This we know: when the new kid arrives, the show jumps the shark. So what do we make of a television series that’s all – and only – about the kid’s arrival? Premiering April 12, the new ABC comedy Notes from the Underbelly, based on a comic novel of the same name, is perhaps the first series to elevate pregnancy from soapy plot point to entire premise. Notes features L.A. couple Andrew (Peter Cambor) and Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt, presumably having kissed her last Jessica Stein), who worry that their lifestyles will have to change if Lauren gets pregnant – only to find that once she does, they worry that their lifestyles will have to change.
Call it thirtysomething weeks – and call it a sign of the times. It’s not just that pregnancy, once regarded as unsettling evidence of lady parts at work, has, on TV and elsewhere, come out from under the muumuu. (Remember: Lucille Ball, when visibly bulging with Little Ricky, was not allowed to use the word “pregnant” on her show. She had to say “expecting.”) What with all today’s talk – and books, and curmudgeonly newspaper columns, and “trend pieces” – about chic, narcissistic yuppie parents, their getting their “own” TV show was as inevitable as a daycare ear infection.
Now, inevitable doesn’t mean 100% bad. First, unless the show lasts much longer than anyone might expect, it will be one of the rare sitcoms featuring children before they’re old enough to be impish. Second, there are funny bonus moments – the kid at the schmancy school where Lauren does college counseling who cites the dollar amount of his trust fund in his admissions essay, the professional scrapbooker with vanilla-scented business cards – and flashes of nice, precise joke writing. (Andrew’s requisite slacker buddy denying, hotly, that he worked as a clown: “I was a charity auctioneer who did light banter.”) Third, there’s Rachael Harris, who plays Lauren’s requisite anti-“mommy-cult” friend, Cooper, and whose serious comedy resume includes the Groundlings and The Daily Show. Her crackling deadpan (“Okay, but if the baby’s not cute I’m not gonna lie to you”) helps elevate the character above the otherwise obvious single ‘n’ bitter beeyotch. And, turning a clich’ on its head (or is that a clich’ too?), it’s the husband who starts going overboard with the pregnancy research. (“The Birthing Lesbian?” Lauren asks, holding up a book. Andrew’s defense: “I heard it had some good stuff about preventing preeclampsia.”) Other details, such as heinous maternity portraiture, seem to come (in a good way) out of the jot-that-down notebook of a writer who’s been there; though sadly (for comedy purposes), she apparently never attended a shower where friends were required to make and paint a plaster cast of the mom-to-be’s belly.
Unfortunately, though, the funny bits are almost all incidental, throwaway window dressing. There’s nothing funny at all about Lauren’s walking in on a woman using a breast pump and walking out horrified. There’s nothing funny at all about the sour lady at the shower – who, natch, is also fat – flashing Lauren and Andrew to show them how nursing has ruined her boobs (thus sparking one of the expecting couple’s many “What have we done?” moments). There’s nothing funny at all – ever, folks – about delivery room slapstick. (Julie, Lauren’s other required friend, the one in the mommy cult, winds up there, naturally, with Lauren and Andrew holding her legs, and Cooper holding the video camera.) Or about sight gags humiliating to women – Lauren lying awkwardly in bed with her legs up after let’s-get-pregnant sex, while her doofy husband leaves to watch Lost (“Can I at least have a pretzel?”) – on a show that should be their friend. Vomit jokes, fat jokes, hormone jokes, maternity underwear jokes (there are like seven in three episodes), water-breaking jokes: feh. In short, there’s nothing funny about the show’s very subject matter. That’s a problem! I’m not saying there’s no humor there; I’m saying there’s no humor here.