Slotted into an afternoon of network television's most popular animated shows, the "Futurama" panel was expected to be a celebration for fans. It looked like a chance for 45 minutes of revelry surrounding a show that was cancelled and resurrected thanks to enduring audience support and changing industry business models.
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Continuing the resurrection theme, the Comic-Con program hyped the panel thusly: "Futurama: Life or Death?!— Be a part of sci-fi history! Join executive producers Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, and stars Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, and Maurice LaMarche for high-stakes thrills as a top-ranking FOX executive decides live, on stage, whether Futurama will make yet another triumphant return or whether it is gone forever! The very fate of Futurama hangs in the balance! Paramedics will be standing by in case the intense excitement causes any panelists to collapse. Raucous celebration or abject despair to follow the news."
I don't know who writes the Comic-Con program descriptions, but that couldn't have been written unless at some point, a FOX executive had planned on going to the panel. And the description was already disingenuous, since FOX isn't related at all to the life or death of "Futurama." The show will come back to the air with or without FOX under the deal between Comedy Central and 20th Century Fox TV. So the idea that a FOX executive might show up at Comic-Con to announce a *negative* result would have been ludicrous.
The panel was set up for a FOX executive to come out and, after much deliberate contemplation, announce that "Futurama" will be back on the network next spring.
The crowd goes wild! Everybody wins.
Then the news broke last week that 20th Century Fox had put out feelers to begin recasting the main "Futurama" voices. In this blog, I compared it to the studio's similar negotiating tactics with the "Simpsons" voices. The stalemate seemed to position the Comic-Con panel for even more potential drama.
The panel was set up for a FOX executive to come out and announce the series pick-up. Then, Matt Groening might come out and say, "Oh, by the way, we have a few other people here to see you..." John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, Billy West, Tress MacNeille and Katey Sagal would walk out on stage and the crowd would go crazy. Champagne corks would be popped and we'd all just drink our way straight through to "True Blood."
Instead, Saturday's "Futurama" panel began with the Hypno-Toad, a popular recurring creature on the series, delivering a prepared message instructing the fans that everything was going smoothly and that we would not notice that the voice cast wasn't in attendance.
We had no choice but to notice, though, when Groening came out and delivered something of an invocation that sounded mighty similar to the Serenity Prayer familiar to any 12-stepper, urging patience and peace and moderation.
"We love our 'Futurama' actors," Groening stated. "We hope that FOX and the actors can come to an agreement as soon as possible."
The absence of those actors was even more evident when the podium around Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen was filled by a couple writers and a producer from the animation house. These incredibly talented people then spent five minutes reading rejected pitches and discarded one-liners from the writers' room. The crowd sat in near silence ignoring one punchline after another. Many must have been wondering, as I was, if this were some kind of put-on, if one of the text-heavy slides we were watching might turn out to be a recently signed contract between the voice actors and the studio. We were being lulled into a false sense of complacency. What we were seeing couldn't possibly be what this panel would become. It was a put-on.
Instead, it continued. The panelists opened the floor for questions, but only after politely instructing the crowd that nobody was really allowed to mention the elephant in the room. And, oddly, the crowd conformed to those limitations. Nobody got up to the mic and challenged the talent with something like, "Would 'Futurama' actually be 'Futurama' with a bunch of scab voices?" That's an exact question somebody near me in line to get into Ballroom 20 asked, so I know it was on people's minds. But Comic-Con screens questions and it's doubtful anything that relevant would have slipped through.
It's not that the crowd wasn't interested in the romantic future for Fry and Leela ("I think it would be safe to say that they're going to have some ups and downs in the upcoming ventures. It's their destiny," Cohen said) or the origin of the Nibblonians ("That was my idea of designing something cute. That was my Ewok," Groening explained).
It was also funny to hear about plotlines for new episodes. Bender and Amy exploring the issue of Robo-sexual marriage and the passage of Proposition Infinity? Seems funny. An episode about Twitter in the year 3000 with a contemporary Twitter aspect? Sure. OK. Another "Anthology of Interest" episode? Good to know.
Those just seemed like parochial concerns given the more serious lingering questions. And Groening and Cohen rewarded people based on the banality of their queries, giving out a pile of merchandise they must have swept out of the remainder bin at the Fox Store before heading down to San Diego. [Disclaimer: The DVD set in a case shaped like Bender's head? Awesome.] Giving gifts and answering softballs was much easier than answering where the new episodes will air, when they'll air and who will be giving voice to the adored character. You know. The little things.
When people were panicking about the repercussions of 20th Century Fox recasting the "Futurama" voices, I resisted and called it out as just a ploy. I predicted that the supposed acrimony was just a set-up for a Comic-Con panel triumph, which is pretty naive in retrospect. Whether FOX eventually decides to order "Futurama" remains open. Whether 20th Century Fox TV eventually decides to make nice with the original "Futurama" voices or hires a new team is also an open question.
The one thing that seems obvious to me is that if "Futurama" really is returning to TV somewhere next spring, this Saturday's Comic-Con panel was a major missed opportunity. Instead of building buzz, it built only uncertainty.