A gay dad sits at the dining-room table, making a scrapbook about baby Lily's adoption. A tiny conical hat perches on his head. It's all the funnier because this dad—ex-college-football player Cameron—is so large.
"Look at this." Cameron reverently holds up the hat.
"Oh my God!" cries Mitchell, his partner. "Lily's little hat that we bought her at the airport in Vietnam!"
Cameron puts it on, its red ribbons trailing beside his cheeks.
Mitchell eyes him. "Remember how cute she looked in that?"
"Remember how I used to wear it and walk around and act like I had a giant head?" Cameron giggles.
"That was good acting," Mitchell says.
Politically incorrect? Over-the-top satire? Yes on both counts, but that's why a sharply written sitcom like ABC's Modern Family gets at the uncomfortable aspects of adoption—especially for us white middle-class adoptive parents.
In many ways, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are the fruitiest of gay stereotypes, but the hat episide of Modern Family that aired last spring ("Two Monkeys and a Panda") veers plenty close to my own adoptive family. My Vietnamese adoptee is older than Lily—and he's not been saddled with an Asian flower name—but he's got his own tiny conical hat.
It's taken me awhile to appreciate Modern Family, so I'm only now watching Season Two on DVD; the show is currently in its third season. But I'm up to date with another show also in its third season—NBC's Parenthood—and lately I've been struck by the contrast between the two when it comes to adoption.
I used to enjoy Parenthood, even when this drama about the Braverman family in Berkeley, California, slopped into preciousness. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) Braverman oversee the clan from an artsy Berkeley house that's probably just up the hill from Chez Panisse. The four adult Braverman children are by turns believably angst-ridden and annoying. But their kids make the show engaging. And the evolving story of young Max, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in Season One, is notable for its unvarnished look at how hard this can be on a family.
Yet, the current story involving the quest of Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) to adopt a baby is not only an inaccurate portrayal of the ups and downs of the adoption process. It leans heavily on a heroic adoption narrative—just the sort of thing Modern Family skewers brilliantly.
The basic narrative goes like so: Two prospective adoptive parents, after battling with infertility, deeply long for a child. They have plenty of money, a huge extended family, a homey house. Meanwhile, the pregnant birthmother is destitute, without family, friends, or the child's birthfather. She struggles mightily over whether to give up her baby for adoption, but when she decides to do so, the music swells. She tearfully surrenders her infant. The End.
In Parenthood's version of this cliché, Julia and her husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) have a biological daughter, but Julia can't get pregnant again. They decide to adopt, and Julia, a high-powered lawyer, flings herself into the bureaucracy of private domestic adoption. Before you can say "adoption agency," she's frustrated. She can't just make it happen by writing a check.
This isn't what bothers me about the story, though. On many levels, adoption is a financial transaction. Julia's chop-chop way of going about it is true to her character. One of her brothers even says she's trying to "buy" a kid. To whit: In the September episode "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby," a young woman named Zoe (Rosa Salazar) conveniently turns up pregnant and ready to get rid of "it." Zoe runs the coffee cart at Julia's law firm, and Julia shadows her like a vulture. Before long, she asks Zoe flat out if she can have her baby.
It's improbable soap opera, but I like Julia's upper-middle-class myopia. I like the fact that Zoe, who's attractive and bright, responds, "Um, no."
But here's what I don't like: In under a month of TV air time, Julia has become a saint. She's apologized to Zoe. In a recent episode, Julia takes her to the hospital when she feels ill, then brings Zoe home for the night. In Julia's fancy kitchen, the unhappy pregnant girl gets to observe perfect-dad Joel playing with their daughter. Soon after, Zoe shows up on their doorstep again, saying, "If you still want to have my baby, you can have it. You have a nice family."
On Parenthood, it's all hugs and tears—though maybe not The End, because the adoption plot is still unfolding. Maybe once Zoe has her baby, she'll change her mind. And if the adoption does go through, maybe it will be an open one in which Zoe remains part of the Braverman saga. Wouldn't that be cool?
The run-up isn't promising, however. I can just picture the Braverman clan rallying around the new adoptive parents after a few predictable twists. For example: Zoe almost revokes her consent; her ne'r-do-well boyfriend shows up and tries to stake his own claim; the baby is born with a disability—but saint-like Julia and Joel love the child anyway.
If only adoption were being handled as realistically on Parenthood as autism is. The heroic baby hand-off is never the end, as many real birthparents and adult adoptees will tell you. Even the broad satire of Modern Family, which portrays only the adoptive parents' point of view, gets across how much these gay dads have changed over the months they've been parenting.
With Parenthood, there's reason to hope that the ensuing adoption complications may yet rise above clichés. I'm drawn to the Bravermans, a big happy clan, TV fantasy though they are. I long for a form of community my own tiny family of three doesn't have.
But when a drama like this strikes too many false notes, I end up feeling manipulated. As someone who grew up in a working-class suburb south of Berkeley in the same era, I already have a tough time suspending disbelief. I know how much the Bravermans reek of a particular kind of groovy privilege.
Most TV families—and Modern Family is no exception—are middle-class and inwardly focused, and they generate an ever-expanding tangle of unrealistic plotlines. But if the characters expose all their nasty, unpretty edges, I stay hooked. That's especially true for an adoption story, which is why I've grown fond of those argumentative, accessorizing gay adoptive dads.
Their comic outrageousness—and obvious self-deceptions—cut far closer to the truth than a thinly disguised melodrama with a pretty soundtrack.
Links to Episodes:
• "Two Monkeys and a Panda" (Modern Family, aired March 2, 2011)
• "Hey, If You're Not Using That Baby" (Parenthood, aired September 20, 2011)
• "Nora" (Parenthood, aired October 11, 2011)