ABC has an affinity for series that revolve around single events. Big Day focused on a couple’s approaching wedding, while The Knights of Prosperity dealt with a gang’s plans to rob Mick Jagger. The Nine was the story of a hostage situation and its survivors. And now, Notes from the Underbelly focuses on Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Andrew (Peter Cambor), a 30something couple expecting their first child. All these series raise one question: what happens after the big event? In the first three cases, viewers will never know, as they were all cancelled early.
After two episodes, Notes from the Underbelly appears to be following that blueprint: though occasionally amusing, it’s mostly predictable. Narrator Andrew revealed right away that it was his idea to conceive, figuring that having children now will allow the couple to enjoy their golden years after the children have moved out. Though Lauren was initially reluctant, she not only changed her mind, but also became pregnant on their first attempt.
The first episode concentrated on the pregnancy’s effects on Lauren and Andrew’s relationships with their friends. Other details of the couple’s life are apparently irrelevant; for instance, we learned Andrew is a gardener only because someone from work calls during a fight he was having with Lauren at a baby shower. There’s no indication as to whether Lauren works at all, though, given the size of their home, she either has a job or Andrew is one exceptionally well paid gardener.
In fact, after the first two episodes (both aired on 12 April), we know more about the best friends than about the leads. Lauren’s closest friend Cooper (Rachael Harris) is a Type A personality who works as a divorce lawyer and prefers one-night stands to the usual commitment. In contrast, Andrew’s best friend Danny (Michael Weaver) has little ambition, working as a piano player in a department store after a college career in “marijuana distribution.” The friends’ primary function is to react to the changes the pregnancy has brought about in the lead couple’s lives. In each case, the friend’s reaction has been negative thus far.
As if all this doesn’t provide for enough pregnancy talk, Lauren’s other friend, Julie (Melanie Paxson), is also pregnant. Where Lauren and Andrew struggle to make decisions, Julie and husband Eric (Sunkrish Bala) are that couple for whom pregnancy and impending childbirth are events to be celebrated in every detail. Thus, all three perspectives of pregnancy are neatly presented: it’s a joyous occasion, a curse, and a cause of confusion.
Undoubtedly, having a child is a life-altering event. But we would care more about how it alters Lauren and Andrew’s experience if we had some indication about what they were like pre-pregnancy. For instance, when Lauren insisted that Andrew get rid of his hockey game to make room for baby furniture, he became despondent because he and Danny have a year-long match in progress. Had we seen more of Danny and Andrew playing, we might have cared. Similarly, Lauren’s intense food cravings and loss of table manners would be more meaningful if we knew a little about her prior eating habits.
Instead, the show uses the friends’ reactions, again, providing for an unfunny running joke. Julie deduced that Lauren was pregnant when she ordered a decaf latte; Julie noted that in 11 years, Lauren had never ordered decaf. Cooper came to the same conclusion when she caught Lauren faking her consumption of tequila shots, throwing them over her shoulder instead of downing them. This “friends” set-up was mildly amusing the first time, unbelievable the second. The series is not bereft of humor, but it lies in the script, not the performances. Harris’ work is particularly thin: Cooper is acid-tongued and painfully blunt but also driven and logical, a confidant when convenient for her, but a killer in the courtroom.
By the end of two half-hour episodes, I was tired of hearing that “pregnancy is a big deal” and frustrated that no one has a life outside of pregnancy. The lack of contexts or diversions made the show more like a high school health film than a 2007 TV series: Pregnancy: Your Changing Body and Life.