series was canceled a year later before Comedy Central revived the show in 2010. The comeback kid’s triumph makes perfect sense in retrospect. Here is how it happened.


“Futurama” follows Fry, a pizza delivery boy who is cryogenically frozen in 1999 and reawakens a thousand years later. For its third season, the show submitted an episode similar to this year’s winning entry. In “Roswell That Ends Well,” Fry and his intergalactic delivery crew are sent back in time to the 1950s. Though they attempt not to alter history, they inadvertently become history when the U.S. government mistakes disassembled robot Bender for a UFO, and the alien housed at Area 51 turns out to be crab-like character Dr. Zoidberg. Fry spends the episode doing whatever it takes to make sure he continues to exist in the future, but his plan backfires when he accidentally causes the death of his own grandfather, who’s killed in a cabin where Fry mistakenly thinks he’ll be safe from harm – which happens to be on a nuclear test site. In a bizarre twist of fate, Fry then becomes his own grandfather when he sleeps with his seductive grandmother. With so many storytelling layers and gags packed into a single half-hour, “Futurama” easily took the 2002 prize over “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” both of which it has now defeated for a second time.

Their winning submission this year was “The Late Philip J. Fry,” another time-travel episode, but this time it sends Fry, his 170-year-old great-nephew Professor Farnsworth, and Bender forward instead of backwards in time. A trip one minute into the future accidentally sends them ahead one thousand years into a post-apocalyptic world. Taking its cue from H.G. Wells‘s “The Time Machine,” the three head further and further ahead in time hoping to find a civilization that has created a backwards time machine. The episode’s title is a reference to Fry’s constant tardiness; his journey forward in time causes him to miss a birthday dinner with his girlfriend Leela, who grows old before realizing her time with Fry was the best of her life. Expertly tugging our heartstrings, an unexpected happy ending arrives when the time travelers discover the universe repeats itself in a constant loop. They slow down the time machine so that Fry can arrive for dinner with Leela, albeit in an alternate time line.

Sentimental, high-concept episodes are always the surest bets for Best Animated Program. “South Park” won its first Emmy in 2005 for “Best Friends Forever,” a satire of the Terri Schiavo case that involved a comatose Kenny needing to die and go to heaven to lead a war against Satan. “The Simpsons” won early Emmys for the heartwarming “Life on the Fast Lane” (1990), in which Marge resists having an affair out of devotion to her husband, and the futuristic “Lisa’s Wedding” (1995), where a 23-year-old Lisa chooses her family over a snobby fiancé.

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This year, “The Simspons” seemed like a safe choice because its episode submission, “Angry Dad: The Movie,” has a syrupy conclusion. After fighting over who gets to accept awards for Bart’s short film “Angry Dad,” based on his father Homer’s violent outbursts, Bart thanks Homer in his Oscar speech and they make up. Before that, the episode is a biting satire of awards ceremonies themselves, and cleverly spoofs other award-winning animated films like “Persepolis,” “The Triplets of Belleville,” and “Wallace & Gromit.” An extended gag is aimed at Pixar, unsubtly renamed Mixar here, who compete in the fictitious Oscar race with a short film titled “Condiments.” This is the second time a change in animation styles has been an Emmy kiss of death for the show. In 1996, “The Simpsons” entered the Halloween anthology “Treehouse of Terror VI,” the final segment of which features Homer becoming trapped in a three-dimensional world. Executive producer Bill Oakley thought the novelty of 3D animation would give it an advantage, but after losing to “Pinky and the Brain” he said he regretted not submitting a more emotional episode.

“The Simpsons” and “South Park” will have to consider “Futurama” a threat for at least three more years. The incumbent’s current eligible season just finished airing last week, and the episode “Overclockwise,” in which Leela doubts she has a future with Fry, could be a strong contender in next year’s race, and Comedy Central will air two more 13-episode seasons through 2013.

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