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Critic's Notebook: TV babies in semi-permanent timeout

'Up All Night' and 'Raising Hope' are built around babies, but where are the kids? It's a common trait in TV, where tots often vanish or become silent props.

November 07, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in "Up All Night."
Christina Applegate and Will Arnett in "Up All Night." (Colleen Hayes / NBC )

Every year, the networks trot out some show or other that revolves around a baby, and every year, I start counting the hours before that baby vanishes. Last year, it was baby Hope from "Raising Hope"; this year, it's baby Amy from "Up All Night." Five episodes into the latter, and creator Emily Spivey was already on flashbacks so we could experience the days leading to the birth. Pregnancy is, after all, much more interesting than new parenting because (and here's me pointing out an elephant in the writers room) babies are very boring.

Not your baby, of course. Your own baby is a source of endless fascination; well, enough to keep you from leaving him or her on the counter at Starbucks. Intentionally.

But on television, until they are old enough to at least laugh on cue, they are simply adorable, demanding, perpetually damp little stand-ins for the much more interesting people they will eventually become, more useful in theory than in practice; "new baby" as theme.

It's not their fault. Babies have only four settings — crying, sleeping, eating and wide-eyed silence — all of which are fun to watch for about 30 seconds. Which is why babies, like crazy kittens and sneezing pandas, are so popular on YouTube and why you never see a sneezing panda as the centerpiece for a television show.

The entertainment value of the typical parental reaction to babies is equally short-lived. Sleepless zombies fumbling with overcomplicated baby gadgets are funny for about two minutes. After that, unless there are actual zombies involved, watching a new parent feels pretty much the same as being a new parent — repetitive and exhausting, without the key benefit of having an actual baby to cuddle, which is the only thing that makes real new parenting survivable.

This is one reason infants are so rare in literary classics. Think about it. "Moby-Dick," no babies, "Pride and Prejudice," no babies, "The Catcher in the Rye," "Jane Eyre" "The Great Gatsby," "The Sun Also Rises," pretty much the entire canon of William Shakespeare, no babies. There is a baby in "The Grapes of Wrath," but it dies almost immediately, which, along with illegitimacy and all that entails, is the major reason writers include infants. Oedipus was a baby who turned out to be interesting, as did Jesus and Tarzan. Pearl of "The Scarlet Letter" got pretty big billing (not to mention that terrific wardrobe). But the early years of even these notable exceptions did not include enough action to propel a television series.

To make a baby interesting, you need to assign it adult characteristics, like in those hilarious E-Trade commercials or the "Look Who's Talking" franchise. Mercifully, no one save Seth MacFarlane (creator and voice of Baby Stewie) is attempting this on a television series.

Instead, most writers concentrate on the life-changing nature of parenthood. They do this by having the adult characters engage in witty dialogue and soulful monologues, of which no actual new parent is physically capable. New parents, and I say this as a former member of the ranks, are like stoners — they mumble a lot, and when you can decipher what they are saying, it is usually some long, drawn-out story about something "amazing" their child has done, which is completely impossible because no baby has ever done anything amazing. So the first thing that gets axed in a show dealing with new parents is the kid — you certainly can't have a likable character that sits around trading witty dialogue while their child actually needs something. Sometimes, the baby simply disappears with no explanation offered ("Breaking Bad"); sometimes, the marginal nature of the child becomes part of the joke ("Cougar Town"); and sometimes, the parents just shove their squalling newborn into a magical tree, allegedly to protect her from an evil spell ("Once Upon a Time") but more likely to skip all the boring years between infancy and when the kid becomes a butt-kicking Jennifer Morrison.

More typically, however, there is a lot of initial Sturm und Drang — oh, no, she cries; oh, no, he poops; and what is it with these crazy car seats anyway?? — and then the child is simply relegated to the prop department, showing up only occasionally and in such a quiet, undemanding way that it is virtually unrecognizable as an actual child.

On "Modern Family," for example, Mitchell's (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron's (Eric Stonestreet) daughter, Lily, went two seasons without making a sound or engaging in any activity that might rumple her white linen frock. This season, the new, tiny actress playing older Lily is at least capable of speech and movement, but even so, her clothing — and their house — remain pristine. Which makes Mitchell's and Cameron's complaints about the pressures of parenthood a bit hard to take: Why on earth are they so exhausted when Lily apparently spends her day ironing and picking up her toys?

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