One of my favorite shows growing up was M*A*S*H. In fact I probably spent way too much time watching it. Among the various channels, I could watch it for as many as 3 yours of repeats on a given weekday afternoon. Nowadays I barely have time to keep up with the first runs of two sitcom series, but I still occasionally catch an episode of M*A*S*H on one of the cable networks. I can safely say two things about it.
1. The dialog, slapstick and pathos elements all stand up to the passage of time.
2. I sure wasn't getting all the jokes when I first saw those episodes.
It can be fascinating to watch something that we enjoyed as a kid, and realize that there was a level to it that we were oblivious to the first time around. Of course, that's the extreme case. There seems to be a continuum on which we knew that the innuendo was there, knew we weren't getting all the details, but still found it funny.
Which brings me to Futurama. For the first time in decades, there is finally a show where I can safely say that there are parts that I don't get. Most of them center around the Professor's blackboard. Frequently, there are mathematical references that are well outside my area of expertise. Am I insulted or put out by the fact that there are levels to the show that go over my? Of course not.
Are you listening you nameless-faceless-TV-producers? Whichever film-school professor taught you the old trope that every line of dialog and every frame needs to be accessible to even the most, um, challenged of your audience was just plain wrong. We all grew up watching and reading and listening to content that was to some degree over our heads. With that background, we understand that if a joke goes right past us, it's due to our own ignorance. Maybe we'll come back a few years (or textbooks) later to find the jokes even funnier. Don't get me wrong. You can go too far. If every joke goes over our heads, we'll get bored, but that's a very different from what appears to be the standard model of a viewer who angrily turns off the TV because there were two abstruse jokes in a one minute span.
Let's get back to Futurama. The latest episode (That I watched: Prisoner of Brenda) featured a brain swapping machine with some troublesome implications. First, there was the truly disturbing image of Bender's mind riding in Amy's bikini-clad body while he smoked a cigar, danced, and sang "Bow-Chicka-wow-wow!" in his own gravelly voice. There were further sexual developments that others found even more disturbing (think barnacle burns), but for me, this was the first point in the plot where my brain said "Stop looking. I said STOP LOOKING!"
The second problem with the mind swapper was that the swaps were irreversible. You could still get back to your own head, but it had to be through a third person. This immediately struck me as a great puzzler. The puzzle got more complex as the plot progressed and more minds got shuffled around. I was tempted to pause the program and break out the pencil and paper, but I'd been in the lab since 1am, and was trying to get my brain settled down for a well deserved sleep. Or to put it another way, I was lazy.
Obviously, by the end, everyone was back in their own bodies, thanks to a theorem scrawled on the professor's blackboard. That's right I said a theorem, not a solution. A solution is what I would have found had I broken out the pencil and started writing names and drawing arrows. What Futurama writer Ken Keeler had come up with was a mathematical proof that ANY scrambling of minds, no mater how convoluted or depraved, could be unscrambled with no more than just two extra brains. To put it simply, what we saw was a real, previously undiscovered, honest-to-goodness, mathematical proof elucidated by a bunch of fictional humans, mutants, robots, lobster-men and a sextanmillenial on a prime-time sitcom. Awesome.
Can I follow the the theorem? Nope. I don't know group theory notation or terminology, so I'm stuck at the first given. That's probably part of the reason why writer Ken Keeler's Erdös number is a third less than mine. Does that bother me? Does that make me jealous? Well, a little, but like any normal person, I know that it is my own limitations that are at fault. Rather than turning me off of the show, it makes me want to watch it more in case there are a few pointers for me. And I can still feel a bit smug that I at least know that I need to start learning group theory if I want to REALLY get the joke. You can find the theorem a couple places in my references, along with some related articles.
Here's the lesson I want the content producers to take from this: The fact that there were parts of this story that were over my head did nothing to detract from it for me. It actually added something. I'm not saying that you need to create a theorem, or get a communication out of every episode. Just give us consumers a little credit. In fact, don't be afraid to even go over you're own heads sometimes.