This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
On the one hand, we knew everyone in quarantine was spending more time than usual watching footage of men ejaculate. (Studies have shown!) We just didn’t think that it would be happening in primetime on Fox.
When reality TV that was pure, irredeemable trash had its first big boom in the late ’90s and early ’00s—Temptation Island, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, The Swan—and cultural critics fussed in their tweed jackets and tsked at us that societal intellectual bankruptcy was nigh, it is probably a series that begins with 15 men jizzing into cups that they were warning us about.
I’m glad that it’s finally here! We already have a pandemic, let’s go down with our last two brain cells aflame. But the thing is, proclaiming Fox’s Labor of Love as the harbinger of cultural doom is giving the series too much credit.
It’s too blandly pleasant and too skittish about its own trollish, outrageous concept for that. At worst, it’s more boring and predictable than it is offensive or naughty. At best, it’s kind of sweet. If we’re being honest: Could use more cum.
Labor of Love, which launched Thursday night, follows Kristy, a 41-year-old divorcee who, as host Kristin Davis (of Sex and the City fame) chirps cheerfully in a voiceover, “seems to have it all, except one thing: a partner to start a family.”
She’s not getting any younger (their phrase, used between 700 and 4,000 times an episode), her eggs are frozen, and the fertility doc is on speed dial. It’s time to choose daddy, and reality TV producers are going to help her out. They rounded up 15 “sexy and sophisticated men”—cue montage of mostly white guys with six-pack abs working out shirtless—“who are ready to skip the dating and go straight to baby making.”
A woman turning to reality TV to choose a sperm donor? I’m scandalized! I love it!
Except, here’s the thing: Labor of Love isn’t skipping the dating at all. We have been BAMBOOZLED. What Kristy really wants is love and a man to raise a baby with. Each episode is about finding connections with the potential suitors/fathers. This godforsaken thing is The Bachelorette, just with a higher median age and more talk of sperm count.
There should be exciting topics to debate here. Is it crass to publicize a journey as personal as this in a medium as notorious as reality TV? (What will the eventual child think?) Or is it a certain kind of fantasy fulfillment for women seeking a sperm donor to be able to meet and vet them first?
Is there something sweet, like the germ of a high-concept rom-com, to the idea of a woman falling in love with the sperm donor? Or is there something regressive about the whole thing: a woman making the empowered decision to make a baby happen for herself, but then deciding she wants to still be in love first? (Alternately, is there something empowering about making that decision, too?)
Davis kicks things off by announcing that the first order of business is figuring out if they’re “fit to be fathers...in the most literal sense,” stressing, “We’re not messing around!” Cocktail servers with specimen cups on their trays enter, Charlotte York gestures to a porta-potty trailer where the men will be jacking off on national TV, and their fertility stats are measured in real time. More, their results are ranked!
Congratulations to 39-year-old Alan, the hunky writer from South Africa who, with 317 million active swimmers, takes first place. Even Kristy gets a glint in her eye, her ovaries practically moaning as he swaggers over to accept his trophy. The whole sequence is batty and eye-rolling, yet sort of sarcastic and in on the joke.
If only the show kept leaning into this. We’d have things to be angry about—why does every single “challenge” and “activity” gauge the contestants’ levels of masculinity, biological or otherwise, as if that’s the only measure of a suitable father—and laugh at: grown men nervously giggling as they talk about their sperm.
Even the very idea that this is an untraditional, perhaps controversial way of starting a family is only glanced at. What Kristy is going through is a reality for so many women. Let’s talk about it. Let’s dig into it. Let’s go there. Let’s not...do this.
At one point in the premiere, Davis shares that she identifies with Kristy, having spent her thirties working and emerging on the other side with concern over how to make motherhood happen for her, ultimately deciding to adopt. If you thought we were going to delve further into the emotional weight of this, nope! Time to get to the group dates, Bachelor-style. (For what it’s worth, Davis is a compassionate, refreshingly invested host, a welcome change for the genre.)
Since we’re forced to look at the show as just another remix of The Bachelor universe, instead of something provocative and new, the one thing that does set it apart is age.
Age is talked about a lot here. It’s the best part of the show. Kristy explains that she’s turning to something like this because when she’s dating, family-minded men are turned off by the fact that she’s older. That is candid and heartbreaking. The ticking clock here is far more palatable than while watching The Bachelor, in which 23-year-old women gripe with certainty that if they don’t find love now, they’re a lost cause and will never find it.
To that end, it’s nice to see a cast of reality TV contestants in their late thirties and early forties for once. There’s a whole, dynamic array of hairlines, and even some grays. Unlike on The Bachelor, their jobs are actually real. Of course, there’s still not an ounce of body fat on any of them; this is still reality TV, after all. Which is to say, if the goal of the premiere is to cheekily get the audience to visualize this group of men masturbating into cups...well, it’s time well spent.