All is calm at the Family Options Fertility Clinic. No, wait. All seems calm -- that's more like it. But mere minutes into the opening of NBC's well-titled new drama "Inconceivable," several incongruous varieties of hell have broken loose and there's no calm to be found, anywhere. You're very likely to miss it.
The show, airing tonight at 10 on Channel 4, addresses an exhilarating and painful corner of modern medicine. Hope is everywhere, people who thought they couldn't have children are having them, but the technology doesn't work for everyone. There's potentially strong material here, but you wouldn't know it from this woozy hybrid of a series, which cannot decide what it wants to be.
You could set a drama in a fertility clinic -- just think of the ethical questions as they bump into people's lives. Or you could do an upper-class melodrama filled with sex, lies and misdeeds among the privileged. You could even try a comedy. But you do have to make a choice.
"Inconceivable" wants it all three ways. Tonight's premiere offers four story lines, and three of them at least start out with a certain validity: a clergyman and his wife in their forties who have consistently failed to conceive; a young soldier whose military wife died in Iraq but left behind some frozen embryos; and a white couple whose surrogate gives birth to a black baby. Then there's the fourth -- two gay men, one of whom works at the clinic and seems rational and the other of whom is a raving lunatic, stalking their surrogate, stealing her garbage, following her into the swimming pool, hiding behind a pile of bananas to observe her grocery shopping, and generally making an idiotic menace of himself. He's just positive she's putting the baby at risk, and series creators Oliver Goldstick and Marco Pennette are equally sure you'll laugh yourself silly at his antics.
The black-white strand is paramount for the clinic's staff, which is headed by founders Rachel Lu (Ming-Na) and Dr. Malcolm Bowers (Jonathan Cake). After all, if an error by Bowers was the cause of the situation -- and maybe even if there was no medical mistake -- a lawsuit and ensuing publicity could put them all out of business.
None of this is developed with any deftness. Bowers, a sleazy self-promoter, insists his work was impeccable and sweet-talks a reporter into doing a story about the soldier in the ludicrous belief that such a piece would cover the foul odor of a lawsuit. Yeah, right. Rachel and staff psychologist Lydia Crawford (Alfre Woodard) argue over who should take the fall if Bowers is found to be blameless; given that Woodard is a guest star and Ming-Na a regular cast member, we might hazard a guess as to how that one turns out.
As if this weren't enough silliness -- and it's quite enough -- Bowers is also carrying on with clinic nurse Patrice Locicero (Joelle Carter), but quicker than you can say slam-bam, thank you ma'am, he's coldly dumped her: "You knew what this was. We wanted to have some fun, and we did. Everything's got an expiration date."
Patrice gives him the last word, but by episode's end it's clear that she's looking for a little revenge and knows where to find it.
There's something deeply cynical about a show that finds a well of important material and then uses only the bottom-scrapings to make a case for itself. And this one isn't even amusingly bad. Inconceivable indeed.
Inconceivable (one hour) airs tonight at 10 on Channel 4.