The boozy mixer is a signature of the first episode of reality TV dating shows: Singles mill about clutching flutes of bubbly while trying to stand out from the pack (and a few do, often by degree-of-intoxication). Fox’s new series Labor of Love, hosted by Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis, is no exception. The premiere starts with 15 suited men sipping at clinking cocktail glasses while vying for time with the show’s star, Kristy Katzmann, a long-ago Bachelor contestant who never found lasting love. But soon, within the first 20 minutes of the show, the cliche setup is disrupted: the cocktail party is crashed by waiters carrying trays of specimen cups instead of champagne flutes.
Now that everyone is well-lubricated, it’s time for the men to drop trou and jerk off into cups. Parked nearby is a “mobile collection unit.” If you want to get technical, it’s a masturbation bus. Katzmann stands outside, waiting for their samples, which will be analyzed for a sperm count.
Labor of Love is a reality series framed around 41-year-old Katzmann’s search for, above all, a co-parent. The show puts the men through challenges meant to prove their paternal fitness, everything from burping baby dolls to setting up a campground. The idea is that she and a winning contestant will “skip the dating and go straight to baby-making,” as Davis puts it while explaining the show’s outrageous premise in a voiceover. At this, it might seem that Fox has upped the ante of both Love Is Blind and Married at First Sight, where couples swiftly get engaged or tie the knot, to a competition culminating in baby-making. Except, the contestants begin dating Katzmann in the second episode, so there is no “skipping,” and the exact parameters of said baby-making remain unclear.
It seems unlikely that the show will end with an elaborate insemination ritual, but some kind of proposal of procreation, a vow to reproduce together, is probable. The advertisement for the show features Katzmann flanked by men holding out pacifiers instead of roses or diamond rings. Clearly, Labor of Love is designed to shock with its serving up of sperm receptacles on silver platters and impotent claims of skipping “straight to baby-making,” but its most daring aspect is simply centering talk of those things purported to scare heterosexual men away in the search for love: babies, parenthood, and the biological clock. The usual romantic fantasy is interrupted with practicalities around reproduction and child-rearing.
It’s a surreal recasting of the reality TV dating script, where love and marriage are replaced with babies and parenthood. During the cocktail mixer, one guy breaks the ice with his fellow contestants by saying, “So we’re all gonna make babies, huh?” (This particular contestant seems to have missed that it’s a competition.) Later in the first episode, a contestant tells the camera in a one-on-one interview of first setting eyes on Katzmann: “The whole time I’m thinking, Hope you’re ready to make a lot of babies with me.” Another tells her directly, “When I saw you walk down those steps, I thought, Oh my gosh, that could be the future mother to my children.” The run-of-the-mill romantic myth-making that allows reality-TV stars to fall in love with a stranger in mere days is redirected toward reproduction.
On Bachelor and Bachelorette, the question asked by the audience, and among contestants, is whether someone is there for the “right reasons,” meaning love and marriage, as opposed to free booze or fame via reality TV. Labor of Love asks the same question while adding an additional, above all, concern: Does he want a baby, and is he ready for one? In the first episode, viewers see a contestant named Jason drinking to the point of slurring, and a housemate invokes the obligatory “here for the right reasons” critique. But then we see another housemate, Mario, help Jason to the toilet to puke, before it cuts to footage of Mario’s parents talking about how dedicated he would be as a father. Typical reality TV hijinks become tests dividing the fathers from the boys. In the second episode, much screen time is given to one man’s search for his beloved stuffed animal that a fellow contestant has stolen as a prank. He searches the house up and down, even overturning a mattress, all while wearing red cowboy boots, no shirt, and a cat hoodie with attached paws (like so).
Davis herself says in the show’s preamble that the aim of the various challenges are for Katzmann to assess “who is really here to start a family with her and who is still single because they aren’t ready.” When Katzmann lets men go, she says: “I don’t see us starting a family together.” The ongoing paternal assessment literally hangs over the men: On the wall in their shared house is a lit-up, all caps sign reading: “FATHER HOOD.” As one contestant sagely put it to his housemates, “Um, it’s no secret why this is on the wall. Think about that.”
Of course, just moments into the first episode, paternal readiness is tested quite literally. After the men visit the mobile jizz unit, a fertility doctor is brought in to tell the men—some of them visibly swallowing hard—that guys have a biological clock, too. Then each man is given a folder with test results revealing his sperm count. “Oh yeah, I’m over 100 million, baby,” shouts one of the hard-swallowing men. (“Shit, I’m ready, let’s have some kids,” he later tells the camera.) The man with the highest count—317 million “active swimmers”— is awarded a gleaming first-place trophy. An actual trophy. Later, a fellow contestant gives him the nickname “King Sperm.”
In the second episode, the evaluation takes a turn for the traditionalist. The group is taken into the woods for a camping trip and a “ranger” promptly visits to give instructions on what to do if they encounter any of the black bears that roam the area. Then, the men are pulled aside for one-on-ones with Katzmann during which someone in a bear suit meanders out of the woods. It’s another challenge. “This drill is going to give me insight into how these guys are going to be strong and protective fathers,” Katzmann tells the camera. For the most part, the men do as instructed by the ranger, standing tall like a cactus while yelling, “Git! Git!” Some protectively place Katzmann behind them while they yell at the fake bear that most seem to believe is real. “His first reaction was concerned about protecting me,” she says of one contestant. “That is how I want the father of my children to respond.” At the end of the experiment, she makes a proclamation of which men “would be the best protectors of the family.” Yikes.
The best thing that can be said about Labor of Love is that it’s mildly refreshing to see a woman talk about practical considerations around reproduction during a first date without it being framed as scary, desperate, or unattractive. The show is sympathetic to the ways that biology constrains cisgender, heterosexual women’s reproductive wishes: We learn that Katzmann married in her late 30s only to divorce six months later because “it got so bad.” Since then, dating has not been kind to her: “Men my age have already ruled me out because they think I’m too old to have kids.” Davis tells the audience that she herself spent most of her 30s focused on work and ended up in a similar “predicament” to Katzmann, ultimately deciding on adoption, just as her fictional counterpart on Sex and the City did.
Needless to say, that sympathy does not lead to a critical examination of norms around love, marriage, and baby-making. (I mean, lol, of course not.) We learn that Katzmann has frozen her eggs and will go it alone if she doesn’t find a partner, but there is no discussion of the lack of structural support that can make single motherhood a difficult choice. (Lol, again.) Instead, the series props up old patriarchal values, re-emphasizing women’s dependency on men for support and protection. (That fucking fake bear!)
The show may seem an inevitable outcome of the ratcheting up of reality TV stakes, but Labor of Love feels less an indictment of dating shows than popular expectations around love. I’ve never seen such an unintentionally successful lampooning of the traditional project of procreative heterosexual marriage. It simply places that project in its starkest, no-time-to-fuck-around terms: A woman sets out to find love, friendship, and chemistry with one man who is stable, mature, replete with parenting skills, and ready to have kids, all within the timetabled constraints of reproductive biology? That’s nuts. It might not seem quite so outrageous when played out over the course of many years, as opposed to within the limits of a weeks-long reality-TV competition, but it is still, essentially, nuts.
I finished the first episode and then spent the next half hour staring into the middle-distance while contemplating a utopian co-parenting commune.