I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is a freak show in a family way.

I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is a freak show in a family way.

I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is a freak show in a family way.

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Oct. 8 2009 6:49 PM

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is a freak show in a family way.

I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. Click image to expand.
I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant

Now back for its second season, I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant (TLC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET *) is a nonfiction series about women who didn't know they were pregnant practically until the moment that little Hunter or Ashlee was crowning. Do try to avoid any marathon screenings of it, those being invitations to waste an afternoon. The show isn't exactly brainless. Rather, it is purely visceral and satisfyingly formulaic—cheerfully undesirous of a brain.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Things must end miserably for the majority of women ignorant of their condition well into their third trimester, but this show is interested in misery only as a necessary test along a triumphant journey. Though some of the women profiled here give birth with ibuprofen as their only analgesic, though none of them enter the delivery room comforted by having studied Lamaze or raked in loot at a baby shower, all of the stories end with a glowing mom and her gurgling tomato.

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What to expect when they're not expecting? An off-screen narrator, his voice mitigating the insistent sonority of a true-crime-show newsreader with the studied warmth of a third-year resident, smoothes the flow of each 15-minute segment as the video cuts between new interviews with the parents and professional re-enactments of their old selves. A regular source of unintentional mirth is the juxtaposition of the actors, who look like actors, with the actual people, who do not. The only civilians who benefit from comparison are the kids, the professional infants having spent all morning in makeup getting slathered in amniotic fluid.

After supplying a brief biography, the narrator tips the viewer to the circumstances of conception. Often, so-and-so overlooked the prescription-bottle warning against chasing birth control pills with antibiotics. (Let me know if you ever see any of the moms admit that her contraceptive method was the old pull-and-pray.) Later, the voice-over details the reasons that a given subject was not a total idiot in failing to recognize her condition. For instance, Elizabeth, a college student featured in an episode titled "Born in a Dorm," had always experienced irregular periods due to her anemia. She did not grow very heavy with child, and she attributed what weight gain she experienced to the freshman 15. And one night she found herself in such distress that she shouldn't climb up to the top bunk. Her roommate acted as a midwife. Excuse me, but isn't that what an R.A. is for?

To examine the tone of the show, let us consider the case of Abbigale, though not too closely, please. One evening, thinking she was constipated, she excused herself from the couch, leaving her boyfriend there with the remote control on his lap, bathed in the blue glow of the television. She sat on the toilet, plaid pajama pants at her ankle, straining. The boyfriend, hearing some slightly unholy noises in the air, called out—"Honey?"—but he stuck with his show. There are flash cuts capturing Abbigale's grimace from various angles, and a nice overhead shot featuring a mouthwash bottle on the sink, and then an image of an umbilical cord trailing into the bowl. At this point, the boyfriend heard the wail of a newborn and decided that, whatever this was, it was worth missing The O.C. to check it out.

A majority of the mothers make it to the hospital in time for expulsion and its agonies, and it is generally here that the segments fulfill a key obligation of the I Didn't Know … formula. How would these ladies rate their labor pains on a scale of one to 10? Answers include "10 plus," "way above 10," "probably 20," and "It's 30. It's a 50. Do something!" Then, if she is not suffering too much to think, the mother begins fretting about all the prenatal care she failed to provide. Just at the moment she should have been priding herself for choking back kale smoothies for nine months, she instead reflects sourly on all her vigorous after-work softball games, copious after-softball mai tais, and frenzied seared-tuna binges.

Thence to the delivery room. The mother is probably spreading her legs, clenching her teeth, and conducting herself heroically. The father is probably trying to hide behind a curtain. The baby is definitely going to be OK. There are medical scares in some instances and fleeting thoughts of opting for adoption in others, but you always get your 10 fingers and your 10 toes and your coochie-coochie-coo. I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant is a freak show in a family way.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2009: This piece originally stated that I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant airs on Discovery Health on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET. New episodes of the series air on TLC on Wednesdays at 8 ET; Discovery Health shows reruns. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)