If you’ve been overwhelmed by the deluge of important-sounding new shows this past month, take heart—it isn’t just you. The deadline for Emmy submissions is May 12, and with so many platforms vying for recognition, this time of year has begun to feel less like a traditional spring sweeps month, with its many season finales, and more like TV’s Oscar season. The medium’s major players are pulling out their star-studded prestige docudramas and their stunt-cast period pieces, their gritty, political David Simon crime shows and their David E. Kelley rich-oblivious-wife crime shows, their small-screen sequels to ’70s auteur films and their dramatizations of the making of ’70s auteur films. It all looks worthy, if not necessarily enjoyable.
Then there’s The Baby, premiering April 24, an ingenious bit of counterprogramming from the most prestigious brand in TV: HBO. In the first episode of this British horror comedy, 38-year-old protagonist Natasha (Michelle de Swarte) lashes out at one friend, who dared to bring her baby to poker night, and offends another by responding to that woman’s pregnancy news with an abortion joke. A few scenes later, as Tash is smoking on a nighttime beach, a woman falls off a high cliff to her death, mere feet away from her. Then, an adorable infant drops right into her arms. Hey, do you think the universe might be sending her a message about motherhood?
The Baby isn’t subtle. It isn’t polite. It’s sometimes extremely silly. And its unusual juxtaposition of a darling baby boy and heaps of bloody, gory violence surely will not appeal to everyone. But if you can live with all of the above, it’s more than just fun—it’s also a whole lot smarter and more thought-provoking than most of the shows sucking up all the attention this month.
Michelle de Swarte in ‘The Baby’
Creators Siân Robins-Grace (Sex Education) and Lucy Gaymer keep the premise simple, sending Tash on an eight-episode quest to rid herself of the baby whose previous caretaker went splat on the beach. What should be an easy task devolves into a life-rearranging mission, as she discovers that everyone she recruits to care for the little monster, even for a moment, dies a violent death. The only person who’s safe in his presence is, wouldn’t you know it, Tash.
The show gives us a whirlwind tour of early motherhood’s many indignities, from explosive diaper changes to a surreal children’s play complex populated by screaming tots and their blithely adoring moms, all rendered with the panic-attack intensity of a slasher movie. As Tash’s quest to get rid of the baby continues, her own estranged sister (Amber Grappy) and mother (Sinéad Cusack) come into the picture. These dysfunctional relationships shed light on why she might find the idea of starting a family so repulsive—not just for herself, but also for her friends.
Her journey gets wilder with every episode. Meanwhile, what can seem at first to be a muddled message about motherhood turns out to be refreshingly nuanced. There’s no question that infants can be an impossible burden—particularly for the mothers, especially if they happen to be single, and even more so when society offers little support to new parents. The least any of us, regardless of our personal preference surrounding parenthood, can do is refrain from judging, not to mention forcibly restricting, other people’s reproductive choices.
L-R: Amber Grappy, Michelle De Swarte, Amira Ghazalla in ‘The Baby’
What keeps The Baby from going off the rails, in the manner of other socially conscious horror shows like Amazon’s controversial Them: Covenant or any number of American Horror Story seasons, is its dry, self-aware humor. In one running gag, a clueless Tash uses a plastic laundry hamper as a makeshift car seat, stroller and playpen for the boy. It also helps that the show is grounded in novel but believable characters. The more time we spend with Tash and, later, her sister, who yearns to adopt a child with her female partner, the more sense their fractious relationship and each woman’s less-than-rational behavior makes. Fully developed characters might seem like an obvious requirement for good storytelling, yet too many shows designed to bait awards voters rely on actors to fill in blank personalities and elucidate opaque motivations.
Expensive production design, A-list casts and lofty themes might be the building blocks of prestige TV, but when it comes to actual quality, there’s a reason why television has always been a writers’ medium. Multidimensional characters. Sharp dialogue. Engaging ideas. This stuff is even more vital now that so many shows look the part of top-tier entertainment. The First Lady doesn’t have them. Neither do The Offer or Anatomy of a Scandal. And that’s all the more reason to be glad that The Baby has dropped out of thin air, into our outstretched arms.
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