Of all the new fall shows, NBC’s “Inconceivable,” premiering tonight, is the fringe candidate -- no aliens, feds or crime labs. OK, there is a lab, but it’s filled with people’s sperm and eggs. “Inconceivable” is a drama (with light comedic elements) set at the Family Options Fertility Clinic. NBC ordered it, then punted, coaxing it over to the lesser spotlight of Friday nights.
The show, created by experienced TV writers Oliver Goldstick and Marco Pennette, does seem to be poking its head out over a kind of “Is America ready for this?” cliff, even if hospital dramas aren’t necessarily even set in hospitals anymore. We’ve moved on to centers of more elective procedures. “Inconceivable,” mind you, is no “Nip/Tuck,” whose third-season premiere this week saw a plastic surgeon deal with a morbidly obese woman stuck to her sofa while his partner recovered from the trauma of being raped by a serial slasher called “The Carver.” Story resolution, for that doctor, came in the form of a palliative threesome. We like to watch.
“Nip/Tuck” has drawn some advertiser backlash, but nothing that has kept it from steamrolling into basic-cable living rooms. Face-lifts and breast augmentations, the trend whence the show sprang, are this day and age’s accessorizing; it’s got its own reality show, Fox’s “The Swan,” for God’s sake.
“Inconceivable” is a much more tentative exercise than “Nip/Tuck,” offering only the mildest hints of comment on the world it depicts, of affluent people going to great lengths to bear children. But Jonathan Cake’s wry, malleable face offers a kind of entry point into the show’s more complex issues. He plays Dr. Malcolm Bowers, a good-hearted but egomaniacal cad who’s never seen a womb he didn’t think he could impregnate, including that of Rachel Lu (Ming-Na), who co-owns the clinic.
Cake is particularly big in his role, a breath of fresh air from the world of de-accented actors; the producers, thankfully, don’t make him lose his mellifluous British brogue. Somewhere, Hugh Laurie is grumbling to his agent.
“You start playing God, God’s gonna start playing you” is not something Dr. Bowers would ever say. The pilot gives that expositional line to a side character. Bowers is too busy for that -- bedding down with a colleague while orchestrating a magazine profile while brushing aside a potential lawsuit against the clinic after the surrogate for a white couple gives birth to an African American baby. As if that weren’t enough, deep into the episode, wanting to help a patient conceive via a complicated procedure, he fetches Angie Harmon, a late addition to the cast.
Ming-Na, meanwhile, who’s transferred over to “Inconceivable” from that old saw “ER,” plays a single mother and moral conscience to Cake’s cowboy. Like the president of the Hair Club for Men, she’s not just the president, and the show has her struggling with what to tell her son, beyond that Daddy is “someone who helped Mommy bring you into the world.” There’s also staff psychologist Dr. Lydia Crawford, played by Alfre Woodard, offering soulful empathy in a guest role before she heads over to Wisteria Lane as the newest neighbor on “Desperate Housewives.”
In its first episode, “Inconceivable” brings onstage a gamut of themes and conflicted wannabe parents -- the soldier, the priest, the gay couple. The Marine is tormented about what to do with the frozen eggs of his late wife, who was killed in Iraq, the priest is conflicted about the whole insemination issue, and the more neurotic half of the gay couple is picking through the surrogate’s trash while warning her that oral sex during pregnancy can cause air embolisms.
It’s a bit overboard, the idea that the fabric of America comes through the doors of a pricey fertility clinic. On the other hand, in this season of otherworldy overload, that same messy muchness also comes across as unexpectedly grounded in human reality.
When: 10 to 11 p.m.
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).
Jonathan Cake...Dr. Malcolm Bowers
Angie Harmon...Dr. Nora Campbell
Joelle Carter...Patrice Locicero
Mary Catherine Garrison...Marissa Jaffee
David Norona...Scott Garcia
Reynaldo Rosales...Angel Hernandez
Alfre Woodard (guest)...Lydia Crawford
Executive producers, co-creators, writers: Marco Pennette and Oliver Goldstick. Executive producers: Joe Davola, Brian Robbins, Mike Tollin.