by John Allemang The Globe and Mail
Company Friday, July 24, 1998
Pasadena, Calif. -- Here, finally,
is the one man in network television who refuses to be obsessed
with the dating habits of beautiful thirtysomethings.
Taking the stage at the Television
Critics Association meetings to talk about the future of TV was
a rumpled-looking Matt Groening. And as you might expect from the
creator of The Simpsons , his vision of the future was not full
of plucky ex-models trying to make their way in the business world
or lovable single fathers hiring beautiful but ditzy graduate students
to look after their adorable children. No, Groening is far less
plugged into the TV biz than that. His idea of the future really
is the future, an animated series for Fox called Futurama that is
set in the year 3000 and promises to clear up all those pesky questions
that have troubled sci-fi soothsayers for ages.
Like how many fingers cartoon characters
will have a millennium from now. "I was going to give the characters
five fingers instead of four," said Groening, an avid reader of
science fiction. "But the animators complained about a term they
have in animation called pencil mileage. And over the long life
of a TV series, the pencil mileage of having to draw that extra
finger adds up. So we've gone back to four."
The four-fingered denizens of the
future, with their big eyeballs and exaggerated overbite, bear an
uncanny resemblance to Simpsons characters. But that's just a coincidence,
Groening said, "the tragedy of my limited drawing skills." Though
the new show was inspired by the futuristic Lisa Gets Married episode
of The Simpsons -- the one where robots who cry at the sight of
young love burst into flames -- it is not meant to be a spinoff.
"Futurama 's real and The Simpsons
are fictional," said Groening, taking pains to delineate the mysterious
workings of the cartoon universe. "However The Simpsons are still
on TV a thousand years from now. With original episodes."
Any futuristic world that still
carries The Simpsons in syndication is bound to be quirkier than
the sci-fi norm. But while the premise of the new series sounds
conventional enough -- an escapee from the 20th century undermines
the regimented society of the future in search of happiness -- it's
the day-to-day details, in true Simpsons style, that tell the real
The top-rated television show in
the future is something called The Mass-Hypnosis Hour -- "No doubt
it's on Fox," Groening said -- and the soft drinks are highly addictive.
There are the expected space ships and ray guns to maximize the
show's merchandising possibilities back in the 20th century, but
the rush-hour traffic is no better, the robots shoplift, and the
cell phone implanted in your thumb still dials wrong numbers. And
while the serious topics of speculative fiction crop up, they don't
get treated with quite the same reverence. When the issue of immortality
surfaces in one of the first episodes -- in which Groening himself
plays a disembodied head in a jar -- the focus is on an ageless
Dick Clark hosting the Rockin' New Year's Eve 3000 dance party.
Star Wars this is not. Groening's
outlook on the world to come is less Spielberg and, for all his
disclaimers, more Bart Simpson. "I wanted to do a TV show in which
the problems of the universe are not solved by militarism guided
by New Age spirituality," he said. ". . . I have a slightly more
subversive take, I think."
Of course, being Matt Groening,
he also wanted to do a show where he could make a one-eyed alien
look sexy -- something to do with the sweep of the hair over the
Futurama is so far unscheduled,
but will probably make its debut when Fox starts cancelling its
lamer shows in the middle of the season.
While he has at least one eye on
the year 3000, Groening still has to watch over The Simpsons , and
he promises that the coming season's episodes will return the series
to its high standards. That is saying something -- a panel of TV's
leading producers voted The Simpsons the best series on the air
earlier this week -- but it is also a sign that Groening is aware
of the program's recent decline.
"I want us to go out on top," he
said, and since his contract with Fox comes to an end this year,
that exit may be soon.
But the plots for upcoming episodes
that he rhymed off don't sound all that inspiring. The Homer-centred
stories of the last few years, designed to pull in a larger audience
that may not get the clever jokes, will continue in the upcoming
season: Homer finds it hard to keep a secret learned while working
as a special assistant to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger; Homer wants
to be like Thomas Edison; Homer J. Simpson's middle name is finally
revealed; Homer can't afford to buy a big lobster at the store so
he buys a baby and raises it at home; Homer helps Ned Flanders with
his mid-life crisis by luring him to Las Vegas -- where they wake
up after marrying two cocktail waitresses the night before.
The most promising story sounds
like the crossover Groening promised with Fox's hit comedy Ally
McBeal . "It's going to happen," he insisted.
Only it's not. Fox publicists had
to issue denials after Groening's talk. Apparently his vision of
the future is a little wonky.
"Whatever happened to smart comedies?"
someone asked veteran TV producer Diane English (Murphy Brown )
at a rather pessimistic gathering of the American TV industry's
more creative minds.
"Takes smart people to write them,"
"Is there nobody there to write
them?" asked her interrogator. "What happened?"
"Too many people spending too much
time watching television."