Futurama, which returns this week on Hulu after a ten-year hiatus and multiple cancellations, has always used food to both illustrate and skewer the perils of late capitalism. In the show’s bleak version of the future, the restaurants suck, produce is scarce, and most folks are content to eat pre-packaged industrial fare. Fry, a former pizza delivery guy and unabashed fan of fast food, frequently eats something called Bachelor Chow, a brown slop that looks a whole lot like present-day dog food and boasts that its new, improved version “now has flavor.”
In this reality, Soylent isn’t a bunch of protein shakes in sleek bottles, it’s the real stuff from Soylent Green, made out of human bodies, and so unremarkable as a food that it’s regularly referenced in jokes. It even makes an appearance as the special ingredient in an Iron Chef-esque show that Bender wins in Season 3. In ways both subtle and not, Futurama is always willing to gross us out in pursuit of exploring what eating in the future might be like.
That’s especially true when it comes to Slurm, the real center of Futurama’s culinary universe. A highly addictive, toxic-green libation that’s wildly popular on Earth, the drink is Fry’s favorite beverage. At the end of Season 1, we learn the dark truth to the brand’s proprietary recipe when Fry, Leela, and the rest of the gang travel to planet Wormulon to visit the Slurm factory. After riding down a river of Slurm, Fry stumbles upon a creepy underground factory rife with labor violations, and discovers the Wormulon Queen’s anal secretions are the much-protected secret ingredient. But Fry is so hooked on the stuff that he keeps that to himself, just so he can keep sipping Slurm.
Slurm has served as a vehicle for all sorts of gags in Futurama, including Slurm Loco, an obvious nod to Four Loko, which is even more addictive than its predecessor. In Season 11, it gets a revamp as Slurm Zero, and is touted in an advertisement by a slug with a death rattle who says that it has “none of the flavor, all of the addiction!” of the original. An obvious parallel to Diet Coke, it functions as both a critique of our cultural obsession with caffeine, and the refusal to acknowledge the things we eat and drink are often produced in the industrial food machine.
Slurm takes our enthusiasm for coffee, soda, and fast-food — all industries where labor violations and environmental concerns loom large — to its most extreme. Sure, we don’t rely on a weird worm queen’s anal secretions for coffee, but we also don’t always think about the forced labor and pollution that’s frequently involved in producing our daily cup of joe. And when you consider that coffee beans (and sugar, for that matter) are heavily threatened by climate change, it’s not too ridiculous to think that we might be drinking some synthesized substance like Slurm, one that’s also “highly addictive” for the sake of continued productivity in the late capitalist hellscape, in the near future. Essentially, with Slurm, Futurama asks: What will humans consume when our vices are extinct?
Fast food gets the same deeply nihilist treatment. It’s clear that Futurama’s writers view the current drive-thru landscape as a cautionary tale, one that hints at the actual garbage we might soon be eating in the future. Many of the restaurant chains that appear in Futurama are obvious parodies of those we eat at now — there’s Starbabe’s Cocoffee, and T.G.I. Folky’s, for example — and none of them seem especially appealing. A thousand years into the future, these chains have given up on their sustainability efforts and “healthier” eats and are just serving up subsistence fare. Even the universe’s lone fine-dining spot, Elzar’s, which once made broth out of humans during an economic downturn, seems pretty bleak.
In the new season, as Futurama tackles Bitcoin and binge-watching, there are also still plenty of jokes that maintain its grand tradition of using food to poke fun at capitalism. In an early episode, when Professor Farnsworth heats up a can of Fiber Log for lunch no one bats an eye at its wet, straw-like appearance. For Fry and the rest of the folks in the Futurama orbit, eating is pretty much never a source of pleasure, even when the characters set out to enjoy a meal. And considering that we may soon be eating bugs and algae in real life ourselves, we may not even have to wait until 2999 for an authentic Futurama dining experience.