Over its erratic seven-season lifetime, one that’s spanned over a decade, multiple networks and a few direct-to-DVD movies, “Futurama” has presented some brilliantly strange jokes (“death by snu-snu” on the planet Amazonia), unexpectedly complicated mythology (Fry is his own grandfather, and because of that is able to save the universe from evil brains) and an animated character for the ages in the hard-drinking robot Bender Bending Rodríguez. But as the Matt Groening creation approaches a sure-to-be moving finale on September 4, its chief legacy may be its ability to insert not just emotionally resonant but sometimes downright wrenching moments into episodes about seemingly silly sci-fi pastiche storylines, the shifts in tone making them all the more effective. “Futurama” may be the only series capable of turning a half-assed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” spoof into an ending that’s an absolute tear-jerker. As we prepare to say goodbye to “Futurama” forever — again — here’s a look at the 10 most poignant, melancholic or just plain touching episodes.
10. Season 7, Episode 10: “Near-Death Wish”
Professor Farnsworth is not the source of much of the pathos in “Futurama” — that’s mainly reserved for Fry, either in his relationship with Leela or via his separation from his past life, which becomes increasingly weighty as the series has progressed. The haphazardly brilliant Professor is actually more consistent for laughs, but does have a nice, emotional moment in a 2012 episode about Fry looking for new relatives to hang out with after feeling neglected by his elderly great (×30) nephew. The series pays another visit to the Near-Death Star, a retirement satellite in which the residents are hooked up to machines to live out their lives, “The Matrix”-style, in a virtual Florida, and where the Professor’s own aging parents turn out to still be living. The reanimated ancient couple dote on Fry and resurface old resentments in the Professor, leading him to confront his unhappy childhood — and while the reveal is a little strange, with the Professor learning he was plagued by night terrors and institutionalized, not neglected, the resulting sequence is lovely. The Professor reprograms his parents’ retirement simulation to look like their old farm, and returns them both to their younger selves, so that they can play with their child-once-again son in a way they weren’t able to in the past.
9. Season 4, Episode 12: “The Sting”
Riffing on Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik,” “The Sting” starts up with a terrible accident involving giant space bees that apparently leaves Fry dead after attempting to protect Leela, thought the reality following his funeral is a slippery and strange one for the cyclops captain. She keeps having visions of Fry asking her to wake up, ones that seem to be born out of her own guilt and sadness, but that lead her to believe that he’s somehow alive and everyone else to think she’s going nuts. The truth is that Fry and Leela are both alive, and that she’s been fighting her way out of a coma with Fry by her side, encouraging her. “The Sting” has an unexpectedly somber undertone for a “Futurama” episode — usually the emotional gut-punches are saved for the end — and one that provides a nice counter to the overall feeling in the series that everyone is indestructible due to future technology or robot toughness.
8. Season 6, Episode 6: “Lethal Inspection”
The flashback episodes are generally among the series’ strongest when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings, and “Lethal Inspection” is no different when it looks to an unexpected relationship — the secret history between Hermes and Bender. After learning that, thanks to a manufacturing defect, he’s not able to back himself up in case of destruction of his physical body, Bender heads down to the factory from which he came in Tijuana to find and confront Inspector #5, the man who approved him for use despite his fatal flaw. Bender is helped by Hermes in navigating the Central Bureaucracy’s records, attacks by Killbots and some confrontations with his own mortality — because, it turns out, the mysterious Inspector #5 was actually Hermes himself. In the final reveal, one Bender never learns about, we see a flashback of Hermes approving a baby Bender despite his flaws, leading him to resign, as Elizabeth Mitchell sings “Little Bird, Little Bird.” If the sequence were a little more consistent with characterizations of Hermes and Bender’s relationship from earlier in the series, it’d be a more impactful scene, but it’s still a nice moment and showcase for Hermes.
7. Season 4, Episode 3: “Love and Rocket”
Fry and Leela’s slowly developing romance over the show’s run is, for the most part, pleasingly unsaccharine thanks to Leela’s matter-of-factness and Fry’s general loserdom making for an unconventional dynamic. But “Love and Rocket,” which eventually works its way into a “2001” parody, presents the pair’s own unique version of a heartfelt gesture when they’re literally threatened by candy hearts (along with a heartbroken ship AI that’s shut down the oxygen and artificial gravity on board). Having been searching for the right candy heart message to give to an exasperated Leela throughout the episode, Fry ends up gifting her with something much greater when, noticing her air is running out, he hooks his tank up to her’s instead without telling her and ends up almost dead on the floor. As she resuscitates him, he coughs up a heart that reads “U LEAVE ME BREATHLESS,” and for once, she’s absolutely charmed.
6. Season 6, Episode 7: “The Late Philip J. Fry”
One of the rare all-around great later episodes of “Futurama,” “The Late Philip J. Fry” actually focuses on the workings of Fry and Leela’s life as a couple, as Fry, the far less responsible of the two, finds himself chronically late to dates with his one-eyed love. To make up for standing her up at her birthday lunch, Fry promises to take her out to a fancy dinner at “Cavern on the Green,” only to be corralled into testing a one-way time machine (that can only go forward into the future) by the Professor and because of it missing his meal with Leela by thousands of years. “The Late Philip J. Fry” serves as a nice echo to “Time Keeps on Slippin,'” which is also on this list, in this instance having it be Fry’s relationship with Leela slipping through his fingers due to time travel rather than his chance at winning her. As a parallel to the message left by Fry for Leela in that episode, in this one Leela shoots one for Fry into the ceiling of the cavern so that, over the years, stalagmites form to spell it out, demonstrating that the pair has a love that, however ungainly, spans eons.
5. Season 4, Episode 2: “Leela’s Homeworld”
For the first few seasons of the series, Leela believes herself to be alien in search of her home planet, having grown up in the Cookieville Minimum Security Orphanarium after being abandoned there as an infant. But “Leela’s Homeworld” reveals that she actually came from the sewers as “the least mutated mutant ever born,” her parents, both alive, deciding to give her a chance at life in the world above by passing her off as an alien in a curiously affective variation on an immigrant tale of sacrifice. Unlike Fry, Leela at least has access to her parents in future episodes, even if they were for a long time confined underground due to their mutant status. The moment she figures out who they are — “You must despise us,” they cry, until she embraces them and sobs “This is the happiest moment of my life!” — gives way to one of the montages “Futurama” wields like a weapon, a wonderful look at how Leela’s parents kept watch on her as she grew up set to Pizzicato Five’s “Baby Love Child.”
4. Season 7, Episode 23: “Game of Tones”
The Comedy Central seasons of “Futurama” have not been the show’s strongest, and “Game of Tones,” which aired earlier this month, feels fairly lazy in its primary plot. An alien ship booming a series of loud musical tones, a la a certain Steven Spielberg film, is making its deafening way toward Earth. The melody is familiar to Fry, leading the crew to hook him up to a machine that will allow him to explore his last day in 1999 and hopefully uncover the memory linked to the sound and stop the ship from destroying Earth with noise. Despite the half-heartedness of the “disaster,” which turns out to be a character searching for where he parked his spaceship, the episode turns around to manage a devastating sequence with Fry’s mom, who’s mainly been characterized in series flashbacks as a manic sports fan and not much else. Looking for a moment to talk to his mother, even in dream form, to tell her all the things he’s wanted to since he was separated from her forever, he’s granted a chance by Nibbler to visit her in one of his own dreams, getting to offer a sweet, wordless goodbye.
3. Season 3, Episode 14: “Time Keeps On Slippin'”
Fry and Leela’s long courtship and up-and-down relationship has remained tolerable over the years of the show’s run in part because it’s only periodically been given a place in the spotlight. Fry’s (for a while, at least) hopeless pursuit of the more competent cyclops is primarily played for laughs, which only makes the moments in which it’s treated seriously more powerful. And it’s never more hopeless and poetic than in “Time Keeps On Slippin’,” in which space-time becomes destabilized, leaping forward first minutes, then longer periods at a time and leaving the characters to try to figure out what happened in the missing chronology. Fry manages, somehow, to get Leela to agree to marry him after a time skip (though they immediately get divorced in the next one), and only realizes what he did to win her over when it’s too late — he wrote “I LOVE YOU, LEELA” using the stars, a message that gets destroyed in the implosion that sets the timeline right before anyone else can see it, a futile but beautiful effort.
2. Season 3, Episode 4: “The Luck of the Fryrish”
“Breakfast Club” standard “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds becomes a peculiarly moving music queue in this episode in which Fry discovers what happened to the brother, Yancy, he felt was always trying to steal his thunder. Fry’s search for the seven-leaf clover that brought him luck at breakdancing and basketball back in the 20th century takes him to Orbiting Meadows National Cemetery, where he believes his sibling was interred after stealing Fry’s name and clover and going on to lead a heroic life involving becoming the first man on Mars. But some timely moss removal on the grave brings us to the flashback reveal that it wasn’t Yancy who did those things, but his son, “named for his uncle, to carry on his spirit” and in tribute to the family member Yancy misses. It’s a moment well worth a Judd Nelson fist-pump and some tissues.
1. Season 5, Episode 7: “Jurassic Bark”
“Not the episode with the dead dog,” the title caption to this week’s episode read. Said “dead dog” episode is one of the show’s finest, and one capable of reducing even the most hard-hearted and animation-averse to instant tears. It’s the ending that does it. After a main story revolving around Bender’s jealously when Fry seeks to have his old pet and “best friend” Seymour cloned and restored to life from a fossil, the show finds the pair making up and Fry deciding that, after learning the dog went on to live for over a decade after his master was frozen, the animal had to have led a full life without him and it was better to leave him that way. Simple enough — except that we then cut to a montage of Seymour faithfully obeying Fry’s last command to wait for him in front of Panucci’s Pizza, “I Will Wait for You” from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” playing as the seasons change, people pass by and Seymour, Mr. Panucci and the pizza place age, Seymour finally lying down to close his eyes. Devastating and unforgettable.