Imagine you’re an accomplished, attractive 41-year-old single woman who is eager to start a family. In 2020, there are options available: You could look into adoption or a sperm donor, or you could keep swiping in hopes of finding the ideal partner and co-parent.
Or, if you’re Kristy Katzmann, there’s reality TV.
She is the star of “Labor of Love,” a new dating show premiering Thursday on Fox. It follows Katzmann as she dates 15 men with the goal of selecting one to be the father of her child. Think of it as “The Bachelorette” set to the rhythm of a ticking biological clock.
Kristin Davis — the actress who played Charlotte York, a character who followed a circuitous path to motherhood on “Sex and the City” — plays the role of host and confidant. At the end of each episode, she and Katzmann review her suitors using an app. Unsuitable mates are dispatched with a singularly brutal catchphrase: “I don’t see us starting a family together.”
There are the customarily elaborate reality-TV dates involving chocolate-covered strawberries, glamping and fireworks. But there are also challenges designed to reveal each man’s strengths and weaknesses as a potential parent and partner — emphasis on “reveal.”
In Thursday’s premiere, the “fathers to be” are introduced to Katzmann at a cocktail mixer. But before they can finish their Old Fashioneds, they are asked to provide a sperm sample. The men dutifully line up outside a mobile collection center — a.k.a. trailer — go inside to do their thing, then find out how their swimmers stack up against the competition. In a later challenge, producers stage a fake bear ambush during a camping trip to test the contestants’ protective instincts.
The premise of “Labor of Love” might initially seem shocking, especially since it comes from Fox — a network that has consistently managed to reach new lows in the genre, including “Joe Millionaire” (humble construction worker tricks dimwitted gold diggers) and “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’” (Prince Harry lookalike tricks dimwitted gold diggers).
But for someone like Kurtzmann, who is now 42, reality TV is also wonderfully efficient: being able to choose from 15 eligible men who say they are ready for a family (and have passed a background check) eliminates a lot of time wasted on small talk.
“I think a lot of women are in the same position as me,” says Katzmann, an account manager for a natural products company. “So, what maybe seems outlandish at the start is actually a really relatable story. And there is so much heart and soul in the show.”
Katzmann spent most of her 30s focused on her career, socializing with friends in Chicago and traveling the world. A marriage at 37 ended after six months. She had already starting seeing a fertility specialist and exploring options such as co-parenting and sperm donation when a friend sent her the casting call for “Labor of Love.”
“I thought the baby piece would fall into place — I’d meet the right person, we’d start a family. But when I turned 40 those alarms were really going off.”
Her experience is hardly unique. The average age of a first-time mother in the United States has been steadily creeping up for decades. This is particularly true for college-educated women, who are on average seven years older when their first child is born than women without college degrees, and women in major cities.
The superficial world of reality dating shows has already begun to reflect a more mature reality: The star of the now-postponed upcoming season of “The Bachelorette” is 39-year-old Clare Crawley, an alumna of the franchise who is 12 years older than the average lead and has spoken openly of her desire to start a family. (When she was dumped by bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis, she told him, “I’d never want my children having a father like you.”)
Katzmann also has some prior reality TV experience: She was a contestant on “The Bachelor” when she was in her late 20s. “That was a very different time in my life and it’s something I never thought I would do again. It shows you how much I believe in love.”
But she was intrigued by the opportunity to date lots of men she knew were ready for a family.
“I was really open to all possibilities of how this could work out, but I went into it with the intention of wanting to fall in love with a man who was also ready to start a family and we could go on that journey together,” she says.
The series comes from executive producers Howard T. Owens and Ben Silverman, veterans in the unscripted space. “We wanted to approach it from a perspective of female empowerment with the thought that this could be the first quote-unquote relationship show where the real relationship focuses on a woman and her desire to have a child and the men are kind of secondary,” says Owens.
They operated from the assumption that there were plenty of men in the same place as Katzmann. “We believe that men, just like women, have their own version of a biological clock. Not all men want to be 50-year-old silver foxes dating 25-year-olds.”
The producers cast the eligible bachelors/fathers-to-be using dating apps as well as word of mouth. They say it was not difficult to find a bevy of single men who were eager to start a family, but the traits that make for a good partner and parent do not necessarily make for scintillating reality TV.
Katzmann was looking for someone “who wanted to be a hands-on dad and was excited about their life, had confidence, had integrity, was kind, and could be a giving partner.” She was “absolutely” concerned that reality TV might not be the best place to find someone with these traits, which is why the challenges were designed to sort out “who is there for the right reasons and who is not,” she says.
Stewart Gill, the chief executive of a financial tech company, had recently moved back to California from Europe and was, he says, “the typical guy trying to find love on the internet, swiping right” when he was approached about starring on the show. He initially turned it down, assuming reality TV was not for him. And there were moments when he had doubts.
“When the sperm sample cups came out, that was the first time I was thinking, ‘Did I make the right decision?’” he says. “The trailer itself started swaying a little bit because the other guys were doing their thing. There was no easing into it. You meet this beautiful woman and all of a sudden it’s like: sperm sample.”
But Katzmann was impressed by their commitment. “Whether you’re doing this as a man or a woman, fertility, talking about having a family, having a baby, this is very vulnerable for everyone. To do that right after meeting me on TV, I kind of fell in love with all the guys in that moment,” she says.
Katzmann filmed the show early last year, and can’t disclose just how — or if — her life has changed in the months since, but she speaks in glowing terms about the overall experience.
“I’m really hoping that we can open doors, show women they’re not alone, show women that there are still opportunities out there but that you do have to be willing to step outside the box.”