Talk about fortuitous timing: NBC delayed “The Baby Borrowers” for four months, and right before the debut of this British concept that tests young unmarried couples’ fitness to become parents, the media goes hog wild with sketchy reports of a “pregnancy pact” among Massachusetts teens. Billed as a “groundbreaking experiment,” this is really just another permutation of TV pushing a “parenting is hard” message, along the lines of “Wife Swap.” Still, the petulant, over-their-head college-age duos prove undeniably compelling — learning, as one actual dad puts it, “You might think you want to play house, but it’s not that easy.”
Like many such formats, “Borrowers” is only socially acceptable if it leads toward one conclusion — namely, parenting is difficult and frustrating, and teens should think twice before plowing ahead. To borrow from producer Arnold Shapiro, think of it as “Scared Abstinent,” or at least “Scared Single.”
The formula is considerably more convoluted than the title suggests. The five sets of lab rats (er, participants) spend two episodes caring for infants, then shift to toddlers, teenagers and the elderly over the next four. Aside from reminding viewers of the absurdly powerful urge to be on television, it’s an excuse for lots of straight talk about the importance of parenting and the sacrifices such choices require.
Perhaps foremost, the series does a creditable job of establishing the safeguards that are in place, which makes the whole “What idiot would hand their baby over to strangers for NBC’s benefit?” question more palatable. Not only are “professional nannies” waiting in the wings, but the real parents can monitor the doings on camera and occasionally step in to lecture the kids regarding acts of malfeasance.
As unscripted TV characters go, the young couples — especially the girls/women — could hardly be more accommodating. They throw inexplicable tantrums, weep, berate their boyfriends and pout the moment one of the genuine moms dares chastise them.
The couples’ experience evolves, however, through the various stages, which become slightly creepier — and considerably less believable — as the borrowed “babies” grow older and more sentient. By the time the young adults are minding teenagers, the obvious sense of manipulation and posturing for the camera begins to sour the exercise.
Until then, though, the producers do a laudable job of keeping things lively — not only rotating in fresh guinea pigs, but also having the teens’ own parents and friends drop in along the way. As a consequence, viewers who endure the first few episodes will probably find themselves pulled along if only for the final crawl to see which couples survived the experiment.
At one point, as a toddler drives one couple to distraction, the kid’s real mom — watching a monitor — wryly muses that this is the point where the pseudo-parents “run screaming for the condom aisle.”
Good gosh, let’s hope so, although one suspects “Baby Borrowers” will birth even more such adventures in babysitting.