‘Almost Family’ Review: The Next ‘This Is Us,’ but With ‘Medical Rape’
A new series about an infertility doctor who impregnated patients with his own sperm is somehow turned into a heartwarming family drama. Its tone couldn’t be more outrageous.
In some ways, Almost Family is a jaw-dropping series, in that it is truly spectacular that this is the direction the new Fox drama has elected to go in with this subject matter.
It’s been a years-long contest on network TV to come up with the next This Is Us, the last major phenomenon to prosper amidst the broadcast TV ratings drought. It did so thanks to a proper weekly watering of the crop, in this case with the tears willfully shed each week from its legion of fans desperate for a good Mandy Moore-generated cry.
Attempts at replicating the NBC hit’s tone and success have run the gamut, from suicide and secrets to an altruistic doctor who is battling cancer himself. But Almost Family gets credit for taking the biggest swing at a premise, and for whiffing it with gusto: What if we did This Is Us, but with medical rape?
Once you learn the plot of Almost Family, which premieres Wednesday on Fox, the tone it takes is patently outrageous. The only thing more surprising is that, when asked about the borderline insanity of the choice to take such a lighthearted, heartwarming hand with the grave subject matter, the show’s creators and producers seemed caught entirely off guard. At least that’s how it appeared at a press conference with TV critics this summer.
You see, Almost Family is a series that attempts to explore unconventional family dynamics, raising questions of what connects us, and what constitutes a family. It is also a series about sperm.
Dr. Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton) is a world-renowned infertility specialist and a pioneer in his field. While presenting him with a lifetime achievement award for his work, his daughter Julia (Brittany Snow), who also works with him, says, “I’m still the little girl who thinks he’s a God, because I’ve seen him make miracles happen, make families.”
Just as your heartstrings start to get that little tingle, though, there’s a dramatic twist. It comes to light that, in order to boost his track record of helping couples get pregnant, Dr. Bechley supplemented his patients’ samples with his own “material,” as the show repeatedly and revoltingly puts it. Over the years, that’s amounted to over 100 children he’s fathered by impregnating patients with his own sperm, without their knowledge. It’s truly a joy to think this much about Timothy Hutton’s sperm.
There are all kinds of terms and euphemisms for what Dr. Bechley did. Fraud. Nonconsensual insemination. It’s near the end of the first episode that the term “sexual assault” is finally used. TV reporters interrogating the show’s creators used the term “medical rape,” though the r-word is definitely not used in Almost Family. That would really sour the mood of the whole thing.
This is obviously a rich topic to explore. (Almost Family is based on an Australian series called Sisters that ran for one season.) Infertility practices were a Wild West for much of the ’80s and ’90s. Now, with DNA testing so prevalent and commonly used, the repercussions of that sort of biological lawlessness are starting to come to light. For some patients and families, that is a happy thing. For others, the discoveries are harrowing and life-altering, as in the bombshell report of Dr. Donald Cline, the infertility doctor who, like Dr. Bechley on Almost Family, impregnated dozens of women while secretly using his own sperm.
Almost Family makes the decision to focus almost entirely on the children who discover they are one of the #BechleyBabies. (Yep, they’re given a hashtag.) Only one of the women who was defrauded has anything to say about it, telling her daughter, “I’m your mother. I carried you. That’s what matters—not what ended up in some test tube.”
That’s one arguably valid reaction to the news. Another would be the feeling of gross violation, the realization that in return for the trust you put in a doctor you became a victim of sexual assault, that what was just science and “results” to him was so much more than that to you: actual human life brought into this world, now left to grapple with this. These are things that would beg exploration, but are largely ignored, at least in the first two episodes of Almost Family given to critics.
Instead we’re given the story of three girls who discover that they are sisters, each coming to terms—even thrilled—with the fact that they’re now part of a larger, extended family. New siblings! What fun!
That Snow’s character, Julia, ended up having sex with another #BechleyBaby? Kooky plot twist. That Megalyn Echikunwoke’s Edie grew up with Dr. Bechley as a close family friend, spending holidays together without any idea that he was her father? Well, that needs to be dealt with some other time, because right now she is the lawyer defending him in his criminal case. That’s right! She’s defending him! I! Can’t! Believe! It!
The tone of the series is familiar to anyone who has seen executive producer Jason Katims’ work: the Friday Night Lights and About a Boy series and, most analogous to this, Parenthood. The whole thing is meant to be uplifting, mining the emotion that heals us all from the drama of an event like this instead of the darkness. When the show’s three leads—Emily Osment plays Roxie, another surprise sibling—get their DNA tests back once the Dr. Bechley news breaks, they look at each other with tears misting in their eyes as the music swells. “We’re…” “...genetically connected...” “...family.”
"It's ultimately a story about identity and a story about family,” Katims told TV reporters over the summer at the Television Critics Association press tour, as said reporters slapped their foreheads with their palms. “It's a story where we’re asking the question, 'What is family?' One of the things that I find so charming and beautiful about this story is that these three women, as adults, are discovering that they are sisters.”
“What really attracted me to this story was that, was telling this beautiful, unconventional family story in a way that we haven't seen before,” he continued. That much is true.
Is it possible to move beyond aghast feelings over the premise and tone, and judge the series on its other merits? A Jason Katims superfan, surely I would be seduced by the show’s sweetness and emotionality anyway, right? Well... no. I couldn’t make the leap.
It must be said that Snow is an incredibly engaging performer, and, as Julia, she plays the most torment and anger over her father’s actions, convincingly conflicted over still loving this man she’s idolized her whole life and the person who did this egregious thing. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Osment’s Roxie, who couldn’t be more over the moon about this exciting new development in her life. The two actresses are fantastic, largely because their plots tend to be the least ridiculous. (The less said about Edie’s bisexual love triangle storyline, the better.)
What I do wonder though is whether everyone else will be just fine with the show at face value. It’s cute, it’s tear-jerking, it’s got an intriguing plot. But that’s why it’s so outrageous to me that this is the tone the show takes. There’s responsibility to be had in the way a story is presented. It’s not that TV viewers are lemmings who will watch whatever’s put in front of them. It’s that, as the show’s first episode, it’s almost too easy to gloss over the severity of a story like this, one that arguably deserves to be told, and instead present it in this sunkissed way.