A Case Of Stolen Formula

In NBC's newest reality TV show, parents hand their kids over to young adults to raise -- and see what life as a caretaker is all about. Video by Courtesy NBC
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What's wrong with "The Baby Borrowers," NBC's new domestic reality show? For starters, everything, and then again nothing -- nothing that isn't wrong with most reality shows of similar bent.

Once you accept as givens the many foibles and failings of the format -- exploitation and humiliation packaged as entertainment -- "Baby Borrowers" is not without value, and value beyond whatever ratings it might earn for NBC, king of the have-no-shames. Insights into human behavior, particularly stress-driven behavior, are not beyond possibility. And at a basic, manipulative level, the show is bound to have you rooting for some of the contestants while hissing and booing others.

The gimmick: Five teenage couples, each presumably marital material, live through a kind of child-rearing marathon in which they're required to take responsibility for, in succession, a baby, a toddler, a preteen, a full-fledged and fire-breathing adolescent and then -- as a kind of afterthought, which is how this group often ends up -- "the elderly." The idea is to see how (and whether) these couples would function as parents, the preordained moral of the tale being that parenting is a tough job, rife with potholes and pitfalls.

Each couple lives in a heavily wired model home on a slightly creepy cul-de-sac, with the setting giving off "Twilight Zone" vibes from the start. Abandon all hope (of having any privacy) all ye who enter here, which is what the contestants spend the first 20 minutes of tonight's premiere doing: They enter and await the ordeal to come.

And then down the street they parade, pushed in strollers or carried by hand, The Babies, all but growling and licking their lips at the prospect of lives upended and pandemonium to be wrought.

Right off, the series shows two structural weaknesses: First, we don't get to know enough about the kinds of couples who would lend their infants to a piece of exploitainment like this; and second, the most hazardous of the six "Baby Borrower" episodes (and the one that most lives up to the title) is the first, thus rendering the next five installments somewhat anticlimactic.

Anyway, it's the behavior of the teen couples, and not that of the babies, that appears problematical, or pathological, from the start. One young woman, a pouty-cheeked monster from Dunwoody, Ga., teeters on the brink of hysterics when asked to don faux-pregnancy padding (something Phil Donahue did on his TV show decades ago) to experience expectant motherhood.

She won't have any of it, for reasons not articulated, and her tantrums escalate until she rebuffs even the conciliatory gestures of her partner. When he gets into bed with her to console her, she snaps, "Stop touching me" and "Leave me alone." She later says smirkingly, regarding her boyfriend's forbearance: "He doesn't care, 'cause he loves me."

As later episodes reveal, her confidence in the young man's tolerance might be misplaced. At least one of the couples will split asunder before the experiment is over.

We have to remember, though, the strains put on the word "reality" by shows lumped into that genre. Could the young woman's obnoxiousness have been exaggerated by editing designed to make her a more "compelling" character? For that matter, how do we know she was reacting honestly and not giving an operatic performance to guarantee herself plenty of screen time?

No, I'm not being cynical. Because the first rule of reality shows is this: Bad behavior is catnip to the camera. It's also a delight to the producers, the network and the sponsors. The current edition of MTV's "Real World" includes among its cast of captured freaks at least one scary, malicious sociopath. The show's getting old, see, so the producers of this 20th installment might feel that they have to cast wilder and wackier nut cases to generate more sparks.

After the teen couples spend 12 hours with the babies, an off-screen announcer tells us that the couples "are clearly feeling the strain of parents -- and they've just begun!" By Episode 4, when toddlers take over, some of the pretend parents are all but melting down. One young man, sensitive and loving, has shown himself to be a natural parent, maybe a natural teacher, but his girlfriend has reached the point of packing her suitcase for an early exit.

The contestants, incidentally, have more supervision than the show's producers watching over them. Parents of the babies and the toddlers can monitor their offspring from a venue nearby, and more than once a parent -- usually a mother -- intervenes, visiting the household where their kid is raising hell and offering lessons in child management to the teens. Some of these encounters are civil, others are nasty.

By the time the fifth episode rolls around, the babies and toddlers and preteens have been replaced by -- sheesh -- teenagers, and whatever credibility the show has built up tends to dissipate simply because the arriving kids are media-savvy enough to play to, and for, the camera virtually every minute. "Even my mom can't control me," boasts one 15-year-old boy. Another incoming teen vows in advance, "I am definitely looking forward to taking over this house."

At this point, "The Baby Borrowers" turns into an "American Idol" of the dramatic arts, with the "real" teen children seeming as phony and facile as the scripted teenagers populating soap operas and crime dramas. The value of "Borrowers," beyond its gossipy entertainment value, plummets -- and yet never quite reaches zero.

"I'm over you," a young man says to his female partner after witnessing her parental failures. "I don't want to be around you ever again," he says, heading for the exit. Gulp. Every now and then, the show cooks up some strong stuff -- stronger even than the producers might have expected.

The Baby Borrowers (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 4.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company