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Television Review

There's much to cry about in NBC's 'Baby Borrowers'

Sean is among 10 teens on a new reality show trying out parenthood with a borrowed baby. Sean is among 10 teens on a new reality show trying out parenthood with a borrowed baby. (Tommy Baynard/NBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 25, 2008

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The influential 1978 documentary "Scared Straight" warned young delinquents away from jail by letting convicts lecture them on the nightmares of prison life. "The Baby Borrowers," a new NBC reality show based on a British series, tries to freak out five teen couples by steeping them in the responsibilities of pregnancy and parenthood. It's "Scared Abstinent" or, to others, "Scared Protected."

Each teen couple is put up in their own suburban McHome on a pristine cul-de-sac, where they are subjected to a series of three-day tests. First they must care for an infant, then a toddler, then a preteen, then a teen, and finally an elderly person. Presumably, the psychological obstacle course, which begins tonight at 9 on Channel 7, will ultimately steer the kids away from the denial they may have about the difficulties of early pregnancy. NBC is giving them what the narrator calls "a great big dose of real life" - reality style, of course, beginning with 24 hours in a bulky pregnancy simulator.

But forget about the teens who may regard 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, who gave birth last week, as a role model, or the girls in Gloucester who allegedly made a pregnancy pact. For me, "The Baby Borrowers" serves primarily as a meta-cautionary tale about the strange decisions of those who involve themselves in reality TV.

I don't think I'll be alone in my preoccupation with the true parents of the infants on the show - the owners of the borrowed babies. These new parents are meant to be supporting characters, appearing only occasionally to advise the pimply stars. And yet I couldn't stop thinking about them. Maybe they've loaned their babies to unknown teens for three days for the betterment of society, but still, they're loaning their babies.

"The Baby Borrowers" does allow these real parents to monitor their child via hidden camera, and there is a professional nanny on hand in each home. But still, they're loaning their babies. I couldn't shake it.

In the second episode, the narrator reminds us that these real parents are letting the teens experiment on "their most precious thing of all." Thing?

Anyhow, the teens predictably struggle with the responsibilities of child care. There's as much crying and whining by the couples as there is by the babies. In a twist, a couple from New Hampshire seems to trade roles. Sean begins the show uninterested in having kids, while Kelsey is all maternal longing. But their loaner baby cottons to Sean, leaving Kelsey out in the cold.

Meanwhile, a moody teen named Alicea decides to pull back from the experiment once her loaner infant's mother gives her a talking-to. When the show requires one member of the couple to go to work, she can't get out of the house fast enough. She doesn't like being yelled at, and especially, I imagine, by a mother who is letting strangers care for her baby.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.