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Fertile ground for drama series

Special to The Times

A decade ago, friends told each other about fertility problems only guardedly. Then came a whoosh of medical advances.

News stories described infertile 40-ish couples offering thousands of dollars for the eggs of bright, beautiful college girls. Breakthroughs like in vitro fertilization and gamete intrafallopian transfer -- responsible for 29,000 births in 2001 in the U.S. -- became part of everyday conversation. By 2003, Monica and Chandler on “Friends” were learning in unsparing clinical terms why they could not conceive: Her uterus was an “inhospitable environment”; his sperm had “low mobility.”

All that was left was for TV to build an entire dramatic series around such intimacies. Which is what two broadcast networks -- NBC and Fox -- recently did, commissioning pilots set in fertility clinics.There is no guarantee you’ll see either show. Network programmers will test-screen the pilots in May and then decide whether to green-light a season of episodes. But industry observers see the dueling pilots as significant on two social fronts: the willingness of TV to take more risks with previously taboo subjects, and an increasingly frank public discussion of infertility.

NBC’s pilot, titled “Inconceivable,” is set in a clinic founded by a woman (“ER’s " Ming-Na) who quits practicing law and goes into the infertility business with the maverick reproductive specialist who allowed her to conceive (Jonathan Cake). It was written by Oliver Goldstick (“Desperate Housewives”) and Marco Pennette (“What I Like About You”) for Tollin/Robbins, a Studio City production company.

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Fox’s show, so far untitled, is set in a clinic run by recently divorced doctors (he’s an endocrinologist, she’s an obstetrician) who share custody of a rebellious teenage daughter. It was written by Sean Jablonski (“Nip/Tuck”) and Jason Katims (“Roswell”) for Imagine Television.

Such coincidences are inevitable in TV, where networks throw themselves at anything resembling the cutting edge. Programmers last year launched dueling Vegas-casino reality shows and “Rocky"-style boxing tournaments. In both cases one competing show quickly withered.

The possibility of a network series about infertility was heartily welcomed by specialists and medical ethicists.

“All these reproductive issues are out of the closet. For the infertile population, this will be extremely valuable,” said Dr. Richard Paulson, chief of USC’s fertility program, who said he had been a consultant on two previous failed efforts to develop a fertility clinic show. “Some 15% of the population isn’t fertile, and the rest of the world couldn’t care less. They say, ‘Just go adopt.’ We are so sympathetic to people having broken legs, cancer, heart disease. People who are fertile have a hard time imagining what it’s like.”

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Dr. Arthur Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said a fertility show offered “a couple seasons’ worth of ethical issues,” and proceeded to tick off some of them: How should age or sexual orientation or mental health affect a woman’s right to have a baby? Is surrogate motherhood baby-selling in disguise? Should the Internet be used to find sperm donors? Should you use a dead person’s sperm? “I could easily give up my day job and start writing plot lines,” Caplan said.

Jablonski, the Fox pilot’s originator, said he had been interested in a fertility clinic show since he worked on an unproduced movie script that involved cloning. “Having researched details of fertility and how it affects marriage and family, it seemed like an incredible vehicle to explore issues of family,” he said. Jablonski pitched the clinic idea in a meeting at Fox, and received an enthusiastic response. “It felt like a very relevant area,” said Fox’s executive vice president of programming, Craig Erwich. The writer then needed to find a producer and went to Imagine, which produces Fox shows “24" and “Arrested Development.”

Imagine Television President David Nevins was immediately empathetic. He’d dealt with fertility issues in his marriage, he said. “TV is about trying to find a fresh franchise for a show.... This is so rich, goes so far beyond getting yuppies pregnant -- all the decisions these doctors have to make about who’s fit for parenting and then all the choices available to them.... We’re trying to use this area as a way to peek behind the curtain of people’s lives, their sex lives, the most intimate decisions they make. Anybody from a teenager up is asking those questions -- How do I find a mate? Do I have children?”

Nevins brought in another writer, Katims, who said he’d also “had a fertility experience,” and was taken by the idea of characters who “are not having the lives they expected. These are the people who life has thrown a curveball.... Fertility is of the moment, in the zeitgeist now. I remember a few days after I got involved in this I walked into a diner in my neighborhood and the morning news was on and there was a story about a woman trying to get impregnated by her husband, who was in a coma.”

The same catharsis held true for writer Goldstick, the creator of the NBC pilot. He’d wanted to write a film script about fertility ever since he and his wife had a child through surrogacy. He called Pennette, a friend, who had had the same experience. They compared notes and Goldstick suggested they each go home and come up with 10 story ideas to see if any overlapped. “None of them did,” he said.

Their show’s clinic is an amalgamation of law office, fertility clinic and surrogacy agency -- “a place that doesn’t exist yet,” Goldstick said. They took the idea to Tollin/Robbins, which had produced Pennette’s short-lived “I’m With Her.” What Pennette did not know was that one of the production partners, Mike Tollin, had also been through the rigors of infertility treatment.

Tollin said he and his wife struggled with medical treatments that finally allowed her to give birth to a girl, now 12. They tried to have a second child, only to experience a miscarriage. They then tried in vitro fertilization, resulting in three failures. “Each one,” Tollin said, “feels like a death.” They eventually adopted a boy, now 6.

“What happens,” Tollin said, “is that you’re going through this very invasive process, and at the same time you’re thinking about what a family really means to you -- what’s it for? Is it about, as we discuss in the script, giving birth or being a parent?”

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With edginess comes risk -- especially given the enormous personal and social stakes of the subject matter. “People don’t understand how much the ability to make babies is thorny with ethical and legal problems,” Caplan said. “The opportunity to scare, frighten, confuse and otherwise befuddle a large segment ... is almost endless.”

The scriptwriters contend that the natural drama of life will suffice.

Tollin remembered a conversation he and his wife had after an in vitro treatment failed. “My wife looked at me and said, ‘We can’t go through this again.’ And I said, ‘We can’t not.’ And then you just toast to each other. You’re lucky when you can take a subject and exorcise those demons.”


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