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The best thing about HBO’s eight-part British horror comedy The Baby is that it rarely exceeds thirty minutes per episode. The worst thing about The Baby is that it’s a TV series at all.
Given its thin and derivative premise, not to mention a protagonist so churlish even her own friends and family can’t stand to be around her, it’s a wonder how The Baby ballooned from a blastocyst of an idea to a fully gestated four-hour event. A mere 90-minute film would have more than sufficed to tell this dour story.
Airdate: 10:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24 (HBO)
Cast: Michelle de Swarte, Amira Ghazalla, Amber Grappy, Sinéad Cusack, Tanya Reynolds, Seyan Sarvan, Albie Pascal Hills, Arthur Levi Hills
Created by: Siân Robins-Grace and Lucy Gaymer
Directed by: Nicole Kassell
The Baby, like many a terror tale before it, uses a creepy infant as metaphor for all the ills associated with parenting, and by extension, womanhood. From “childbirth as body horror” to “motherhood as chattel slavery” to “mommy wars as social paranoia,” there’s no common feminist reading of pregnancy and childcare that creators Siân Robins-Grace and Lucy Gaymer haven’t recycled here, even as they tap into acutely millennial anxieties about childrearing. We’ve seen it before in Rosemary’s Baby, It’s Alive, Eraserhead, The Brood, The Unborn, Prevenge, The Lost Daughter, etc. Heck, at some point, the villain in question even appears to take on some Voldemort-like qualities (at least in terms of near-immortality and personal origins). It’s all a bit too obvious.
What makes this rendition of infant monstrosity particularly odious isn’t just the fact that The Baby seemingly argues that children born from coercion are intrinsically “tainted” — evil or otherwise. It’s also plainly dull.
Charismatic Michelle de Swarte plays Natasha, a 38-year-old chef floating through life barely tethered to family or future plans. Her friends keep having babies and she keeps alienating them with her thoughtless comments, like when she effectively asks a new mother if she regrets giving birth or implies her pregnant buddy still has time to get an abortion if she likes. “Dicks,” she spittingly calls them for entering this new phase of their lives. (In modern fashion, we’re later introduced to a trauma plot intended to neatly and sympathetically explain away Natasha’s scorn for motherhood.) Her own younger sister, Bobbi (Amber Grappy), who’s seeking to adopt her own baby, initiated an estrangement years ago due to Natasha’s overbearing nature. If no one else wants to spend time with her, then why would the writers think we do?
When a nameless baby (Albie Pascal Hills and Arthur Levi Hills) literally falls into Natasha’s life — from a cliff, no less — and starts leaving bloodied bodies in his wake, she has no way to shake the kid: He just keeps showing up until she feels forced to take on his daily care while she unravels the mystery of his roots. Since I didn’t laugh or crack a smile once while watching the six episodes available for review, I suppose the inherent humor here arises from the visual gag of the baby’s cuteness juxtaposed against the annihilation surrounding him. He’s not mutated or gruesome in any way; he’s simply a little white baby with blondish wisps of hair who looks about six months old. He smiles, he coos, he cries. His victims choke on food, crash their cars, amputate their fingers in prams.
Once he enters Natasha’s reluctant care, his presence puts a spell on her associates. Everyone who previously knew her to be childless starts to think this is her baby, no matter her protestations. Even Natasha momentarily wonders if he’s been hers all along. When a grizzled crone calling herself Mrs. Eaves (Amira Ghazalla) appears at her apartment demanding Natasha kill the thing, The Baby becomes a moral play. (It’s almost as though Robins-Grace and Gaymer fleshed this series from the infamous “baby Hitler” philosophical problem: “If you went back in time, could you or would you kill little baby Adolf Hitler sleeping in his crib?”)
As it turns out, Natasha, who otherwise resists every prickle of motherly instinct, can’t just bludgeon or suffocate the child. But neither can she wait to run out the clock on a being that will inevitably get bored and off her to imprint on a new female stranger.
The Baby is a stuffed diaper of irritating quirkiness: the plight of two queer magicians trying to grow their family; a kibbutz-like cult where Natasha must confront her past; Children of the Corn-like crazed child mayhem; a dog getting graphically smashed into bits; characters constantly passing out and waking up disoriented.
Despite its overall dragging nature, The Baby is most effective in its fifth episode, when it finally divulges a backstory so eldritch and grotesque and heartbreaking that I actually became angry at the show’s undeniably politicized manipulations. The episode, which prominently features series highlight Tanya Reynolds (Sex Education, Emma), is a gripping narrative hauntingly told, but its ultimate thematic implications felt detestable to me.. With its all-too-easy conclusions about childhood abandonment, The Baby comes across as a horror series created for followers of pop-psych TikTok.
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