Futurama’s bitcoin episode is all hat and no cattle

I wish Futurama’s bitcoin mining episode was smarter. 

As someone who watched Futurama’s debut episode when it premiered — and has remained a big fan and frequent reciter of quotes throughout the animated series’ various iterations — I was skeptical about Hulu’s latest revamp. I was even more skeptical about its promised bitcoin mining satire.

And my cynicism turned out to be right on the money.

Futurama’s crypto angle was nothing more than a series of winks rather than something smartly engaged. The “wild west” conceit is a bit played out. A bit 2015, if memory serves. 

The show’s uneven final (until now) seasons had ended on a pretty satisfying if not sentimental note. Its first five seasons remain a masterclass in sci-fi satire and remain endlessly rewatchable. This all means that if Futurama wanted to satirize bitcoin, it had certainly proved it was capable of being funny/smart about weird tech fads. 

But despite a promising start, Futurama’s foray into bitcoin mining loses power as the story progresses. 

First, some spoiler-y scene-setting. The episode opens with Professor Farnsworth complaining about how he’d lost all his money investing in bitcoin. To be specific: He bought high and sold low. 

As the professor laments the mob money he borrowed to buy bitcoin, a news broadcast reveals that the price of bitcoin is on the upswing and is driving miners out “west” in search of cheap power. The professor then proposes mining the element thallium — in the year 3023, thallium is used in bitcoin mining chips — and selling it to the “rubes” chasing digital gold. A classic sell-the-shovels gold-rush tale. 

Premise in hand, the episode proceeds through what is largely a send-up Western movie with a smattering of crypto jokes sprinkled throughout. The boomtown is called Doge City. A thallium broker gets mad when a bitcoin miner produces an “Ethereum” instead of a bitcoin. Most of the goods in town are priced in “micro-bitcoin.” A third-act twist reveals that robot heads, rather than servers, are mining bitcoin.

My two cents: I chuckled here and there. The Ethereum jab was easily the funniest bit. But this isn’t the smart Futurama of old. 

Perhaps in the chase for the gimmick, the writers missed the detail that bitcoin mining is scheduled to end in the mid-2100s when the last of the block subsidies run dry. Okay, yeah, maybe in the centuries beforehand, bitcoin’s developers decided to upend the scarcity economics and institute a permanent block subsidy. 

Read more from our opinion section: If you’re in crypto, you’re an Allan

Beyond the technical inaccuracies, I found myself questioning why cryptocurrency is even a worthy subject for Futurama. 

Sure, there’s likely a desire among Futurama’s producers to be topical. Survey data suggests that Hulu’s audience skews younger, a whole gaggle of adults who are probably more plugged in than most to the crypto world’s goings-on and would appreciate the dogecoin references. But is Bitcoin even “sci-fi” anymore? Maybe 10 years ago it was. 

I thought comedian Tim Heidecker’s crypto satire was more spot on. It skewered the subject itself as well as the narrative that surrounds it. If you’re going to make fun of Bitcoin, Tim did it right. Futurama? Not so much.

Maybe I’m still stuck on the mining timeline thing. Sure, I’m probably one in 10,000 viewers who would spot the flaw. But it stuck out to me, especially given the famed intellectual prowess of Futurama’s writers’ room. Call me disappointed.

On the flip side, does Futurama’s inclusion of Bitcoin/crypto give the subject a bit of a mainstream moment? Perhaps, but if you’re looking for crypto jokes that will make you both laugh and think, look elsewhere. 

I think this episode will be lost in the shuffle of the endless stream of Content — just like the rest of the thus-far disappointing Futurama reboot. 

Michael McSweeney has worked in crypto media since 2014, including editorships at CoinDesk and Blockworks. In his spare time, he writes fiction and plays disc golf. Contact Michael at [email protected]

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