After just watching the premiere episode of an upcoming docuseries about adults with Down syndrome, I drew a deep breath and said “Whew,” which then morphed into “Wow.”
It’s the best way I know to describe my initial reaction to this show. And as other critics will tell you (whether they write about TV, movies, theater, art or whatever), the distillation of one’s initial reaction is the first challenge in writing a review of something, because that first reaction is really the purest and most accurate.
My “wow” reaction to this show -- called “Born This Way” and premiering next Tuesday night (Dec. 8) on A&E) -- is not necessarily meant to award this show with a four-star rating indicating perfection. But the word does reflect the experience of watching this show, which tackles its subject in new and surprising ways.
“Born This Way” focuses on a group of seven Down syndrome adults living in Los Angeles. The show’s running theme is predictable because it’s the same one posited in every cable docuseries centered on a group of people who are “different” -- be they dwarfs, the morbidly obese, the exceptionally tall, Amish, Hutterite or polygamist (all groups who have been given the reality-show treatment in recent years).
Like those other shows, this show positions these Down syndrome adults as no different from anyone else “except for” (and this is the key thing) the fact that they were born with Down syndrome. So in fact, they are different, but the sameness comes from their hopes, dreams and the mundane ways in which they live their lives.
It’s in this last respect that “Born This Way” resembles all other such reality-TV shows as you hear these people talk about how much they enjoy “hanging out” and “chillaxing.” Like other people, they love their parents, aspire to have jobs (which some of them already have) and seek romance.
As I have often written throughout the 10-plus-year history of these kinds of “everyday life” reality TV shows, watching people eat dinner, ride in cars and talk about themselves -- no matter who they are -- is dull. Yes, producers of “Born This Way,” in this respect, your show is a lot like all the others.
They even have the same (seemingly) unrealistic dreams as other people. One of them -- John, 28, an African-American -- wants to be a rapper (and, in fact, already has made a few rap videos). Megan, 22, wants to be a film producer. She also says she’s a singer-songwriter.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll attain these goals. If this show teaches us anything, it’s that anything is possible. As it happens, Megan is already a motivational speaker on the subject of Down syndrome and also runs some sort of small business (it’s not really defined in the premiere of “Born This Way,” but it seems to be some sort of craft business).
But then come moments of stunning revelation and emotion. One of the women -- Elena, 28 -- breaks down at the very sound of the phrase “Down syndrome” because, she explains, she was relentlessly teased (if not abused) by other children when she was younger.
And then there was the sudden, matter-of-fact testimony of John, who describes how doctors offered his mother the option of an abortion when they informed her that her baby would be a boy with Down syndrome.
“[Before] I was born, the doctors told my mom that I’ll be Down syndrome and so the doctors asked her if she wanted to have an abortion of me,” John tells the others in a discussion they held in reaction to Elena’s emotional response to the Down syndrome phrase.
The show then cuts to John’s mother, Joyce. “When I found out from the doctors at the amniocentesis,” Joyce says, “they first said it was a boy. They then said Down syndrome. 'Don’t expect a lot. He will never be an asset to society. He will never be a productive citizen.' Those are the words they tell you -- you know, all negative. I just said, No, John is gonna be my child. I will take care of him. He has Down syndrome, but it’s not gonna limit him.”
Cut back to John, who says: “I’m here. I’m alive. I’m human.” Wow.
“Born This Way” premieres Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 10 p.m. Eastern on A&E.