Netflix has begun to make itself known more aggressively as a player in the world of unscripted TV, dropping the cheaply-made and goofily tawdry “The Circle,” “Love Is Blind,” and “Too Hot to Handle” all since the year began. Now, the streamer encroaches on — and threatens to do better than — networks with less agility, and perhaps just a bit more shame.
It’s comforting, then, that Fox — the originator of pure and uncut reality-TV spectacle some twenty years ago — still has some fight left. Following in the footsteps of “Temptation Island,” “Mr. Personality,” and “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” comes “Labor of Love,” a show whose relationship to its premise is less urgent than its desire to provide humorous uplift in the form of vicarious embarrassment. No pleasure is truly guilty, but this may come close; that it’s a pleasure all the same, though, is all an entertainment-starved viewer may need to hear.
The show nominally revolves around Kristy, a woman who we’re told has achieved at a high level in her professional life but who yearns to be a parent. But the real action, as is typical for the genre, happens among the suitors the show has chosen for her; these include a couple people who appear engaged with her and the process, and several more who vaguely want to be on TV, get free drinks, and see where the camera time takes them. Perhaps emblematic in this regard is a funeral director who tells Kristy that he travels frequently: “I am a funeral professional,” he says, “but I have my hands in a lot of other things.” (He’s an investor in a company that has created “the first solid-gold debit card.)
The idea underpinning the whole show, here, is flicked at rather than deeply and meaningfully engaged; appearances by the competitors’ own parents explaining how good these men would be at fatherhood are more notable for the simple curiosity factor than for any sort of real imparting of information. This show does pleasantly little of the sort of high-dudgeon “social experiment” signaling familiar, now, from Netflix’s entries in the competitive-reality genre, even though it is, well, a bit of a social experiment. (Its first episode includes an examination of men’s virility through biological sampling, a purposefully attention-getting stunt the show dials back from as it runs on.)
“Labor of Love” is pleasantly low-key — especially, too, by comparison to the current market leader, “The Bachelor,” which, comes without any of “Labor of Love’s” higher-stakes framework about specifically choosing a co-parent, still manages to treat its machinations as deeply and gravely serious. This seems like the right choice: Pushing too hard on any one element of this show’s conceit would lead to unpleasant questions about, say, why a partner needs to be chosen for parenthood in the first place. Host Kristin Davis, of “Sex and the City,” diplomatically notes that she herself is a parent through adoption, then smoothly pivots away.
In all, though, the show manages to keep an upbeat tone without veering too far towards gross-out or towards faux-seriousness. This would probably not be a show worth watching in a moment when distraction didn’t feel quite so sorely needed, but right now, seeing suitors react to phony bear attacks and to little bits of one-upsmanship feels buoyant and worthwhile enough.