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UNLESS THE HUMOR IMPROVES, THERE'S NOT MUCH FUTURE FOR 'FUTURAMA'

UNLESS THE HUMOR IMPROVES, THERE'S NOT MUCH FUTURE FOR 'FUTURAMA'

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Matt Groening's "Futurama" pins its hope on a pizza delivery boy who skips a millennium in search of a better job -- and discovers in the year 3000 that he is still best suited to be a delivery boy.

He's not the only one who is disappointed. Viewers might be as well, because the creator of "The Simpsons" doesn't deliver much humor in the "Futurama" pilot (8:30 p.m. Sunday, Channel 29).

"Futurama" is colorful only in its look. The spacey setup ends up with delivery boy Fry (voiced by Billy West), his robotic friend Bender (voiced by John DiMaggio) and a one-eyed alien with attitude, Leela (voiced by Katey Sagal of "Married . . . With Children"), working for an intergalactic delivery service owned by Fry's very distant relative, Professor Farnsworth.

The pilot spends too much time introducing recurring gimmicks like having heads in jars and people lining up to get into a suicide booth, and not enough using the kind of clever dialogue and sight gags that we've been spoiled with weekly on "The Simpsons."

Essentially, Fry, Bender and Leela are outcasts in the year 3000, looking for a brighter future in a colorful millennium.

Fry accidentally found himself skipping a millennium, Leela was left on Earth by her alien parents, and Bender is a suicidal robot frustrated by his inability to do anything but what he has been specifically designed to do.

The heads of important people are preserved in jars -- with Leonard Nimoy, President Nixon, Dick Clark, Barbra Streisand and Groening himself all lined up on separate shelves for U.S. presidents, criminals and celebrities.

Like much of "Futurama," the gimmicks sound funnier than they are. And the disappointment is heightened because Groening's explanation of the show in January was much funnier than it has turned out to be.

That said, "Futurama" is what is referred to as a "premise" pilot, which means it spends so much time establishing its premise that it may not reflect -- or be as good as -- future episodes. It airs again next Sunday before moving to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on April 6.

In Los Angeles, Groening was asked what his visions of the future were when he was a kid.

"Well, I did anticipate the Y2K problem as a kid," cracked Groening. "And I'm surprised that nobody else did. . . . Our show takes place in the year 3000 and it's amazing -- there's a Y3K problem.

"As far as growing up, my older brother had a pile of science fiction magazines and books, and I loved those covers. I just thought it would be really cool, as a kid, if those covers could come to life. And in part, 'Futurama' is based on that early impulse."

He said he loved the look of the future developed in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, but things got grim in the 1970s and dark and drippy in the 1980s.

"Pipes were always dripping in 'Blade Runner.' And we decided what we wanted to do was a kind of 'Jetsons' universe with dripping pipes, basically."

Bender drips sarcasm.

"The idea behind Bender the Robot is that he shoplifts, he drinks, he smokes, he's very corrupt, and I thought this way parents can't accuse me of providing a bad role model," said Groening, who was accused of just that with Bart Simpson. "Bender's a robot."

He's a robot with suicidal tendencies, which isn't exactly safe territory for a program that is looking to appeal to teen audiences. That's where Groening could be in trouble this time.

Groening's idea of a perfect world is to keep the show running on Sundays after "The Simpsons," but he knows you can't always get what you want.

"In science fiction, there's always some sort of wish fulfillment and fantasy, but then you put in the stuff that you think is really going to happen," said Groening. "For instance, in the future, one of the great things is, there's going to be 5,000 networks, but UPN will still be in last place."

Groening acknowledges that the same petty concerns we face today are at the foundation of "Futurama."

"That's pretty fair," he said. "There are a lot of things that are different about the future and there are a lot of things that are the same. The NRA is still around, but they're now crusading for the right to bear death rays."

Transportation is easier, of course. People get around "New New York City" by pneumatic tube.

"I don't know exactly how the technology works," said Groening. "It's very fast but you end up often hitting a brick wall when you come out at the other end."

Fry learns that on Sunday.

Groening does know how television works because of "The Simpsons," and he realizes that he has a tough act to follow and he can't always please his critics.

"Well, 'The Simpsons' is still on in the year 3000," said Groening. "But the fans on the Internet are complaining that the last 500 years aren't as good as the first 500 years."

The fans on the Internet probably won't be kind to "Futurama," either.

If things don't improve quickly in the future, Groening will learn what happens when a highly anticipated series hits a ratings brick wall.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 5.

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