If the current age of television has defined itself in part by a willingness to be more visually explicit about sex, the shows that feature these sex scenes haven’t always been as frank about the things that can happen after two people spend the night together. But in the doldrums of this fall television season, a few shows have demonstrated a glimmer of refreshing honesty in their willingness to at least mention a subject about which pop culture has been oddly, depressingly coy: abortion.
There are a lot of things that make the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” stand out from other currently-airing series, including its musical numbers, Steven Soderbergh references and frank portrayal of mental illness. But the first time the show made me really sit up and take a closer look was in the pilot when main character Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) mother (Tovah Feldshuh) picks her up from summer camp. “Is that a hickey on your neck?” she demands of her daughter. “Okay, look. Keep in mind, anything happens, we go right to the abortionist. Nothing, nothing is going to ruin your future and your career…Your future is all that matters.”
I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as a positive reference to abortion on television; in fact, it’s the first scene that establishes that Mrs. Bunch is someone who is living out her own ambitions through her daughter in a way that might be damaging to her mental health. Rebecca isn’t pregnant at all, nor is she in danger of becoming so at that point in the story. But it’s at least an acknowledgement that if a teenage girl got pregnant and didn’t want to be, abortion would be a reasonable alternative for her.
Another show on the same network managed to consider abortion even more seriously as an option. “Jane The Virgin,” the CW’s lovely, loving telenovela about a woman (Gina Rodriguez) who is accidentally inseminated with a hotel magnate’s (Justin Baldoni) sperm, raised and rejected the possibility of abortion in its first season, on the grounds of Jane’s Catholic faith, willingness to give Rafael what he believed was his last chance to have a child, and the general need for the story to continue. But the series raised the question of abortion again this year after Rafael’s ex-wife Petra (Yael Grobglas) discovered that Rafael had one more sample left and inseminated herself in an effort to win him back. (Yes, it’s a telenovela. Roll with it. And if you’re rolling your eyes, you’re missing out.)
When Petra meets with Jane and Rafael to discuss what she’s done, she tells them, “The way I see it, there are three options. One, I get an abortion. Two, in the next month or so, I find someone. Let’s say a Russian oligarch, I sleep with him, tell him the baby’s his, we settle in Russia, and you both get to say goodbye to me forever. Or three, I stay here in Miami and we raise him or her together, with you 100 percent involved.” The show’s roots in the telenovela tradition mean that “Jane the Virgin” can present the Russian oligarch alternative as if it’s a reasonable thing for Petra to consider. And its presence in the list actually makes the idea of abortion seem more rational.
The show throws in another perspective to bolster that idea in the form of Jane’s mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo). “I think she should have an abortion. What’s the alternative?” Xiomara wants to know, considering how poorly Petra and her mother have treated Jane in the past. “We welcome her to the family, have her over for Thanksgiving?” “I happen to like the Russia alternative,” chimes in Jane’s devout grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), who is staunchly opposed to abortion, but still welcomes the idea of Petra getting gone. In the end, Jane and Rafael decide to tell Petra they’ll help raise her child. But they do it less because they or the show are anti-abortion than because they want to be the kind of people who would at least try to keep their unconventional family together.
And frankest of all is “You’re The Worst,” FXX’s consistently outstanding comedy about Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), a misanthropic novelist and music publicist who find themselves in a relationship after a one-night stand. In the third episode of this season, “Born Dead,” Gretchen tries to reconnect with a group of her old friends after finding out that one of them, Heather (Raney Branch) is pregnant. Heather’s news flashes Gretchen back to the sort of memories that don’t crop up much on television, be it broadcast, basic or even premium cable, these days. “I can’t believe she’s pregnant again. What a dummy,” Gretchen tells Jimmy with characteristic causticness. “I wonder what abobos even cost these days. I should go with her! We could get post-abobo mani-pedis.”
But the assumption that Heather plans to terminate her pregnancy comes back to embarrass Gretchen when she throws a party as an occasion to see Heather and the rest of her old crew again. “You’re not still pregnant, are you?” Gretchen asks Heather by way of conversation. “I think so,” Heather tells her, confused by Gretchen’s question. “Ew, I’m sorry, I hate that,” Gretchen tells her, missing all the social cues in the conversation and forging gamely forward. “I mean, if you’re willing to drive to Whittier, there’s a place where you can just walk in. It’s near a Marie Callendar’s, we can make a day of it. What are you drinking?” “I’m not,” Heather tells her bluntly. It’s only then that Gretchen realizes how far she’s blundered wrong.
What’s great about the storyline and that scene in particular is that Gretchen’s sin isn’t having had abortions, or volunteering to help a friend obtain an abortion, or even being cavalier about the prospect of having an abortion. It’s that she is dramatically out of touch with the women she claims as close friends, and wants to pull them back into their old partying dynamic, rather than meeting them where they are, babies, newfound sobriety and all. The plot is in keeping with Gretchen’s terror of adulthood, not a pivot into shaming her for her sexual history. Without containing an actual abortion, “Born Dead” is the closest television’s gotten to a neutral, or even positive, abortion story in the years since I’ve been a critic.
We’re still a long way away from abortion being treated like a routine medical procedure on American television. But “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin” and “You’re The Worst” all suggest that at least some television shows are displaying a nascent sort of courage that’s been missing from the medium for quite some time.