Animation geeks and design buffs shouldn't miss Thursday's sixth-season finale of "Futurama" (Comedy Central, 10 p.m./9 central). Titled "Reincarnation," it's an anthology episode that re-imagines the series in three radically different modes: 1930s black-and-white animation, early, early arcade videogames, and anime from the '70s and '80s. This modest but brilliant show from David X. Cohen and Matt Groening has always been as pop culture history-conscious as Groening's better-known "The Simpsons," but this episode takes that obsession to a new level. Packed with Easter egg-style visual gags, it's an orgy of nostalgia and visual invention, so densely imagined that it demands repeat viewings.
The first installment, "Colorama," is ostensibly about dimwit Fry's attempt to pulverize a comet made of a precious material called Dimonium so that he can use a tiny piece of it to make an engagement ring for his beloved Leela. But the segment is really a tribute to early theatrical shorts -- the kind that were scored with wall-to-wall perky swing music and had all the characters bouncing in time to the rhythm. Fry, Leela, Bender, Zoidberg, Farnsworth, Hermes and all the other characters never stop dancing, even when their lives are at stake. Sometimes the rest of the universe joins them. In a panoramic shot of Leela and Fry standing on a balcony over looking New New York, the whole cityscape bobs merrily along with the characters. Even the sun is dancing.
The segment is a motherlode of design jokes aimed at animation buffs. Bender is wearing diaper-like Steamboat Willie pants with two huge buttons. When Fry's love for Leela swells, his heart beats through his shirt front, shooting out across the room like a yo-yo. Anthropomorphism runs rampant. When Fry announces his intention to put a ring on Leela's finger, the episode cuts to a closeup of Leela's hand, and we see that each one of her fingers has a tiny female face on it. ("You'll make me the happiest finger in the whole wide hand!" the ring finger exclaims.) The company starship has saucy lips and thick eyelashes; when it passes the moon, the moon wolf-whistles at it. (For some inexplicable reason, the moon has buttocks. Oh, right.) When Fry skips across the comet in a spacesuit, the shot tracks from right to left, the better to showcase the comet's elaborate surface, which looks like a real-world miniature rather than a drawn backdrop. This is might be the geekiest reference in the entire half-hour -- a tribute to the 3D perspective experiments of Max and Dave Fleischer, who integrated cel-drawn characters with miniature backdrops built on soundstages. (See the 2:40 mark in this clip for an example.)
The second segment, "Future Challenge 3000," is a spoof of Reagan-era arcade games. (The opening title card specifies 1982.) The plot finds Dr. Hugo Farnsworth inventing a special magnifying lens that can see even the smallest matter, then falling into a funk when he becomes convinced that there are no more mysteries left to uncover; but as in the first segment, it's really all about the look and feel. The primordial ancestors of Playstation and Wii get visual shout-outs here: Space Invaders, Tempest, Dig-Dug, Gauntlet, Galaxian. The design is suitably crude, with shaggy rectangular pixels and the sub-Cubist perspective you see in drawings by very young kids; the characters are often seen from a lateral point-of-view even when we're looking down on rooms from high above. "Such detail!" Farnsworth cries, looking at matter under the greatest possible magnification. "Such finely-wrought, intricate beauty!" What's onscreen is a single white pixel with no more detail than a Tic-Tac. The severed, preserved head of Stephen Hawking makes a cameo, with Hawking himself providing the voice. "I like physics," he says, "but I love cartoons."
The last segment, "Action Delivery Force," is the craziest. Picking up on the plot of the first segment, and building it out with a story of gelatinous creatures seeking revenge against the earth for destroying their comet god, it's an homage to a very specific type of viewing experience. What's being spoofed here isn't Japanese animation per se, but the experience of watching cut-up and horribly dubbed Japanese animation in English-speaking countries during the '70s and '80s. ("Battle of the Planets" and "Voltron" are pointedly evoked, to the point of filching their theme music.) The invading space creatures communicate by dancing and zip around the universe in vehicles shaped like peeled bananas. Surreal title cards abound (an 18th century Japanese pavilion is identified as "Central Park"), as do unmotivated guffaws and mangled English. "Zoidberg, a diplomat?" Fry exclaims. "The list of things I've heard now contains everything!"
Set your DVRs now.