'Born This Way': TV Review

Adam Taylor/A&E
Perspective-broadening.
12/8/2015

This six-episode docuseries, from the team behind 'The Real World,' explores the lives of seven young adults with Down syndrome.

Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit song “Born This Way” has since become a popular phrase in pop culture, a catch-all saying to describe anyone who feels they veer from society’s definition of “typical” or “normal."

The new A&E show Born This Way takes the phrase quite literally. The six-episode docuseries follows seven young adults with Down syndrome living in Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that the project is from Bunim-Murray Productions, the same company behind the long-running The Real World franchise. The group of friends, all brought together by the L.A. community center Leaps n Boundz, flirt, fight and support each other. The show, with its confessional-style interviews and constant self-promotion within the episode (every commercial break lets you know what’s coming next), has the beat and feel of Real World. By treating the cast of Born This Way in much the same way they would treat any reality-show participants, the producers avoid any kind of condescending or patronizing tone.

What distinguishes the series is that it also provides viewers with the perspective of the parents. Single mother Kris is so wrapped up in her identity as a parent that she introduces herself merely as “Megan’s mom” and has to be reminded that she actually has a first name. John’s mom Joyce recalls getting the results of her amniocentesis when doctors told her that her son would “never be an asset to society.”

The parents are extremely forthcoming. “Interestingly enough, it has not been the challenge I thought it would be when we had her,” says Cristina's father. Elena’s mother admits that having a daughter with Down syndrome was a “shame for the family” and that all she could do when Elena was born was wish she "could have gave [sic] birth to a normal child.” While her reaction is understandable, that kind of brutally honest sentiment is hard to hear. Although Elena’s parents are now completely accepting of their daughter, the lasting effects of her parents’ initial shame is evident. The very emotional Elena has a hard time even hearing the term “Down syndrome.”

Some of the parents’ worries are typical. “We follow a different timeline ... but the feelings are the same,” says Rachel’s dad. Many worry about their children’s romantic relationships. What these young adults want ultimately is independence, which will be a challenge not only for them but for their parents as well. As every parent knows, letting go can often be the hardest part. Megan wants to move to L.A. to become a film producer. That’s a difficult career to break into no matter what your circumstances.

The cast members all have distinct personalities and different levels of abilities. Steven has mosaic Down syndrome, a less common form of the genetic disorder. Typically people with mosaic Down syndrome are higher-functioning, which his parents admit was a challenge growing up, because Steven “fit in between special ed and non-special ed.” Many of the participants have jobs; Megan even has her own clothing business. Sean is an amazing golfer with a room full of trophies to show for it. Some of the adults are outgoing, some are shy. Some are the peacemakers of the group, while others are the troublemakers.

The participants talk about the opposite sex early and often. “I kind of feel like I’m the Matt Damon of the bunch,” says Steven. Megan describes herself as “Tyler Perry’s future ex-wife.” Sean is “a huge ladies man.” Rachel is “boy crazy.” Since Born This Way clearly aims to enlighten viewers, let’s hope that the remaining five episodes focus on more than just the participants' dating life.  

These young adults deserve more than that.

Airdate: Tuesday, Dec. 8, 10 p.m. ET/PT (A&E).

 

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