It was inevitable.
We live in a world in which many millennial women who lived fully formed, single adult lives for more than a decade are now entering their late 30s and early 40s and deciding whether to take the plunge into motherhood or forgo it altogether. So of course — of course! — a TV network would take that relatable experience, find a McMansion to house it in, grab a former “Sex and the City” star and birth a dating show.
This is how we ended up with Fox’s newest reality offering, “Labor of Love,” which premiered May 21. The show centers on Kristy Katzmann, a conventionally beautiful 41-year-old former “Bachelor” contestant who really wants to be a mother. She’s just missing one thing: a sperm carrier. Oh, and a partner with whom to raise a child.
As “The Bachelorette” — from which “Labor of Love” seems to take many of its structural cues — aims to find one deserving woman a partner by throwing a bunch of mediocre dudebros her way, “Labor of Love” does the same, except instead of a husband the goal is to find a “future father” for their children. Cue the set of Ready-To-Dad men, vast white marble interiors and Southern comfort vibes.
HuffPost reporters Claire Fallon and Emma Gray watched the first four episodes of “Labor of Love,” and ended up having ... a lot to say about them.
The Bottom Line
“Labor Of Love” sounds like insane reality television. In reality, it’s a whitewashed, Pinterest-poisoned “Bachelorette” set in a Draper James ad.
‘The Bachelorette’: Motherhood Edition?
Claire: “Labor of Love” is a dating show with a fertility twist, a romance competition that was surely dreamed up by someone whose favorite romantic comedy is “Baby Mama.” Our heroine, Kristy Katzmann, is shepherded by kindly hostess Kristin Davis through her courtship with 15 highly spermed men, in search of one who will give her both love and a baby immediately, if not sooner. As I slid into the fever dream that was the first episode, I was left with one throbbing question: What???? Emma, I have to ask you: What???????
Emma: Funny you should say that, Claire. I had a similar, bewildered reaction. Reading the premise, I was struck by how absurd it sounded: a woman in her 40s wants a baby and doesn’t care about dating so she… goes on a dating show? As a deranged Carrie Bradshaw might say in 2020: “I couldn’t help but wonder, why didn’t this hot lady just head to the sperm bank?”
But when 15 men were jacking off into cups in order to see whose “swimmers” were the best suited for immediate baby-making within the premiere episode’s first 15 minutes, I thought that we were in for a wild (potentially highly problematic!) season. Instead, the first four episodes provided a masterful crash course in how difficult it is to make compelling reality TV. “Labor of Love” is far from wild. In fact, it’s depressingly bland, full of marble Nancy Meyers-inspired interiors, men named Walker and Budge, and far too many chinos and vests. Apparently you can’t just take the concept of “The Bachelorette,” age it up a few years, add the term “future fathers” and assume it’s going to make for good TV!
I was also left with some burning questions: Why do Kristin and Kristy look the same? Why does the intro say that the men are ready to “skip the dating and go straight to the baby-making” when the show is literally centered on dating? Will we ever learn anything about Kyle, one of the show’s obvious front-runners, other than the fact that he’s tall?
Structure And Aesthetics
Claire: You’re right: The show is almost uncannily bland. One suspects that Fox hoped to balance out the luridness of the premise with an aesthetic and tone I can only describe as “corporate cozy,” with Kristin and Kristy as twin demure brunette HR-executives-cum-garden-party-hostesses welcoming us into their corner-office-cum-chef’s-kitchen. (Sorry about all the “cum.”)
But let’s back up a bit and talk about the structure of the show. Kristy, a former “Bachelor” contestant (Season 11), arrives at her bachelorette pad and is welcomed by Kristin, wearing a floral cocktail dress and bearing a peach pie (thanks for those tax incentives, Georgia!). Kristin commiserates with her over the struggle of trying to start a family while 40-something and single, mentioning that she personally adopted two children. This is not a path that will be discussed again, as the upcoming sequences featuring male fertility tests signal.
Kristin then quickly ushers Kristy out to meet her 15 suitors, who are all gathered outside enjoying cocktails. Over the next few episodes, Kristy engages in some pseudo-spontaneous mingles with the group, a handful of low-key one-on-one dates, and group “drills” — tests of sperm health, intelligence, courage, and so on — meant to separate future dads from future deadbeats. At the end of each episode, Kristy and Kristin huddle over an iPad and move contestants’ avatars into a “let’s keep dating” column or a “we need to talk” column while the men watch avidly on a monitor next door. Kristy then has a face-to-face chat with each man in the latter column in order to either send them home or convey some other message, such as “I like you but please don’t get totally wasted at the next party.”
What did you think of the mix of activities and the structure of elimination night, Emma?
Emma: Let’s start with elimination night. Beyond being completely baffled by why the men’s giant mansion was built so freakishly close to Kristy’s mansion — these men are constantly staring at Kristy through the window! — I was reminded why reality shows usually have in-person eliminations: so they can capture the anxious, bitchy facial expressions of the contestants waiting to be called. Because Kristy and Kristin are next door away from the men when they are doing most of the deciding, we lose a lot of that narrative tension. I appreciate that the show is trying to lean into technology, but in this case it just doesn’t really work.
Claire: Yes! The twin mansions! Twins are something of a motif on this show, despite the lack of literal twins; the two almost-identical mansions, which share a driveway but don’t appear to be near any other homes, seem to have been designed exclusively for a sister-wife situation. Even for a dating show, the proximity and scale is a little odd.
The eliminations, meanwhile, take on a bleak corporate tone thanks to the combination of remote sorting and prim in-person severance interviews. Each episode feels like it ends with a round of layoffs, with poor sweet Kristy ushering each man into her office, one by one, to try to break the news as gently as possible. When she tells a man she’d like to keep dating during one of these chats, he evinces the same surprised relief as a worker just informed they aren’t being let go, but actually given a small promotion. In that sense, it’s unintentionally timely.
Emma: I also found myself a bit confused by the dating and activity structure. We get very few one-on-one dates, which means that we get down to the final six men without knowing much about them. Instead the show relies heavily on group activities. I admit that I hate all games that are meant to test mens’ abilities to parent, so perhaps I was primed to be less than impressed with some of the group dates on the show. I don’t really know what a man’s ability to writhe in pain as labor is simulated, or his instinct to throw his arms around Kristy and step in front of a production assistant dressed as a bear in the wilderness, truly say about whether he’d be a good partner to this particular woman. Those sort of experiential/challenge dates fell really flat for me. (As they often do even on more successful shows like “The Bachelor.”)
Claire: In fairness, these men really must want to be instant dads if they’re not only willing to masturbate into a cup on TV, but to continue dating someone who convinced them they were being attacked by an actual bear in order to conjure a “Force Majeure”-style revelation of their cowardice. I can’t believe I watched a show that casually featured fake bear attacks and the overall effect was ... meh.
When Men Want To Be Fathers, But Don’t Want To Parent
Emma: However, where I felt like the activities landed better, were when they revealed something important about the mens’ views on partnership and child-rearing. A good portion of these single men in their late 30s and early 40s — a demographic that I agree we need to see more of on dating-based reality TV — still hold pretty retrograde ideas about what the role of a father and husband might be vs. the role of wife and mother.
In one group game, we see former wrestler Matt casually reveal that he expects his children to be solely raised by his wife with the help of their extended family. This is, unsurprisingly, a turn-off for Kristy given that she has never expressed a desire to stop working and, in fact, been quite clear to the men that her career is important to her. Some of the other “future fathers” reveal significantly more progressive and equitable views of parenting, though we do get the chance to see a dude tell on himself when he stresses that he really just wants a son so that the boy child can carry on his last name. Turns out that a whole lot of men desperately want to be fathers but assume that the labor of actually raising a child won’t be on them.
What did you think of the show’s gender politics? Did you feel as confused by the messaging on “Labor of Love” as I did?
Claire: On the one hand, I certainly applaud that the show is modeling good pre-parental communication! Far better for Kristy to know now that her potential husband insists (in defiance of science) that he must have two sons, as one candidate did, than to find out when he’s having a tantrum during the 20-week ultrasound. If anything, I found it alarming that the show waited until several episodes in for her to even ask these co-parenting candidates about their most basic parenting plans and values. On the other hand, it was a testament to the fact that millennial men — which many of her suitors are! — are not the perfectly egalitarian cohort we were promised.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a parent in the context of a heterosexual marriage. That’s what I wanted, and now I do indeed have the joy of combining a career with raising my son without any paid assistance (thanks, coronavirus), so I would be a hypocrite to judge that. And yet the most upsetting aspect of the show’s gender politics, to me, was how neatly it reproduces a hyper-conservative vision of family: A sweet, feminine woman meets a virile, successful man, they get pregnant the old-fashioned way and start a family. It’s a vision that obviously isn’t desirable to everyone, nor is it attainable to all who want it. I felt a little wrench whenever I saw Kristy described as “Mother-to-Be” in her chyron — already reduced to her role as a mom before even conceiving, and totally convinced about a future that can absolutely be derailed by difficulties with conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term. Of course, as Kristin’s presence on the show reminds us, there are many paths to being a mother, but much as “The Bachelor” does for hetero marriage, “Labor of Love” firmly enshrines the traditional path to child-having as the aspirational one.
I hope Kristy finds what she’s looking for. But the show, with its promise of delivering her something so profoundly intimate and so biologically impossible to promise, made me queasy, and all the more so for presenting it in such cutesy, relentlessly naive packaging.
So, Should You Watch It?
Emma: Look, we’re in quarantine, so desperate times call for desperate TV-watching. And I’ve watched four episodes, so I will probably watch the rest. But unless you find yourself really missing the corporate feel of your white-collar office job, or desperate to ponder how far elder millennial men haven’t come, I think you can skip this one.
Claire: Some of us have a low bar when it comes to reality dating shows. Will I finish this season? Yes. I also finished “I Wanna Marry Harry,” a show so bad it was pulled from the air mid-season. Follow my lead at your own peril.