“Almost Family” has a lot of blind spots, but believability shouldn’t be one of them. Fertility fraud is a serious, real-world problem. There are plenty of people still reeling after discovering their fertility doctor used his own sperm to inseminate patients, rather than the specified donor, and state legislatures are still working to amend laws related to what can be plainly called medical rape.
And yet the new Fox drama is so untethered it feels more like science-fiction than timely commentary. Most misguided is the show’s insistence that family is defined by DNA, even when said DNA was unwanted, unknown, and unimportant on how, exactly, said family member turned out, but there are so many leaps of faith required within the first two episodes that it’s absolutely impossible to see how “Almost Family” gets anywhere close to watchable TV.
Easily the most encouraging aspect is Julia Bechley — specifically, Julia Bechley’s strict adherence to wearing a helmet while cycling around Manhattan. Julia (Brittany Snow) pops on that ugly yet eye-catching lime green monstrosity everywhere she goes, whether she’s stopping to take in the Manhattan skyline on her morning commute or riding in circles around her newly discovered siblings in a literal nightmare. While she can’t quite make it fashionable, her commitment is a) a good reminder for viewers at home to protect their brains and, b) as good of an insight into Julia’s goody two-shoes, health-focused mindset as you’ll get, sans explicit narration.
That’s because most of Julia’s characterization comes by way of her father, Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton), a respected fertility doctor until midway through the pilot when everyone finds out he’s been impregnating his patients using his own sperm. The revelation — casually tossed at him by a reporter outside a party — sends Leon to the hospital with a heart attack and Julia back to the practice they run together. Though it’s unclear whether Julia actually wants to be a doctor or she just really likes helping women get pregnant, her gig at the clinic is described as a “glorified secretary” — meeting with patients, reassuring patients, telling doctors to watch the Jets game so they can have something to talk about with a nervous patient the next day. You know, the stuff that makes this fertility clinic so special.
And it does have to be pretty special, because if you’re going to go along with “Almost Family,” you have to believe that this fertility clinic can survive a nationally-televised scandal involving hundreds of victims who were all impregnated by the clinic’s founding physician. Moreover, you have to want this business to survive, mainly because of Julia, whose primary goal is to separate herself from her father, for whom she bought meals, set a medications schedule, and generally catered to hand and foot.
So much of the series’ focus is built around Julia, Leon, and their work, that it’s a little too easy to think of her new half-sisters as afterthoughts — and it’s a little too easy to think “Almost Family’s” creative team (including showrunner/producer Annie Weisman and producer Jason Katims) did, too. Roxy (Emily Osment) is an ex-Olympic athlete trying to live off her image through sponsored photo ops with fans and a prominent presence on social media. Her parents depend on her for part of their income, so of course she’s happy to give her new biological father a second chance — he’s rich and never wanted anything from her.
Edie (Megalyn Echikunwoke), on the other hand, has too much going on. She’s known Julia and Leon all her life, even going to Thanksgiving at their house, so learning one of her mom’s closest friends is also her dad is a bit… convenient? Complicated? Both? Toss in a relationship problem with her husband (who’s Julia’s ex-boyfriend from college) and a romantic spark with her opposing counsel — oh, did I forget to mention she’s a lawyer, so of course she’ll handle Leon’s case? — and suddenly this messy family life just skewed way too far into overt melodrama.
“Almost Family” is based on an Australian original series called “Sisters,” and yet there’s not enough focus on what would naturally bring these three women together. Sure, it’s easy to see why they’d meet and maybe keep in touch, but anything more feels overly manufactured. Leon’s role as a redemptive figure only further muddles the murky waters, and the ongoing tonal inconsistencies push “Almost Family” out of an endearing family drama and into the realm of impossibility. A show tackling such important topics can’t survive out there, nor can it so easily exist as broadcast TV escapism. Better to just let this one go — just like you can choose your own family, you can also choose what TV to watch with them.
“Almost Family” premieres Wednesday, October 2 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.