By any measure, this hasn't been an encouraging fall network television season. The dramas are soggy, the jokes in many of the comedies aren't landing--or worse, they're racism trying to be jokes. And there's a troubling new trend showing up in a number of shows. Apparently, all American teenagers want to do these days is to get pregnant and married before they even graduate from high school.
NBC has perhaps the most puzzling and frustrating entry of the bunch, Welcome To The Family. The entire conceit of the show is that Junior Hernandez (Joseph Haro) the valedictorian of his high school graduating class and the oldest child in an upwardly mobile Latino family gets his girlfriend Molly Yoder (Ella Rae Peck), the daughter of a wealthy Los Angeles doctor, pregnant, and both teenagers decide to dramatically adjust their college dreams, get married, and raise the baby.
The show doesn't exist without this premise, but it's contrived and upsetting on any number of levels. Are we supposed to believe a boy as conscientious as Junior is supposed to be--Molly's presented as an utter flake--wouldn't use birth control? Does it make sense that someone as irresponsible as Molly would want to become a teenage mother? What about the idea that these two kids would immediately get excited about getting married and raising their child together, demonstrating absolutely no attachment to any of their other plans or ambitions? And it's positively upsetting to see the pilot end with the message that Junior and Molly's parents are supposed to embrace this surprise pregnancy and engagement as some sort of opportunity to demonstrate that they trust their children, instead of acting like actual parents.
I recognize that without Molly's pregnancy, Welcome To The Family thinks it has no story. But if NBC wanted to tell a story about the way two families from different backgrounds crash into each other, why not just make Molly and Junior teenaged sweethearts whose fathers dislike each other? If you want to tie them together irrevocably, why not have the surprise pregnancy come to adults with a long-established family history, rather than making the rivalry between the two fathers all of twenty-four hours old? There are any number of ways to get to the same destination other than to uncritically embrace the idea that it's terrific for two teenagers to throw over everything else in their lives to get married and have a baby.
Mom at least has the good sense to mine real pathos and conflict from its teenage pregnancy plot. The main character, Christy (Anna Faris) was raised by her wild addict mother Bonnie (Allison Janney), and when Christy's daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano) becomes pregnant by her handsome but dopey boyfriend, Christy takes the news as evidence of her own failings as a mother. It doesn't help that Violet confides in Bonnie -- who is estranged from Christy -- but has reconnected with Violet through Facebook, and asks Bonnie to be in the room while she takes a pregnancy test rather than Christy.
And Mom acknowledges that Violet has options other than following her mother and grandmother into teenaged parenthood. When Bonnie confides in Christy that she considered giving Christy up for adoption to a wealthy Jewish couple--Christy demands to know why Bonnie didn't go through with it, suggesting that she might have ended better off with different parents. As Violet prepares to take her home pregnancy test, Christy tells her "I will support you no matter what you decide to do," but then tries to get out of her daughter "What are you going to do?" hoping that that response will be the easier one. It's clear that Christy knows it would be easier for Violet and for herself if Violet decided to have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption. At least Faris' acting gives us that acknowledgement even if it's one that the show can't make directly, or discuss at great length.
But this being American television, Violet declares, after two minutes thought in her room, that "I've made a decision. I'm gonna be a mom." And shortly thereafter, Christy, watching her daughter put her brother down to sleep ends up weeping at the sink at the thought that Violet might be a better mother than she herself has been. There's some basis for that idea--Christy's newly sober, and she was so neglectful of Violet that she didn't even realize that her daughter had a boyfriend until shortly before Violet became pregnant. But even if the show takes an indirect route there, Mom still ends up putting a cheery gloss on a teen pregnancy subplot.
It's not saying much, but at least these shows with teen pregnancies and potential teen marriages in the mix are putting those plot elements at the center of their dynamics, which means they'll have to talk about some of the challenges of becoming a young parent or a young spouse at some point. Other shows have a tendency to use teenaged pregnancies and teen weddings simply to generate drama. Hostages, CBS's limited-run series about a doctor (Toni Collette), whose family is kidnapped to use as leverage to force her to kill the President of the United States, decided that every member of that family had to have a secret, as if its central conceit wasn't enough. Her son turns out to be selling drugs on the side, her husband is cheating on her, and her daughter is, you guessed it, pregnant. But while the show makes a big deal of the kidnappers' discovery of a positive pregnancy test in the pilot, Hostages seemingly forgets the plotline altogether in the next episode. Similarly, Glee, which has already had one teenaged couple get engaged, realize it was a terrible idea, and then break up, is doing the same thing all over again with Kurt and Blaine, the latest evidence of the show's intensely short-term memory.
I understand that pregnancies and weddings are big events that television shows use to build connections between viewers and characters. And in a television environment where the stakes characters face often come down to violent death or extreme pain, pregnancy and marriage are some of the few positive stakes that seem to be regularly available. But when those stakes are put into play in teenagers' lives, they actually move television further away from real teens' experiences. The teen pregnancy rate hit its lowest point since 1991 last year. And the age at which Americans first marry is at its highest point in history--the average American woman now marries at the age of 27.
Giving teenagers pregnancy and marriage plots feels like showrunners are projecting their anxieties onto younger characters, just as dramas like Ray Donovan and Homeland have added teen sexting plots to their stews of Catholic sex abuse and murder, and terrorism and betrayal. It also suggests creative fatigue on multiple levels. Do these shows not believe that their characters' relationships would be compelling without being juiced by a marriage or a pregnancy? Can they not think of any other ways to create believable, nuanced dramas in these characters' nascent love lives and their relationships with their parents? That so many of these pregnancy plots are cropping up at once suggests that showrunners and networks just aren't thinking hard enough about their teenaged female characters.
And at worst, it seems like these scripted shows have looked to reality television programming like MTV's 16 And Pregnant and Teen Mom or Oxygen's Too Young To Marry for their cues. Shows like those set up a perverse incentive system, suggesting that keeping an accidental pregnancy might be a route to reality TV fame, and the minor endorsement deals and fees for appearances and posing that can come with them.
But scripted shows about pregnant teenagers do something different. Rather than promising quick fame and a payoff if you're willing to be filmed making a particular life choice, and especially if you're willing to behave outrageously, these network shows smooth the rough edges off teen pregnancies and teen marriages. The affluence of Molly's parents in Welcome To The Family means that Junior and Molly won't have to worry about finding their financial feet as new parents. Christy and Bonnie may be a mess, but their experience will at least be at Violet's disposal in Mom. And goodness knows if the characters get out of the terrible mess they're in on Hostages, a teenage pregnancy will seem positively normal in comparison to a long-term kidnapping.
In other words, teen pregnancy and marriage plots are depressing on almost every level. They treat teenagers like they're more irresponsible than actual American teenagers prove to be. They act as if abortion doesn't exist, and don't take the adoption process seriously. They make the challenges of raising a young family or building a young marriage seem like a breeze.
They turn parents into patsies who aren't playing an active role in their children's lives, and then have nothing to offer when their children start making hard decisions. And increasingly in this weak fall television season, it feels like these plots are a stand-in for thinking about the real lives of teenagers in a way that's insulting to everyone who's interested in good television.