TV’s New Matter-of-Fact Abortion Subplots

Sonia Saraiya
Variety

In Friday’s episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a mother of two who dreams of law school chooses to get an abortion — and the twist is that it’s not really that big of a deal. Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), already a mother of two, discovers she’s pregnant just days after applying to law school — a lifelong dream, finally realized. After nearly giving up law school to have the baby, she’s so bowled over by early admission and high praise from a judge that she chooses to terminate her pregnancy, with the support of her husband. In the final moments of the episode, she nearly tells her best friend Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) about it, but ultimately doesn’t even lend the decision that much weight: “I just … you know, I had a thing, I figured it out.”

“Paula is a woman trying to pursue her dreams,” co-creator and showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna told Variety. “One of the ideas of this show is that she’s somebody who had kind of limited scope of ambitions until Rebecca came along.”

Paula’s first pregnancy was also an accident; when faced with the choice back then, she opted to go ahead and have her son. Fifteen years later, things are different.

“We’re sort of in a golden age of female characters, and depicting them in their complexity,” said McKenna. “Shows that are dealing with women and how they live their lives — the inflection points in their lives — how they make decisions. These are the types of decisions that women make in their lives frequently.”

The quotidian nature of the question of choice stands out. If there is one assumption we have about abortion on television, it is that abortion episodes are Important. They frequently spend the entire episode dwelling on the anguish of decision-making — or, more recently, find a way to depict an aspect of the experience that has been marginalized in the past because the procedure is so politicized. So alongside episodes like “Friday Night Lights’” “I Can’t,” in which Becky (Madison Burge) struggles with the wave of emotion that accompanies choosing to terminate, are episodes like “Scandal’s” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” where Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) decision is cut-and-dried, but the almost complete depiction of the procedure is revolutionary. Either politically, personally, or both, abortion episodes are almost always occasions for getting very serious about a big, high-stakes debate.

Yet earlier this year, in a no-holds-barred attempt to turn this convention on its ear, “BoJack Horseman’s” “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” managed to make astonishing, brilliant, irreverent comedy out of its abortion episode, using one character’s decision as the jumping-off point for another to fake a pregnancy, fake an abortion, and then film a music video about it. The episode zeroes in on the question of shame, needling the viewer’s assumptions about how much self-loathing needs to go into the decision to abort. It also torpedoes the notion of an abortion episode necessarily being Important, devoting lots of time to gunshot noises instead.

And this month, abortion on television has accrued added complexity, with three different shows that feature an abortion decision that just kinda happens. In the tradition of “Six Feet Under’s” “Twilight,” it’s the matter-of-fact abortion, where the procedure is desired or necessary — and the drama of it is marginal enough to be a subplot. In the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) is revealed to have had a medical abortion between the Oct. 14 and Oct. 24 episodes; and in Nov. 2’s “You’re the Worst” on FXX, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) got an “abobo” in between two different diner excursions for pie. In last week’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Paula’s final decision happens off-screen. The audience meets up with her again after she’s already in bed recovering from the procedure.

In each episode, both personally and politically, it’s a lower-key development. The politics of the women are either not discussed or irrelevant. No one engages with rhetoric about the child’s life or the ethics of choice. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” Paula is the most hesitant to abort, but as McKenna puts it, “Paula’s decision whether or not have a baby doesn’t have to do with political considerations. They have to do with where she is in her life, and what she’s taken on, and what she wants her future to be.”

Instead, in every case, the primary drama is whether or not they should tell loved ones in their lives. For Xiomara, it’s her Catholic mother; for Lindsay, it’s her husband; for Paula, it’s her best friend. Rather than make the drama about the choice to have the procedure, the emphasis on storytelling in these three shows is about defending, explaining, or sharing the choice.

It’s canny commentary on where the conflict within the abortion debate really lies. A long-running thread through depictions of abortion in pop culture is that choice, as a political and personal act, is a burden — which is why episodes about it are so Important, or even Very Special. But in all three of these shows, the conflict is instead about how the woman in question can continue to live in the world of the show; the decision itself has a de-emphasized burden of agonizing over ethics, while sharing it in major relationships becomes the fraught avenue of drama.

This has the effect of focusing sharply on the character in question. Lindsay has such an erratic personality — and such terrible reasons for conceiving — that even the pro-life protestor outside the clinic ends up encouraging her to terminate her pregnancy. Xiomara’s decision forces her to challenge her mother’s strict Catholicism. And Paula is so eager to be everyone’s sidekick that she slips into that mode again when she finds out she’s pregnant — putting her own needs, long-deferred, once again behind the needs of someone else, even though that person doesn’t even exist yet. None of these three episodes are about abortion as much as they are about three individual characters determining what is best for them. Instead of pawns in a larger debate, the characters’ stories make for a highly specific set of circumstances, unique to each person.

Which is helpful, because ultimately, that’s where most of us live — in the privacy of our own bodies, making decisions for the well-being of our particular families. This storytelling device also has the effect of demonstrating how practically simple abortion usually is.

Perhaps not all of us would be as comfortable with these decisions; perhaps for us, it would not be an “abobo” followed by lunch. But in their cut-and-dried nature, the abortion stories of these three shows have a way of clearing the air around the debate, divorcing shame and anxiety from the experience to attempt to engage with them as they are regularly, daily, universally lived.

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