"The Simpsons" opened its landmark 25th anniversary season with a oddly fascinating sequence by animator Don Hertzfeldt that envisioned the show in the Year 10,535, complete with crudely drawn, mutated versions of Springfield’s first family channeled directly into viewers’ brains.
The bit marked an appropriately self-mocking self-tribute celebrating the longevity of a show that’s permeated the popular consciousness. Imagining what’s next comes naturally to "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, whose "Futurama" ended last fall after a 14-year on-and-off run, light years short of its 31st century setting.
"The Simpsons" meets "Futurama" Sunday in a crossover episode, which is usually a sign of program running out of ideas. But in this case, the melding offers a prime time victory lap for "Futurama" – and gives fans of both shows a comedy combo that’s as overdue as a delivery from Planet Express.
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The programs share DNA that goes beyond Groening’s comic sensibility and animation style. "The Simpsons" is essentially a cult show that infiltrated the mainstream, while "Futurama" struggled to breakout beyond the Comic Book Guy set.
Both target pop culture and rely on celebrity cameos – albeit in preserved head form on "Futurama," which welcomed the noggins of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei, among others. The "Star Trek" kinship is telling, not just in the homage to the sci-fi show that set the standard for U.S. TV explorations into the future, but in the shared resilience of franchises with initially modest, but devoted fan bases.
"Futurama," the tale of loser 20th century pizza deliverer Fry whose deep freeze lands in him 31st century "New" New York, ran on Fox from 1999 to 2003, never approaching "Simpsons"-level audiences. The show’s popularity grew during Cartoon Network reruns, eventually prompting new episodes on Comedy Central from 2008 to 2013.
Sunday’s Springfield-meets-"New"-New-York episode arrives with hopes for a successful TV team-up not seen, since, well, September’s largely satisfying "Simpson"-"Family Guy" crossover. Just imagine the possible pairings of similar characters divided, until now, by time and space: Bart and Bender. Fry and Homer. Marge and Leela. Lisa and Amy. Mayor Quimby and the head of Richard Nixon.
The special also offers a coda to last year’s unexpectedly sweet ending to "Futurama," in which we saw Fry and Leela grow old together, a luxury the show didn’t have. "Futurama" likely won’t be joining "The Simpsons" on TV in the Year 10,535, so we’ll take whatever 21st century action we can get Sunday.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.