By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; E06
The very notion of fatherhood begins on a scale so tiny it has to be measured in microns. It's where babies come from, some of whom get roles as sitcom children, but we'll get to that, after some learnin' about sperm.
As National Geographic's "Sizing Up Sperm" introduces us to everyday, average, just-got-home-from-work Glenn ("who has no idea about the miracle of engineering tucked away in his pants"), you can almost feel the heat of a million adolescents blushing.
Wait until this: "From a sperm's point of view, landing in Emily's vagina is like D-Day . . . coated in deadly acid." Oh, to show this documentary to an auditorium packed with ninth-graders and watch as 99.999 percent of them die of total embarrassment.
Inventive metaphors abound in the refreshingly lighthearted "Sizing Up Sperm" (airing Sunday night at 9), where the aftermath of a sexy night between Glenn and his wife, Emily, is told from the sperm point of view. One can only imagine the casting call that went out -- Want to be in a movie? About sperm? Wear white pants and a white shirt and white running shoes -- and netted a hundred or so men and women extras who play the determined little buggers, sized-up to human scale.
Computer-generated effects multiply them and place them in a "testicle," which is portrayed as a curved, oblong skyscraper many times bigger than anything in the London skyline (only the Brits would make something this intelligently frank -- a giant gonad), where they wander corridors and board crowded elevators and settle in for long naps in the miles of coiled epididymis. But after dinner, when Glenn brushes his teeth and hops amorously into bed with Emily . . .
Well, "Sizing Up Sperm" is a tragedy, really. Some 250 million sperm-people are shot down a water slide that starts a sort of "Amazing Race" ("There's no going back, no surrender"), where they dash through a wide valley enclosed by steep, snow-covered mountains -- the vagina is like the aerial shot that opens "The Sound of Music." They're on a suicide dash toward ladders dangling from above, which leads the survivors to "the dark, twisted hell of the cervix." Here, millions more meet their doom, while Glenn and Emily obliviously spoon.
Crossing the wide, open field of the uterus (two miles long and a half-mile wide, at this scale), our sperm-tagonists keep running toward a tiny opening to the promised land, not a utopia, but a fallopia. Very few make it, but for those who do, it's like a day at the spa, restful and rich with nutrients. Fewer still opt to keep swimming and eventually (14 hours later) . . .
Well, let's not spoil what happens next. Sperm scientists and sexuality researchers are on hand to explain what we know and don't know about the against-all-odds processes that made us, and these PhDs are as determined and enthusiastic as their specimens.
One examined his own sample under the lens; you could say he can't contain his excitement for the subject. And vexed by the difficulties of observing what happens to sperm that die within the fallopian tube, another researcher had sex before having her tubes tied, and had the surgeon save the tissue so she could study the dead sperm in it upon awakening from anesthesia.
Still another, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, conducted field research into the estrus-related cues that subliminally attract males (and quicken the path for sperm). He and his assistants interviewed hundreds of strippers about their menstrual cycles in relation to the amount of tips they receive. Strip club customers become more generous, it seems, if a lap dancer is ovulating.
So there's the news from Albuquerque.
* * *
Meantime, a few hundred miles southwest and a zillion channels over, Fox is debuting its new sitcom, "Sons of Tucson," which is almost as hilarious as a punch in the 'nads.
Brought to you by the "Malcolm in the Middle" brain trust -- a show that outlived its funniness by a season or more -- "Sons of Tucson" stars Tyler Labine (fans loved him in CW's "Reaper") as a blobby, bearded slacker named Ron who works in a sporting goods box store in Tucson.
In hock for $2,000 to a threatening thug, Ron stumbles into some lucrative new work: A trio of abandoned young brothers (Frank Dolce, Matthew Levy and Benjamin Stockham) will pay him cash to pose as their father, so they can register for school.
It turns out the brothers, ages 8 to 13, have come to Arizona from New Jersey because their single-parent father is in prison for corporate embezzlement. Somehow they figured out that he owns an empty house in suburban Arizona as a cash investment, so they hopped trains to live on their own here, in a haze of video games and empty Cheetos bags.
This is a pretty convoluted way to set up a goofball father-figure premise, but by the end of the pilot episode it's made clear that Ron possibly needs the boys as much as they need a surrogate dad, and he moves into the backyard shed for a while.
"Sons of Tucson" has an ugly, cheap tenor to it. It seems the writers are hoping against hope that the worse the brothers treat one another and the more the boys mouth off to Labine, the funnier it will get. (Hey, it worked for Malcolm.) And from his tepid attempts to lift the material, Labine will have to deflect the ever-present suspicion that he's basically doing a value-meal combo of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis.
His young co-stars, meanwhile, all have that studied, smirky brattiness about them -- the tone of Hollywood child stars in the making. It's almost like the whole enterprise was created in a lab somewhere, starting with a Petri dish and a weak idea, and discovering some new form of sterility.
Sizing Up Sperm
(one hour) airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.
Sons of Tucson
(30 minutes) premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday on Fox.