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TELEVISION REVIEW

When reality bites -- and cries and spits up

June 25, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

For reasons probably best explored in a therapist's office, there's nothing quite so satisfying as watching young children misbehave on television. Put a few lively kids and a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in a room together and who among us can watch without a horrified chuckle? Especially when their parents are ineffectually present, shouting idle threats or just rocking in a corner, emitting the occasional whimper.

From "Kids Say the Darndest Things" to "Supernanny" and "Living Lohan," the antics of other people's children, and by extension, the flaws of other people's parenting, offer seemingly limitless entertainment value.

So "The Baby Borrowers," which premieres tonight on NBC, seems somewhat inevitable. Based on a British show of similar construct, it installs five teenage couples who think they're ready for marriage and children in a suburban cul-de-sac and hands them a succession of people to care for -- infants, toddlers, tweens, teens and finally, aged parental types, with their pillboxes and physical limitations. (Not to worry, the real parents are just a few houses away, monitoring via video and able to intervene if they feel things get out of hand.)

It is not a competition -- there is no cash incentive and no one is voted off the cul-de-sac. The prize appears to be, oddly enough, wisdom. At the end of their weeks-long experiment, the participants hope to know more about themselves as couples and potential parents.

So let the howling and projectile vomiting begin. Which it does, resulting in a blend of "The Hills" and "Nanny 911," crossed with a public service announcement against teen pregnancy.

By turns touching and exasperating, "The Baby Borrowers" seems at first to be the ultimate parental revenge fantasy -- we'll show those know-it-all-teens what it means to be adult. But it winds up surprisingly nuanced. Sure, there's emotional comeuppance galore, but "The Baby Borrowers" also quickly makes it clear that it's just as difficult to be 18 as it is to be a parent. Which is why the two, perhaps, should not coincide.

With requisite geographic, racial and class diversity, the five couples share one thing -- the belief that they are ready to get on with it. That belief is not completely universal -- Sean and Kelsey entered this experiment with opposing agendas. Kelsey wants to prove that they're ready to become a family, and Sean wants her to stand down for a while. Cory and Alicea believe that young parents have a more instant empathy with children. The others -- Austin and Kelly, Jordan and Sasha, and Daton and Morgan -- are hoping to prove themselves as responsible adults and see if their relationships are heading toward marriage.

Also, of course, they all want to be on TV. Watching some of the bad behavior unfold in the first two episodes -- Kelly throws an embarrassing temper tantrum when Austin chuckles at the sight of her in a pregnant-belly suit, Alicea basically checks out of child care after the real mother intervenes to explain that the baby really must be fed even if it is difficult -- one is struck not so much by the immaturity of the young women as by their willingness to have it filmed. All but two of the participants are 18 (Cory is 20, Daton 19), children of the YouTube and Facebook generation, and they seem to have no problem throwing hissy fits or losing their patience with babies even when they know they are on camera.

Not surprisingly, the couples learn that taking care of a baby is hard, which is pretty much why each set of the real parents got involved. One explains rather bitterly that as a teen mother she never reached her full potential; she doesn't want other young women making the same mistake. Babies cry a lot (especially when separated from their real parents and put in the hands of inexperienced teens), they barf and poop indiscriminately, and they do not care if you are tired.

More unexpected is how well all the young men handle things. At one point or another, every girl but Sasha stalks out of the room in temper or tears, leaving the guys literally holding the baby. And though they often look baffled, they all step up to the plate. When Alicea flat-out refuses to deal with baby Carson, poor old Cory gets up night after night. "I have two babies now," he told the camera. "A big one and a little one." Alicea would indeed fit in quite well on "The Hills."

With its emphasis on the domestic, "The Baby Borrowers" has the potential to be that rare animal -- a show for the whole family. Even the youngest children can appreciate a baby spitting out food or how gross it is to change a poopy diaper, teens will like seeing their peers mouth off and mess up, and parents, of course, will emerge feeling victorious, validated at last for all their unsung heroics.

But the take-away is probably sweetest for women over 30. All the young women on "The Baby Borrowers" are lovely to look at, with their flawless skin and unlined faces. But watching them whipsaw between independence and petulance, confidence and narcissism, those of us who have reached adulthood with our faculties intact can exult in the fact that, no matter what else happens in our lives, we will never, ever, have to be 18 again.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

'The Baby Borrowers'

Where: NBC

When: 9 tonight; regular time 8 p.m.

Rating: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language)

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