Aaron R. Davis
By now, most people are aware of 20th Century Fox TV’s recent decision to hire new voice actors to replace the cast of Futurama.
Futurama was one of my all-time favorite TV shows, one of the smartest satires on television, and completely unsupported by Fox – despite the fact that it was a show from Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, one of the shows that turned Fox into a viable TV network. And it was funnier than The Simpsons has been in a decade.
Like a lot of great shows, Futurama was canceled before its time. Now, granted, it’s not a show for everyone. I know plenty of people who just don’t think it’s funny. But some of the blame also has to go to Fox for moving the show all over its Sunday schedule and pre-empting week after week after week for baseball coverage. When Futurama was canceled, it was something of a relief.
It sold very, very well on DVD. Imagine that, Fox – when you put something people want to watch where they can find it, they’ll actually go for it! The show did very well in reruns on Adult Swim and Comedy Central. Well enough to produce four made-for-DVD movies that also sold very, very well. In fact, the show became something of, if not a cash cow, than certainly some kind of ATM sheep for the network that had tried to kill off the show.
In fact, Futurama became successful enough that Comedy Central agreed to put some money into the show and partner with 20th Century Fox TV to produce a new season of original episodes. Finally, vindication for fans of this great series who, after all, really just want to see more new episodes!
Too bad the joy was short-lived.
20th Century Fox TV has, yet again, taken something people actually want to watch and done their damnedest to sink it before it even starts airing.
If you’ve been keeping abreast of this story, you’ll remember that part of the announcement for the show included the news that the original voice cast – Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Tress MacNeille – had all been signed to return to the show.
Except they hadn’t.
They were just expected to return.
And why wouldn’t they? The voice cast has been very close to this show, been very supportive of its fans and has been integral to the success of the series. That’s not just hyperbole, either. They’re not “just” voice actors – the acting ensemble on this series, which may be one of the best groups ever assembled, has given this show such a distinctive sound that it seems impossible to imagine anyone else giving such genuine life to the same characters. It would be as big a mistake to recast these characters as it would be to recast Alec Baldwin’s role on 30 Rock. Can you imagine another actor playing Jack Donaghy? Of course not. Alec Baldwin is integral to that show. And it’s the same case here. Anyone else would just be doing a poor imitation.
So, negotiations are ongoing. Basically, Fox doesn’t want to pay the cast members what they’re worth to the show, and are sending out feelers for replacements as a negotiating tactic to try and get the actors to take less money. Apparently Fox and Comedy Central both have been dramatically slashing down the per-episode budget of the show, and they expect the actors to take a pay cut. They’ve already reduced the writing staff and made the decision to institute a shorter delivery schedule – which basically means they’ll have less time to put each episode together, because nothing shows an interest in quality like forcing the people who make a show to do it as hastily as possible.
Not that Fox is interested in quality. They only care about making as much money as possible. And if that means putting Futurama back on the air for another season, then they’ll do it. But they’ll do it as cheaply as possible.
Now, this is an obvious negotiating stunt on the part of 20th Century Fox TV. This annoys me, but it doesn’t surprise me.
And Futurama having a big panel at Comic-Con this weekend hyping up a publicity stunt where a fake Fox executive would decide “live, on stage” the fate of the series didn’t surprise me, either.
What did surprise me was reading a few news stories that none of the cast showed up to the big panel.
Instead, it had some writers and producer/creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen lamely skirting around the non-appearance of the actors, asking the crowd not to inquire about the absence of the actors and what their future with the show would be, and offering platitudes like “We love our Futurama actors. We hope that Fox and the actors can come to an agreement as soon as possible.”
Which is all very nice and certainly true. But it doesn’t answer what I really want to know. Namely, will Futurama really be Futurama without the same actors? And are Matt Groening and David X. Cohen really going to proceed in making this show without them?
Up until this weekend, I really thought this was all just a tasteless stunt to build up the announcement of the show’s return at Comic-Con. Now I see that it’s Fox dicking over the show and the fans who love it once again in order to squeeze a few more ducats out of something they own and are only begrudgingly putting back on the air because they smell money in the air.
It’s a pretty shameful way to treat the people who make this show that people love. And it’s a disgusting way to treat the people who only want to watch it. And when Fox TV frames this in a way that blames it on the voice actors not wanting to lower their salaries, as though they’re the ones standing in the way and Fox can’t afford to pay them what they’ve earned, they are lying.
At this point, if this is the way this is going to go down, I don’t even want to see Futurama come back. Because I’m happy with what I have. Sure, getting more would be nice, but at least it won’t end up like The Simpsons, which goes on and on and on endlessly and gets immeasurably worse. It’ll be a series like many of the others I’ve loved, like Veronica Mars and Farscape and Arrested Development and Invader ZIM, which are finite and high quality all the way through without being gobbled up by filler and cost-cutting. And I’m fine with that.
I had better be. Because I am not going to watch a recast Futurama. And I hope none of you are, either.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.