Notes from the Underbelly, reviewed by Babble.com’s Lynn Harris.Lynn Harris
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.
And that’s too bad. Such a missed opportunity! There should be a show that gets, whether darkly or goofily or both, into the real grit of pregnancy and parenting. But this is not that show. Busying itself with boob jokes, the show relegates Lauren’s entire soul-searching decision about whether to keep working or stay home – a decision that (a) she makes when she’s like five minutes pregnant, hello, and (b) turns into a mean-girl battle between her polar-opposite best friends, and (c) about three of us, yuppie or not, have the luxury to make in the first place – to one day of hooky at the beach. Andrew does worry about money, but there’s no agonizing about raising a moral or even healthy child, nor any awareness on Lauren’s part that even as she rolls her eyes at the world-on-a-platter lives of her spoiled young charges, she owns 234,028 pairs of shoes. She worries about being a fat lady, not about being a mother. Also, I don’t know a single person who actually wore anything called maternity underwear.
I know. It’s a comedy. But unless it’s going to be over the top, like Arrested Development or even Scrubs, then it has to at least aim for truthiness in order to fly. That, unlike underwear laffs, is what makes true comedy – and just plain good television – universal. That is also what would bring in an audience, and not just of affluent yuppie parents hoping to see their reflections in the TV mirror. Who, as it is now, will watch it? Anyone familiar with infertility will click over to Anderson Cooper the minute LaurenThis show will not be TiVo television for late-night nursing. gets pregnant on the first try, apparently without any attention to timing her cycle. Actual or intended parents won’t feel like this show “gets it;” it will not – and this could be its death knell – be TiVo television for late-night nursing. And those with no interest in parenting? Sorry, but they’ll have about as much interest in this show as they do in your 20-week sonogram.
There’s some irony there, actually. Notes was obviously created in a petrie dish, where laboratory technicians fused basic sitcom writing with market research and the cells divided into a show. Affluent, angsty, thirty-something parents are the newest, hottest psychographic! They worry about balancing work and family! They worry about balancing pregnancy and their Lucky jeans! Some of their friends are Smug Parents, while some are still single and wary! Okay, we’ll get all of that in there – check, check, check – plus let’s have the husband do the voice-over so we have at least a prayer of getting a male audience. Alas, it’s so by the numbers – and by the stereotypes – that not only is it not likely to reach its intended core viewership, but it is also not likely to do them any favors. Its real audience, in fact, will likely be curmudgeonly newspaper columnists looking for yet another reason to complain about affluent, angsty, thirty-something parents.
Among well-educated, comfortably off parents, the ranks of vaccine-resistors are increasing. (Of course, plenty of parents fail to vaccinate their kids not by choice, but because they’re poor and lack access to decent healthcare.) Some states with a large number of skeptical, alternative-minded people – Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, New York – have seen, in the past six years, a declining percentage of children vaccinated against polio,Vaccine resistance bears the familiar markers of Generation X parenthood. diptheria, measles, mumps and rubella. Of the school requirements, my playgroup hostess may not be far off the mark: it is becoming easier in many states to opt out of vaccinations. I spoke with many parents who were planning to get religious exemptions – which in New York State are easy to come by, even if you’re an atheist (all states except Mississippi and West Virginia permit parents to opt out on religious grounds, according to the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccination group). Eighteen states permit opting out for “philosophical, personal or conscientiously held” beliefs; most of these laws were passed in the last decade. Texas has made it even easier to avoid vaccines: in 2005 the state enacted a law permitting a parent to opt out for any reason.
Though parents who don’t vaccinate have usually done mountains of research, and are fluent in the language of evidence and science, they’ll often admit that their decision isn’t ultimately about the facts. Says Lorena, “my gut tells me. I just know that I will not vaccinate my child.” A pediatrician in the Northeast who blogs anonymously on these issues – and accepts non-vaccinators in his practice – tells me that worried inquiries from parents about the autism link have increased, probably because of media coverage. Some people do have bad reactions to vaccines, this doctor acknowledges, “but hysteria is never a good thing. And we’re at near-hysteria right now.”
Why now? Partly because, although there have been vaccine skeptics for as long as there have been vaccines, they tend to be most vocal when major childhood diseases are in retreat (not many Africans are worrying about autism right now). Side effects from vaccines are not unknown, of course, and since few of us know anyone who has had a vaccine-preventable disease, more and more parents question the risk. Diseases like polio, says Dr. Bernstein, are “out of sight, out of mind, so many parents may not feel the need to have their children vaccinated.” In its current form, vaccine resistance bears the familiar markers of Generation X parenthood. Attachment parenting has, for many of us, created a kind of cult of personality around ourselves, in which we alone know what’s best for our children. We also fetishize our emotional bond with our kids as sacrosanct yet weirdly fragile. Jo Rendell and Brad Lewis, a Greenwich Village couple (a novelist and NYU professor, respectively), have allowed their three-year-old, Bennie, to have some shots but have avoided others. They eschew “Well Baby” visits, because, as Jo puts it, “We know when he’s sick.” Brad – a psychiatrist – explains their resistance to vaccinating Bennie in part as a psychic one: “We were just building a rapport with him, a sense of trust. We had no language to explain to him what was going on.” Jo agrees: “We intuited that it would be traumatic for him.”