*This was first published on Exhale.*
The characters on the television drama Parenthood experience issues many families face: a mother going through cancer, a child struggling to adjust to his adopted family, and a brother learning the intricacies of his interracial family. The emotion and connection viewers feel to the extended Braverman clan is what makes Parenthood such an addictive series to watch.
On January 8, 2013, in an episode titled “Small Victories,” Parenthood joined a handful of TV series (such as Maude, Friday Night Lights andDeGrassi:The Next Generation) to feature a story about a personal experience with abortion. Before it even aired, Parenthood warned its viewers by Twitter to: “have your tissues handy.”
Sarah Watson is co-executive producer for Parenthood and was the writer of “Small Victories.” Sarah is known for her ability to tackle tough topics with humanity and empathy, including an episode earlier this season about the N-word. “It’s hard,” Ms. Watson says “to write about big, weighty issues [like racism or abortion] with experiences that are not your own. It requires incredible care. They are challenging stories as a writer” she revealed in a recent interview. And, she affirms that she’s really satisfied with how they both turned out.
On the abortion episode, we watch Amy tell Drew she’s pregnant and have the chance to witness what it’s like when a young couple reacts to the news and each expresses their emotions in different ways. We see them at a Planned Parenthood and, afterward, hear Amy ask “Do I look normal?” While Amy withdraws emotionally from Drew, we watch Drew reach out to his sister for support, and at the end of the episode show up at his mother’s door crying. We feel for Drew and wonder about what Amy’s going through.
Ms. Watson shared that the goal of the Parenthood writers was “not to make a statement about abortion being right or wrong but to tell a story that was true to the characters.” While Ms. Watson can’t pinpoint exactly when Amy got pregnant (it seems characters do have imaginary lives beyond what’s written for them) she does know Amy and Drew are well-educated and use birth control. But, she says, “no one is perfect.” Because Amy is a self-assured, very together young woman who is used to doing the right thing, she feels embarrassed about her mistake. While many viewers criticized Amy for her emotional reaction, it’s certainly a real one.
To clear up any lingering doubts out there in TV-land, Ms. Watson confirms: “Amy definitely had an abortion.”
Given that it is so unusual to see personal stories with abortion play out on entertainment television, stories like these can be incredibly challenging for viewers, including those who have had abortions. Viewers who have had abortions are often looking to see their own story – their relationships, decisions, and feelings – reflected back to them. When the abortion on TV doesn’t look or sound like the abortion a viewer experienced it can seem like the writer is getting it wrong. Ms. Watson confirms that when dealing with such intimate stories, “everyone who has had that experience thinks we should play it like theirs.” But, the goal of writing is always to “tell stories in a real way that never glamorizes and shows the consequences of what happens,” says Sarah.
We think she got it exactly right. Every word and every line that Amy and Drew spoke echo real words we’ve heard from our talkline callers. Their story might not look like everyone’s, but it certainly reflects someone’s.
Sarah admits she was a little more nervous to tell her parents about the episode then she was with any public reaction. But afterward, she found her parents were just as supportive as the viewers. Sarah reports she “received a lot of tweets and not a single one was negative.”
Thank you, Sarah.