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‘The Baby’ Review: Paranormal Horror Comedy Is a Warped Modern Fairy Tale

Michelle de Swarte stars in this eerie collection of ideas about parenting and family, where the individual pieces work better than the whole.

The Baby HBO Michelle de Swarte

“The Baby”

Rekha Garton/HBO

Parenting, in many ways, is a roller coaster of control. It’s a process that, if it starts from the birth of child, is a tradeoff of autonomy for trying to keep a tiny human alive. Turns out that process is not that much different on TV. As soon as The Baby pops up in the new HBO/Sky co-production “The Baby,” it takes feats of superhuman strength to wrest attention away from him.

Most of this child’s time is spent around Natasha (Michelle de Swarte), an accomplished chef who escapes the city for a remote cabin. (The location for her rented vacation place can best be described as “the foot of The Cliffs of Insanity,” a nice early surreal touch in a pilot directed by “Watchmen” vet Nicole Kassell.) After a startlingly matter-of-fact series of events, she returns as the unsuspecting guardian of the small, crawling Baby. Despite her best efforts to turn the little boy over to authorities or foist him on someone else, the two become linked almost immediately.

The more that she tries to figure out a way to rid herself of this noisy addition to her life, the more Natasha starts to realize that The Baby is leaving behind a trail of physical and psychological destruction everywhere they go. As she starts to question whether this is actually a coincidence, Natasha also begins to wonder how much power she has to stop it all.

Through the first three-quarters of the season made available to press before the premiere, “The Baby” consciously doesn’t present this toddler in any unrecognizable way. He cries and coos and giggles and stares, but notably does not sprout horns or speak in tongues or summon tiny balls of fire to chuck at his intended targets. The power of both The Baby and “The Baby” is in suggestion, the primal Kuleshov-strengthened idea that everything good or bad in someone’s life can be ascribed to their little new arrival. The Baby is a conversation starter, an excuse, and an all-consuming concern.

So, before long, even simple eye contact from The Baby (played here by twins Arthur and Albie Hills) has a sinister twinge to it. That’s certainly helped from the opening frames by Lucrecia Dalt’s delightfully unsettling score, combining fragments of words and melodies almost like a child sussing out how to speak. This nameless, gurgling newcomer also seems to mess with Natasha’s perception of time, taking the viewer inside vignettes and extended looks at what’s come before in both their lives.

The Baby HBO Michelle de Swarte

“The Baby”

Rekha Garton/HBO

The Baby doesn’t have to be an allegory to be effective, so “The Baby” has the freedom to let raising a child be a nightmarish ordeal for someone not so keen on the idea of kids, regardless of what greater forces might be at play. Still, “The Baby” doesn’t choose its new guardian by accident: Natasha’s general relationship to family means she isn’t exactly bringing a clean slate to this ordeal. The Baby takes a backseat as Natasha confronts some other lingering wounds she’s long been ignoring.

The farther that “The Baby” gets toward its endpoint, these thorny ideas of generational trauma and social responsibility continue to float in and out of this story. “The Baby” does its best to make all of these ideas stick together, but this season feels like it works better in individual pieces than it does together. The small-scale saga of watching Natasha slowly try to manage friends, family, and strangers sometimes feels at odds with the gothic, monumental conflict the show is trying to set up for her elsewhere. When entire episodes can focus on one or the other (as in the season-best Episode 5), there’s a chance for the show to find a groove. In back-and-forth mode, there’s less to grab on to.

The extent to which anyone finds “The Baby” a comedy might be connected to how much they relate to Natasha’s parenting troubles. There might be a dark chuckle of recognition in the things that Natasha says that parents instinctively (or by pressure) tamp down. Anyone who’s been told directly or indirectly that their methods of raising a child are wrong-headed may take a tiny shred of vicarious joy in the fates of those who stray into this story’s path and lose more than their composure.

“The Baby” really seems to be having fun the more it leans into its Brothers Grimm-adjacent DNA. Rather than a Rumplestiltskin type sent to hound Natasha until she breaks, it’s a worldless little tyke in a 15-pound package. Mysterious elders appearing in unexpected places, family secrets, even one character’s art would feel right at home in an old-fashioned picture book designed to scare kids toward virtue. With each new wrinkle that pops up, answering one question by asking five more, it’s easy as a viewer to do what Natasha does: hold on tight and hope things work out for the best.

Grade: B

“The Baby” premieres Sunday, April 24 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO and streaming on HBO Max. 

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