Before you know it, these zany characters will have you yelling "Shut up and take my money!"
When Hulu announced that Futurama would be returning for a brand-new season, responses were mixed. While some were hesitant to revisit the series after what felt like a perfect finale in “Meanwhile”, many others were excited to join the Planet Express crew once more for some intergalactic adventures. However, there is a very large, important group of people who don’t fall into either camp - people who have no idea what’s going on with the show, who just wanna have a good time, and get to hang out with some fun characters for a while.
And really, we at Collider can’t fault that, so we’ve put together a bit of a cheat sheet to introduce the top seven characters in Futurama, along with each of their best episodes to give you a head start in meeting the colorful inhabitants of New New York and beyond. So dig in and meet some of the zaniest characters ever depicted in animation!
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The turn of the century was weird. As the malaise of the ‘90s came to an end, there was an expectation and fear for the future, as people dreaded the potential world-ending Y2K bug but also looked forward to the endless possibilities of the new millennium. Nobody exemplified this better than Philip J Fry, a slacker gliding through a life he hated but always holding out that one day he’d have a robot as a best friend.
Fry's life as a nobody in the 20th century gives way to an endless universe of opportunity as he is thrust well into the future and snags a spot on an intergalactic spaceship. He is dumb but sweet, lazy but brave (at times), immature but imaginative, and often quite emotional. He has a mostly unrequited love interest in Leela and his many futile attempts at wooing her (which range from sublimely idiotic to genuinely breathtaking) make up a large proportion of the show’s action. Beyond this, Fry consistently shows deep emotion for both his friends in the future and many of the aspects of the 20th century that he left behind. He is a tragicomic hero for the ages, with the brilliant Billy West providing his voice.
Best Episode: Season 1 Episode 1 “Space Pilot 3000”
There really is no better introduction to the quirks and personality traits of not only Fry but also the entire series than the pilot episode. It establishes him as the perennial loser offered a second chance through a freak accident when his delivery boy job takes him to a cryogenics lab and sees him frozen for 1000 years. When he awakes, he makes friends with cycloptic alien Leela and arrogant robot Bender and together they join Fry’s only living relative at his intergalactic delivery business Planet Express.
Finding himself stuck in another dead-end delivery boy job, he is…overjoyed, obviously. With this, "Space Pilot 3000" perfectly sets up the cyclical nature of Futurama’s plots: characters often find themselves in the exact same spot they began by the end of the episode but with profound changes in their circumstances or points of view. It also does a great job in aligning our perspective with Fry’s, as we try to make sense of this broad new world as this lovable idiot attempts the same. Very few pilots have delivered so much information in so little time, and Fry’s response to it all teaches us almost everything we need to know for his character going forward.
Bender is a perfect example of what may be called “Fonzie syndrome”. He’s a brash breakout character who eventually ended up usurping the lead in popularity. His hard-drinking, hard-partying demeanor and bristly attitude quickly established him as the most beloved character on the show, and his endlessly quotable quips, including informing others about shiny metal parts of his anatomy they can bite, are legendary.
He is put to work on the crew as the ship’s cook but he’s almost completely useless at it, often adding ingredients to foods that are near lethal for whoever has the misfortune of consuming them. This barely matters though - once the crew takes off on a delivery, he always plays an integral part in whatever mishaps they find themselves in, and often being the direct cause. And his sensitive side may seem almost nonexistent, but it rears its ugly head ever so occasionally - in his more vulnerable moments, he admits to dreaming of being a folk singer. Isn’t that sweet?
Best Episode: Season 1 Episode 9 “Hell is Other Robots”
There are a handful of great episodes that heavily foreground Bender. “A Flight to Remember”, “Raging Bender”, and “The Honking” all showcase his unique blend of arrogance, humor, and complete tastelessness. On top of this, his most widely celebrated outing, “Godfellas”, is a genuine candidate for the greatest episode of the series. However, no episode captures Bender in his entirety quite like his brush with addiction and meeting with the Robot Devil in “Hell is Other Robots”.
Bender, as it happens, gets hooked on abusing electricity, and “stays up all night not drinking” (he is, after all, quite literally fueled by alcohol), as Leela notes. To get clean, he joins the Temple of Robotology, but when he sins again, he finds himself face to face with the Robot Devil. The episode puts Bender through the moral ringer, which really gives us a strong indication of the kind of guy he is: he’s a strong personality, but easily tempted. He’s selfish and arrogant but loved by his friends. He’s also, thankfully, extremely funny. Oh, and the episode also happens to have a guest appearance by the Beastie Boys. Get on it right now!
Leela, to put it bluntly, kicks ass - she is a level-headed alien cyclops who is smart enough to use her words to get out of situations, but isn’t above using her astoundingly adept fists if need be. She is the starship captain for the Planet Express ship almost by default - neither Fry nor Bender are to be trusted with something so important, and she can drive stick, even if her depth perception isn’t the best.
An orphan seemingly from a faraway planet, she appears to be the last of her kind, though she’ll stop at nothing to find any evidence of her people’s fate, even at the expense of her missions and sometimes her own happiness. Her relationship with Fry eventually becomes the centerpiece of the show, as she navigates her complex emotions around their budding romance that often seems dead before it even begins. This is exacerbated by her general unluckiness in love - she often chalks it up to disgust at her unusual appearance or her “sweaty boot rash”, but she always remains confident. Her toughness and intelligence are continually a foil for the antics of the others, and when Bender and Fry find themselves in mortal peril, Leela is always there to pick up the pieces.
Best Episode: Season 2 Episode 9 “A Bicyclops Built for Two”
As the series unfolds, Leela’s mystery origins become a major emotional focal point. Her loneliness at being the last surviving alien of her kind can veer between genuine sadness, anger, and a dogged determination to find the truth. Our first real brush with how deep these feelings run is in “A Bicyclops Built for Two”, where Leela comes into contact with another one-eyed alien who insists he’s also of the same species, and subsequently proposes to her. But as Fry starts to suspect something is fishy with the situation, Leela has to confront her potential future. Watching Leela’s initial jubilation give way to concern and resentment for her husband-to-be is interesting, especially as she seriously considers staying with someone she despises in an attempt to be close to her species. It’s profoundly sad and gives an insight into a character that is rarely seen. Her dealings in this area of her life reach greater and more dramatic heights as the series progresses, but for the viewer, this is ground zero in appreciating her perspective.
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The Big Z, The Velour Fog, The Man With No Name, the General of the Democratic Order of Planets has many monikers for himself, but the universe knows him simply as Zapp Brannigan. If you can imagine the public image and appearance of Captain Kirk, the self-importance and goofiness of Kirk’s actor William Shatner, and a big heaping serve of cowardice, you’re getting warm. Initially introduced as a handsome, heroic figure that has fellow starship captain Leela drooling, he is quick to reverse that image through trademark displays of stupidity and gutlessness. Nevertheless, he always seems to fall upwards; his ongoing military leadership is rarely challenged, and he is entrusted with roles as important as, ominously enough, the captaincy of the Starship Titanic. The contrast between his honorable public persona and the sex-crazed, arrogant, idiotic self that he inadvertently shows to a select few, makes for some of the funniest moments in the entire show.
Best Episode: Season 3 Episode 1 “Amazon Women in the Mood”
One of the most iconic episodes in the entire series also happens to feature a handful of Brannigan’s finest moments, though that’s likely not a coincidence. While on a double date with Leela, Zapp commandeers the floating restaurant they’re eating at (“she’s built like a steakhouse, but handles like a bistro”) and subsequently crashes it into the planet Amazonia. The group’s interactions with the all-female Amazonian inhabitants of the planet quickly turn sour, and the men of the group are threatened with “death by snoo-snoo”.
For a sexually-driven man like the ol’ Zapper, this is a dream come true. For the others, well, the death part isn’t as palatable. Brannigan is arguably the most quotable character in Futurama and could make a very serious challenge for the TV quote crown, so an episode that features a great selection of his sharpest lines is integral to his character. Alongside a perfect depiction of both his sex obsession and his cowardice, you won’t find a better example of Zapp in the wild.
Somewhere between a well-to-do doctor, a homeless drifter, and a naughty pet is where you’ll find Zoidberg, a friendly lobster/squid-like alien who is the chief medical officer at Planet Express. Though he is touted as a leading expert in human biology, he is hopelessly inept at even the most basic anatomy - during Fry’s initial medical, he tells the “young lady” to “pick a mouth” for him to examine.
Desperate for friendship, he is often pushed away and bullied by the rest of the crew, often cruelly and undeservedly. Despite this, he remains on good terms with all of them and often puts himself in harm’s way to save anyone he deems a pal. He could also accurately be described as a walking garbage disposal, happy to eat basically anything that comes his way - live raccoons, fish bones and chess pieces have all found their way into his digestive tract at one stage or another. In short, Zoidberg is one of those friends you can always count on, but never really want to hang out with. That poor, weird little guy.
Best Episode: Season 3 Episode 19 “Roswell That Ends Well”
“Why Must I Be a Crustacean in Love?” is Zoidberg’s most prominent episode, where he goes back to his home planet to mate, which brings him into direct (but accidental) conflict with Fry. It’s not his finest hour though. That would be his appearance as the infamous autopsy alien in “Roswell That Ends Well”, where he is mistaken as an invading extraterrestrial when the Planet Express crew goes back in time to 1947 Roswell, New Mexico.
He’s not the primary focus of the episode, but with the little screen time he has, Zoidberg easily steals the show. Bouncing back manically between attempting to make friends with his captors and showing them undeserved reverence, Zoidberg’s antics aggravate and disgust the American military apparatus that studies him. It’s a very funny take on the secrecy that surrounds the Roswell incident, in that it wasn’t an alien bringing vital secrets to Earth that needed to be protected, or that the world wasn’t ready to hear of life beyond our planet - no, it’s that Zoidberg was just too goddamn annoying to keep around. This episode is essential in knowing his character, and how he would interact with the everyday 20th-century person.
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Imagine meeting your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandnephew. He’s a business owner, a successful inventor, a lecturer at Mars University, and just so happens to be over 160 years old. Well, that’s the exact situation that Fry found himself in when guided to his only living relative in the year 3000, Professor Hubert Farnsworth.
The Professor is a prolific inventor, dreaming up such disparate creations as the “What If? Machine”, doomsday devices, dark matter engines, and, in a dream, the appropriately named “Fing-Longer” (it, uh, makes your finger longer). Initially quite passive and appropriately elderly, often proclaiming that he’s “already in his pajamas” before immediately falling asleep, he becomes a little crabbier as the series progresses, which ultimately gives him plenty more to do as he acts out for himself.
Best Episode: Season 1 Episode 8 “A Big Piece of Garbage”
This is the first episode of the show that explores the Professor as anything more than just a walking geriatric punchline. His attempts at getting one over his ex-student Professor Ogden Wernstrom at the Academy of Inventors annual meeting go horribly awry when he prepares to show off an invention he unknowingly showcased last year and is subsequently made a laughingstock when he shows the hastily drawn plans for a Smell-o-scope, a machine that lets you sniff objects from astronomical distances. His invention comes in handy a little down the track once it’s built, however, when Fry smells a monstrous garbage ball headed straight for Earth.
Indeed, many of the show’s most mind-bending and innovative episodes begin with a unique Farnsworth invention or experiment. That path begins here, with some good ol’ ritual humiliation, and the Smell-o-scope.
The ruler of Omicron Persei 8 may only appear in a small handful of episodes, but Lrrr quickly became a fan favorite with his aggressive behavior and outlandish demands. The caped monster often threatens the security of Earth, but we get to see a surprising range of emotion and vulnerability from him, whether he is denying to his wife Ndnd that he needs a “human horn” (a, uh, marital aid made from powdered human noses used by Omicronians), accidentally saying into a hot mic “when you know you can’t scratch, that’s when you really have to” after a terrifying transmission of apocalyptic doom, or getting publicly stoned after eating a hippie.
He appears fiercely protective of his planet and people, and when provoked, he will go to extreme lengths to defend them or take revenge. Ultimately, he’s just a guy trying to get through his day, and we see that side of him often. The only difference is that his day may involve the destruction of planets.
Best Episode: Season 2 Episode 15 “The Problem With Popplers”
Lrrr’s second appearance on the show is his most memorable, with his seemingly endless bloodlust finding itself focused on Leela, a fast-food restaurant chain, an animal rights group, and, well, pretty much anyone else on planet Earth he can get his hands on. When the Planet Express gang comes across a planet packed with delicious edible delicacies akin to popcorn shrimp, Leela insists on bringing plenty back to Earth to sell, which catches the attention of the Fishy Joe’s franchise, who begin to mass market them as “popplers”.
Eventually, it becomes known that popplers are the infant children of the Omicronians, who threaten humanity with destruction through their leader, Lrrr. In his previous appearance, “When Aliens Attack”, Lrrr led the charge of an incensed planet that had lost its TV signal, but it’s here that he really comes into his own. The added emotional stakes of protecting his children only increase the morbid hilarity of his wanton destruction, and contrasting this with his greened-out hallucinations when “that hippie is starting to kick in” is arguably his funniest moment. On a practical level, he also finds his more iconic gravelly voice, missing from the earlier episode, which is used to great effect for the rest of the series.
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Futurama’s on-again, off-again archvillain is a perfect foil to the Planet Express crew, in that she presents a fake homely persona to the public, and our heroes are unfailingly genuine. Mom may come across as a bit of a Mr. Burns knock-off from The Simpsons, but her dual personality and her antagonistic relationship with her Three Stooges-esque sons are enough to set her apart from the pack.
A bureaucrat, accountant, and former Olympic limbo champion, Hermes is a painfully “by-the-books” kinda guy who will happily see others inconvenienced to see Planet Express’ bottom line improve. His uptight occupation contrasts hilariously with his laidback Jamaican disposition, and though he’s probably not in the top tier of Futurama characters, he has proven he can carry an episode (“How Hermes Requisitioned His Groove Back”).
As a popular newscaster who also happens to be a murderous alien biding his time before the enslavement of the human race, Morbo is an unashamedly one-note character. But it’s one hell of a note, and you could listen to him play it all night.
Because everybody loves Hypnotoad. ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD.
This is simply a welcome to the world of tomorrow - countless classic episodes haven’t been mentioned in this guide, so once you’ve wrapped your head around each of the characters laid out here, go for a deep dive. The Planet Express crew has made 140 deliveries and counting, and you’ll wring plenty of laughs out of each one, so have fun!
Daniel Pollock is a freelance feature writer for Collider. He also works in film and television when a producer takes sufficient pity on him. He likes to think of himself as a man of letters - mostly of the angry, "to the editor" variety.
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