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Bright future for matt

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 story.

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 face.

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," English said.

"Is there nobody there to write them?" asked her interrogator. "What happened?"

"Too many people spending too much time watching television."


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