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'Futurama' writer on lessons of 'Jurassic Bark,' one of the most devastating half-hours of TV ever made
What a dead cartoon dog can teach us about life.
Futurama is a wild, joke-a-minute comedy about a slacker from the year 1999 who hangs out with a cyclops, a robot, a mad scientist, and a lobster man while flying around the galaxy delivering packages, but that doesn't mean it's without emotional moments. Over the course of its long, multi-network run, the beloved sci-fi comedy has made plenty of spaces for satisfying, and sometimes devastating, moments of pure heart, and if you ask most of fans of the show, one of those moments still stands out above the rest.
No one who has ever seen the Season 4 episode "Jurassic Bark" is likely to forget the closing moments of the story. After finding his fossilized dog from the 20th century, Seymour, Fry asks Professor Farnsworth to clone his old best friend, then changes his mind, believing that Seymour probably had a very happy life in the 12 years he lived after Fry was cryogenically frozen. Then, the show reveals that Seymour's life for the next 12 years was actually just endless waiting, as the faithful dog sat outside Panucci's Pizza, just as Fry had told him to, and waited for Fry to come back until the end of his life. It's a gut punch, and according to the episode's writer, Eric Kaplan, it's meant to carry with it an important lesson about the ways in which we justify our own decisions.
"We always tell ourselves that we make choices for the good of others, and those stories we tell ourselves are often convincing, but it doesn’t mean they’re always true," Kaplan told Slate in a new interview. "So the point of that episode is Fry tells himself a story that Seymour never would have waited for him, and he would have wanted him to go on with his life. And you can see why that story is useful for Fry to believe. But it’s not true."
He added, "Maybe one of the emotional roles that stories play is that they let us experience an ending. In real life, the one ending that we’re gonna have, we don’t get to report back. So by having a story that has an ending, we kind of get to imagine what it would be like to have the ending, a death, and then come through to the other side and have some sort of perspective on it."
Kaplan also reflected on the importance of the story not just in terms of the things it can teach the viewer about death and the stories we are able to tell ourselves, but about Fry himself. So much of Futurama, particularly in the early seasons, is about exploring Fry's particular brand of immaturity and the things that get him to shake up his life. For Kaplan, showing his choices surrounding a beloved pet were a key part of that.
"If you reflect on the character of Fry a little bit, he’s a commentary on a particular kind of American protracted adolescence," Kaplan said. "When he learns that everybody that he knows has died a thousand years ago, he’s happy, because he gets to hang out with robots! And that’s kind of a dark insight, that his life was so meaningless to him that he was eager to leave it behind. So the idea that a dog loved him tugs the heartstrings."
Longtime Futurama fans know, of course, that Seymour's story didn't end with "Jurassic Bark." The beloved dog was revisited in the Bender's Big Score movie, which revealed that he actually wasn't alone for 12 years, but was cared for by a clone of Fry sent back to the past, giving the dog a somewhat happier ending. Kaplan didn't work on the later years of the series, and didn't necessarily know about this new development before Slate told him. Here's his reaction:
"Well, that’s some nutty baseball, that’s all I can say. I don’t want to criticize the work of other writers in Slate, come on. But that’s what we would call, in the philosophy trade, some nutty baseball."
Well, you can always pretend the other episodes after "Jurassic Bark" don't exist, and leave Seymour on that sidewalk forever.