Tonight’s episode of Futurama begins with the Clippie Awards honoring the best delivery boys. Hermes’ son, Dwight, is nominated in the Best New Bike Delivery Boy category, but he doesn’t win. Fry, who’s also nominated for a Clippie, tells Dwight that at least his family is here to support him. The Professor is Fry’s only family, and he couldn’t be bothered to show up.
After a gruesome montage honoring those delivery boys that passed away this year (one by bus, one by train, and one by lion), the robot host announces the nominees for Best Delivery Boy: Newspaper, Phone Book, or Miscellaneous. “Miscellaneous! That’s me!” Fry says. He’s nominated along with the three men from the memorial video, and wins by default.
After signing for his award, Fry starts to give a speech thanking the Professor for always being there for him because he’s family but the empty seat at his table says otherwise. Fry can’t lie to the audience anymore, and he calls the Professor a jerk before storming out.
Back at Planet Express, the gang is admiring Fry’s Clippie award. Well, all except for the Professor, who readily admits to not giving a crap about the award ceremony. Fry wishes he had other family in this century, and that’s when Zoidberg reveals that the Professor’s parents are still alive and living in virtual retirement on the Near-Death Star.
Fry, Leela, and Bender take off for the Near-Death Star to find Mr. and Mrs. Ned and Velma Farnsworth. When the entry robots initially deny them access, Fry gives them a glimpse of his Clippie award and they excitedly let them pass. I thought they were going to shoot him down, so it was funny to see them unironically treating him like he’s a big celebrity.
“Virtual retirement” turns out to look a whole lot like The Matrix: the old folks are all plugged into virtual reality pods while their bodies are being used to produce electricity. Leela and Bender tell Fry that the idea came from this “old movie” called The Matrix, and Bender proceeds to deconstruct the idea of humans being used as batteries. He says a potato or, you know, a battery would do a much better job. To be honest, he’s got a pretty good point there. Humor at the expense of the movie aside, they end with a compliment to the writers of it to prove it was all in good fun.
Fry finds his grandparents, whom he immediately nicknames Gram-Gram and Shabadoo, and Bender offers up three virtual reality helmets he happens to store in his body cavity so they can visit them for real. Or, well, for virtual real. The trio drops into the virtual reality in old-school videogame fashion and it turns out to be a simulation of a run-down nursing home. There are infinite puzzles to do, virtual sweaters to knit, and TV static that’s reflected in the eyeballs of the viewer. How bleak is that? Even in virtual reality, retirement homes are sad places.
Ned and Velma live upstairs, and at first Ned shuts the door in Fry’s face, claiming he can smell a scam from a mile away. Bender tries a reverse mortgage line, though, and Ned lets them right in. At first Fry attempts to explain the whole distant-ancestor-from-the-past thing, but decides going with grandson is simpler. They bond over chatting and virtual ham casserole, and Fry wishes they could stay with him in the real world so he’d have family he actually likes, but they have to stay.
When they end their visit, Fry goes to kiss his “grandparents” on the cheeks in real reality, but accidentally unplugs a cord as he does so, which triggers a security attack. Leela can’t get the ship to start, and ends up tossing out the giant Store Brand batteries and substituting in Ned and Velma to power their getaway.
Safely back at Planet Express, everyone is excited to meet the Professor’s parents…except for the Professor. When he sees them, he storms off, yelling at them to leave him alone. That’s not the reaction I expected, but the explanation comes later, after Fry takes Ned and Velma out in a “live it up” montage of a day out at the carnival. The Professor is lurking in the background spying on them the whole time, though, looking forlorn.
Amy and Leela see the Professor sneak back in from a day of following his relatives around, and go to talk to him about it in his room. He’s in the bathtub crying, and Leela makes sure there’s an “opaque bubble layer” over him before they hear his story.
Flashback to a century and a half ago in New New York: the Professor is a young science geek splicing rats and frogs together while his hedge fund manager parents are too tired to play with him. He was accepted into MIT at the age of 14, but his parents wouldn’t let him go because he wasn’t emotionally mature enough (clearly he still isn’t, given his earlier outburst). Instead, they all packed up and moved to a farm together; at least, until the Professor ran away. He thinks his parents don’t love him and wanted to crush his college dreams and that’s why he’s mad at them.
After hearing this, Amy advises that he go talk to his parents and tell them how he really feels, because of course his parents love him. Towel-clad, the Professor goes to talk to his parents, but demonstrates his remarkable emotional maturity by yelling that he hates them and they ruined his life before flinging his towel at them and taking off into the street.
Fry attempts to catch him, but to no avail. The Professor’s heading for Queens, which Ned and Velma reveal is where their old farmhouse was. They let Fry, Bender, and Leela hitch a ride on their hover-scooters and the five of them head out to the old farm. It’s looking pretty beat up, but inside the Professor has found his old room and his old bed to sob in.
He asks his parents why they stuck him out here on this farm, and they agree it’s time to tell him the secret. The Professor had an older brother that was a lot like him—had an aptitude for science, and even similar physical characteristics. The big “but” is that he was, well, “a crazy-ass nutjob” if you ask Ned. The boy used to have terrible night terrors, and Ned and Velma would sit up with him all night reading him a chemistry book to calm him down. Eventually he went to a mental institution and the Professor went on to get an online doctorate in Rodeo Studies. Velma calls him Floyd, and then everyone realizes the Professor (real first name Hubert) is the older brother they were talking about (he got out of the mental institution after only a couple of decades).
He’s touched to hear that his parents cared about him enough to sit up reading to him every night to stop the terrors. He realizes that’s the reason they were too tired to play with him, and the three of them reconcile and share the love. Bender interrupts for a moment: “This may not be the best time, but a couple years ago a homeless rodeo clown named Floyd came by and he was claiming to be—“ he’s cut off by Fry, but he looks incredibly guilty. I hope Floyd turned out okay.
Ned and Velma decide to go back to virtual retirement on the Near-Death Star; they can’t handle the aches and pains that accompany regular reality anymore. Fry promises to visit them at the holidays. The Professor, however, visits them now with the new virtual reality program he designed for them. It looks just like their farm did in its glory days, and he’s even programmed their appearances to be a young Ned and Velma and a child Hubert so they can finally play together like they always wanted.
I’m not used to this show ending with a touching moment like that (though to be fair, this marks only a half a dozen episodes I’ve seen to date). It was a nice change of pace for me. I know we saw Leela with her parents earlier this season, but the Professor’s story here was more emotionally charged. Still funny, of course, but there was a different underlying tone. I liked it, and I was really glad to get some background on the Professor, since all I knew up to this point was that he was some variety of mad scientist who was distantly descended from Fry. At least now there’s more of a context for his admittedly odd behavior.
Favorite Lines from “Near-Death Wish”
Bender, about the Clippie: “Hefty! You could really bash in a skull with this thing.”
Fry: “Let’s boldly go where we’ve gone before!”
Velma: “I don’t cook much since we moved out of reality.”
Ned, on the farm: “There’s the old place. It hasn’t changed a bit.” Velma: “Put on your glasses, sweetie.” Ned: “Aah!”