Sometimes, a series can’t overcome the fundamental grossness of its premise, no matter what else it has to offer. In its first two installments, that’s the case for Fox’s new drama “Almost Family,” a show whose attempts to introduce tonal variation and lightness only emphasize how gruesome is the story at its center. “Almost Family” strives to be a drama about a woman (Brittany Snow) who discovers as an adult that she has several half-siblings whom she has to build bonds with as an adult, and to investigate what the concept of family truly means. Glinting out from behind every moment of tentative connection is the gross fact that her siblings come from her father’s inseminating women, without their consent, with his own genetic material to create his own descendants, a decision that’s neither endorsed nor decried by the series.
The three daughters with whom we spend time are Snow’s Julia Bechley, raised by a prominent fertility doctor (Timothy Hutton) whose exploits become known to her only partway through the pilot; Edie Palmer (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a frenemy of Julia whose career as a lawyer enables her to defend the man who concealed his parentage of her for her entire life; and Roxy Doyle (Emily Osment), a loose and lazy parody of an influencer. The mercurial and somewhat lost Roxy finds in Hutton’s Dr. Bechley a father figure, a connection the show treats as legitimate and meaningful.
It’s not that a man who deceived women into having his biological children when they’d intended otherwise couldn’t, possibly, eventually have real relationships with said children. But the show takes as a given that these relationships would flourish basically instantly and without any real work of restoration for what Bechley had stolen (women’s free will and right to bodily autonomy, for one thing). No one is beyond redemption, but the show’s approach to Bechley suggests it believes that no character on the show is beyond mindless approval. A revelation that Bechley is being charged with sexual assault is treated as a startling setback for his newly united trio of daughters, rather than the obvious starting point towards forgiveness. (Tellingly, the biological mothers of the two daughters who didn’t grow up with Bechley are treated as vaguely monstrous to their daughters, the easier to keep their potential grievances out of a story that demands to be complicated.)
In another art form, Bechley’s acts might be the jumping-off point for a serious investigation of culpability and consent; the character description of the fertility doctor acting as both physician and secret parent (Timothy Hutton) as often vulnerable and motivated by a misguided benevolence could be grist for, say, a very sharp independent film or, on TV, a show not beholden to advertisers and the mandate to draw a big, broad audience. Flattened out by network television and limply directed, the character alternates between a warm, loving force and malicious underminer based only on where the script needs to move next. It’s as if the events depicted in the 2015 film “Room” were reshaped into a comedy about how annoying but rewarding it can be to live in isolation with a precocious kid.
Hutton, an able actor asked to play an outright villain as a man with just-beneath-the-surface potential for heroism, is not up to the brief of vacillating without clear motivation, of trying to remain family-drama-likable even as his deeds urgently demand an address the show’s writers can’t find their way towards. In place of that, we get moments of attempted comedy about what it’s like to move in with a sister you never knew you had. In attempting to jump past the inhumanity to arrive at unearned lessons about how family can be frustrating but rewarding, “Almost Family” reveals itself as a show with nothing to say at all.
“Almost Family.” Fox. Oct. 2. Two episodes screened for review.
Cast: Brittany Snow, Timothy Hutton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Emily Osment, Mustafa Elzein, Mo McRae, Victoria Cartagena.
Executive Producers: Jason Katims, Annie Weisman.