“Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch” (season 4, episode 1; originally aired 1/12/2003)
In which Kif gets, well, read the damn title…
This episode marks the third (I think?) use of Kif and Amy’s relationship as a story engine, and, unlike the last time (“Where The Buggalo Roam”), this one turns out pretty good. At the very least, it makes an effort to deal with Kif and Amy in a way that’s unexpected, surprisingly heartwarming, and more than a little disgusting. But it’s hampered by a structural choice which, while allowing for a big surprise in the final act, takes focus away from the one character who has anything resembling an arc in the story.
Besides, it’s hard to get too invested in Kif and Amy’s ups and downs, for reasons which I struggle to articulate. I like both characters just fine, but neither of them are compelling enough on their own to serve as the focus of an episode. Kif’s nebbish routine doesn’t allow for a lot of complexity, and arguably the only truly interesting relationship he has on the show is his contentious pairing with Zapp Brannigan. That’s a pairing that’s been largely exhausted by now, and without him, Kif is stuck stammering around Amy and occasionally acting heroic.
Still, despite his name taking prominence in the title, this one isn’t really about Kif. He gets pregnant, he endures it, and he survives, and all of that’s great, but the real source of drama comes from Amy, and her struggles to cope with a relationship that seems to demand more responsibility from her than she’s willing to give.
Amy hasn’t really had solo outings in the way that Fry, Leela, Bender, Farnsworth, Zoidberg, or even Hermes have. She’s a member of the main ensemble, but while we know about her, there’s nothing that really defines her. Bender has his obsessions and greed, Fry is the hapless time traveller, Leela is the competent orphan, and so on. Amy is just the cute co-ed who’s also a klutz. That’s fine in and of itself, but it’s a starting point the writers have never managed to get beyond. Everyone else at Planet Express is a loser. Amy is a rich girl whose only apparent flaw is that she trips a bit. That’s not much to go on.
“Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch” (a terrible title, by the way) tries to get around this by showing Amy at a moment of crisis which, at its most basic level, is relatable to most people: that moment when a casual romance starts to turn serious, and you aren’t sure if you can handle the shift. The episode opens with Amy hijacking the Planet Express ship to go see Kif (an act which has apparently no repercussions), before finding out he wants her to move in with him in his tiny ship apartment. This would be bad enough, but after a disaster involving the holo-shed and a hole in the ship’s hull, Kif finds out he’s pregnant. Amy isn’t just a girlfriend anymore—she’s an expectant mother.
Which is certainly unexpected, and a little bit gross. (But in a good way.) The episode plays with standard sitcom conventions by having the male in the relationship be both the one intent on settling down and the one who is actually pregnant, while the female is the one getting all nervous and edgy about commitment. (It’s like if Ted got pregnant while he was with Robin on How I Met Your Mother.) We finally get to see Amy experiencing a complicated, and even potentially unlikable emotion, and it comes so damn close to making her interesting. She’s in a challenging spot, and the demands Kif places on her aren’t exactly reasonable, despite his best efforts to be accommodating; her doubts are easy to understand, but her decision to abandon Kif when he needs her the most is selfish, and that’s a good thing. Seeing nice characters act selfish sometimes is necessary—it gives them room to grow, and makes them more than just bland ciphers.
So it’s frustrating when Amy disappears for a chunk of the episode before returning during a moment of great crisis to be by Kif’s side during the delivery and save the day. It’s a fun reveal, no question, and seeing Amy soar in on her party board in time to kick ass is one of the show’s rare, no-irony-or-cynicism action set-pieces; while the jokes don’t stop, Kif and his efforts to give birth (along with the tadpole-like babies themselves) are treated with love and respect. We’re supposed to cheer when Amy comes back, and we’re supposed to be happy when the two of them are together at the end. And I pretty much was.
But I was disappointed that we didn’t see Amy actually make the decision to commit to Kif. This sounds like an odd reason to be disappointed, especially for a decent episode like this one, but it makes the good feelings of those final moments more manipulative, if still effective. We see Amy when she’s running away from the responsibility, and we see her after she’s decided to step up (a decision which will have no repercussions for her, given the nature of Kif’s offspring; the episode’s biggest logic problem is the idea that Kif wouldn’t have actually ever told her how child-rearing worked in his species), but we don’t see any real reason for her choosing one way or the other. This is somewhat justified by the surprise factor, but it means giving up on one of the first major efforts the show has made in giving Amy something to do. She’s no longer a character by the end, she’s just a plot point.
There’s also the fact that the actual parent of Kif’s babies is Leela, not Amy, which doesn’t end up having much to do with anything, beyond being a way to kill a few minutes of screentime that could’ve been used on Amy. This show doesn’t need to be an accurate and insightful portrayal of the struggles of juggling romance and independence for the modern (future modern?) woman. But the clear inability of the writers to make much of Amy means it’s frustrating when the spotlight turns on her. “Kif Gets Knocked Up A Notch” is so close to being special that it’s hard not to be even more bothered by its flaws.
- Opening caption: “BIGFOOT’S CHOICE”
- Any appearance of the Angry Dome makes me happy. And a little sad, that I, myself, will never have such a thing.
- Kif’s desperation to please Amy is a little unsettling, if sweet.
- Holodeck jokes! Oh, that scratched an itch. The holodeck was one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s goofier ideas, albeit one that was memorable enough that you couldn’t blame the show for reusing it. Having it pop up here only to almost immediately malfunction (which includes releasing EVIL LINCOLN) is a great gag.
- Kif programmed Amy’s dream horse in to the Holo-Shed himself. “Four million lines of BASIC.”
- There is one cute gag in regards to Leela and Kif’s babies: one of the tadpoles has a single eye instead of two.
“Leela’s Homeworld” (season 4, episode 2; originally aired 2/17/2002)
In which Leela learns the truth…
One of my favorite lines from fiction is in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. The hero, still just a boy, has received some awful news, and he’s sitting alone on a country road, lonely and miserable and sobbing his eyes out. The omniscient narrator remarks that someone could have come along and comforted him, told him things would get better (this being a Hardy novel, that last bit would’ve been a lie), and helped him dry his eyes. “But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.”
Brutal, right? I still remember reading that for the first time, and the actual physical shock I felt from the words. It was like somebody had reached out and slapped me, and that feeling has stayed in the back of my mind ever since. I think it’s one of those harsh truths that you can’t hold onto for too long at a time, because it refutes everything we want to believe about life—that we’re special, that we’re loved, that we too can be saved. But I also think that one of the reasons we tell stories is to help us cope with truths like this; to create the illusion of connection where the hard fact of it might not exist, and to remind us that complete despair is, more often than not, just as much a lie as hope can be.
Very heavy opening to a review, sure, and “Leela’s Homeworld” isn’t a heavy episode. (We’ll be getting the heavy episode soon enough.) But it is one that ends on such a perfect note of wistful, melancholic loveliness that I found myself thinking of that Hardy line again, and thinking what the line implies. If it’s a horror that nobody comes to comfort us, the obverse is the dream that maybe we’ll be wrong this time, and maybe in the midst of the bright uncaring universe, we might find someone has been there all along, guiding us from the shadows, and giving us cookies when we’re not looking. Two someones, actually. One of them with tentacles for arms.
Ultimately, “Leela’s Homeworld” is about Leela meeting her real parents: not the distant aliens she’d always assumed, but a pair of married sewer mutants who wanted their daughter to have something of a normal, non-sewer based life. The entire episode serves as a delivery system for its final scene, the reveal that the show has kept on the back-burner for a surprisingly long amount of time. Futurama isn’t really a show about mysteries. There are really only two big ones: what the deal with Fry is (which will be answered “The Why Of Fry,” more or less), and Leela’s origins. But when it comes to those two mysteries, the writers have played admirably fair. They claim to have known the answer from the start, and given how things played out, there’s no reason to doubt them.
More importantly, the writers have done a fine job of making Leela’s questions about her identity a central part of who she is without making the answer to that question all that important. It is possible to imagine a version of this show in which we never found out exactly where Leela came from, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. This is a smart move: It creates an uncertainty that doesn’t hang over the character so much as it drives her forward, and it means that we’re less interested in the resolution than we are in seeing how Leela deals with it. This helps to circumvent disappointment. The resolution of a mystery is nearly always a deflating experience, because possibility is always going to be more thrilling than fact, and that’s especially true of a mystery that’s been simmering in the background for years. Better to make that resolution compelling for reasons beyond just getting answers.
The episode succeeds in this, thanks in no small part to one of its best closing montages. It’s been so many years since I first started watching Futurama that I honestly can’t remember how I reacted when I first learned the truth. I might’ve been let down. After all, Leela’s mom and dad being mutants doesn’t open up a world of intrigue and mystery or anything even close. We already know about the mutants, and we already know they’ve been banished below the surface, and they live messy but apparently not entirely horrible lives. Discovering that Leela is just the least mutated mutant doesn’t give her special powers, or some kind of destiny or heritage. It just means there were two people who loved her enough to give her up forever.
I hope I liked this the first time I saw it. I definitely like it now. And from a narrative standpoint, it’s a basic but essential irony. Leela thinks her parents are out somewhere among the stars, lost in a seemingly endless universe, but there they are, right underneath her feet, doing what little they can to make her life better. That may not be a shocking twist, but it subverts expectations enough to be interesting—and it only really needs to be a little interesting in order to make the emotional angle land.
Finding Leela’s parents is less about plot than it is about character. The story is no great shakes. There’s a reminder about Leela’s time at the orphanarium, then Bender’s lazy efforts at toxic waste disposal end with him, Fry, and Leela getting pulled down below the surface and threatened with a dip in a mutating pond. The pond (which turned mutating after Bender’s toxic waste landed in it) only mutates non-mutants, which turns out to be an important bit of foreshadowing later on. Leela gets increasingly frustrated by the mysterious strangers in the sewers who keep helping her, and Fry searches for the truth. He finds it just in time stop Leela from killing Mom and Dad.
That, right there, is a key moment. Not Fry saving the day (although it’s always nice to see him have being competent), but the fact that Mom and Dad are willing to die without letting the truth out. It’s a self-sacrifice that’s heartbreaking even before the montage kicks in, and it says something about parents, and about all this time Leela thought she was alone in the world, there were two people who were willing to give everything they had to give her a chance at happiness.
The thing about “Leela’s Homeworld” is that the first 20 minutes of it really exist to make the last three possible. That’s a risky move to make. There are enough good gags to make it worth watching until the end (I’m a big fan of Farnsworth’s machine that makes glow-in-the-dark noses), but it’s not really a classic until the reveal. If that reveal hadn’t been so affecting, if it hadn’t worked perfectly, the episode would’ve remained forgettable, or worse. The writers had done a good enough job establishing the mystery around Leela without overselling it, but a botched execution would’ve still been a letdown.
It works, though. From the song (“Baby Love Child,” by Pizzicato Five; it’s startlingly different from the show’s usual score, and all the more powerful for that) to the simple, direct sentiment, it works like crazy. Something as nakedly emotional as this could’ve so easily been disastrous; too sweet, too sappy, too openly manipulative. But given the kind of show this is, and given the situation, the sequence feels earned. Leela’s gone through her fair share of misery over the years, and to see her get what she wanted so desperately is richly rewarding. And it speaks to something universal: the need of the lost to dream that they might have already been found.
- Opening caption: “It’s like Hee Haw with lasers.”
- “You know, it’s not easy being an orphan. Not if I have anything to do with it!”—the head of Leela’s orphanarium
- Bender’s waste disposal business really takes off. At one point, he disposes of the whale corpse from Free Willy 3. (Which is odd, considering that Free Willy 3 came out in 1997. Maybe I misheard?)
- This is another beautifully directed episode. While Leela doesn’t find the truth out till the end, the audience learns it at the end of the first act, and it’s a great reveal: Leela, talking to Fry about she looks up into the stars and wonders where her parents are; and we pan down to see Mom and Dad watching through a sewer grate.
- When escaping from the sewer mutants, Leela finds a room full of her old things. “It’s all the best stuff I ever flushed down the toilet!”
- The sewer mutants send Fry, Bender, and Leela back to the surface in an airship made of pieces of old Macy’s parade floats. Another partial cameo from Bart Simpson.
- Here’s that song:
Next week: Sigourney Weaver guest stars in “Love And Rocket,” and the gang gets super powers in “Less Than Hero.”