On a TV show, writers call the shots, and actors generally do their bidding. But one life event can reverse that relationship: When an actor is pregnant, showrunners are forced to reconsider the stories they’ve laid out and ask themselves, “Should we write this pregnancy in?”
“Elizabeth, carrying a laundry basket, enters from the hallway,” reads a line in the script of “Persona Non Grata,” the final episode of Season 4 of The Americans, which aired Wednesday. Keri Russell was pregnant during the filming of this season, and though by all accounts she continued to do her own stunts, the pregnancy forced showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to consider some changes. “We could’ve made that character pregnant and given them another baby,” Fields told me on the Americans Insider podcast. “We definitely talked about that for a while, but it just didn’t seem to fit. We didn’t want to give them a new kid at this point.” In fact, as anyone who watched last night’s finale now knows, Weisberg and Fields did introduce another offspring—we learned that Mischa, the son Philip Jennings fathered before he became a KGB spy, is heading to America—so the Jenningses will be dealing with three “kids” next season, although none of them are infants.
The Jenningses’ two American-born children, Paige and Henry, are teenagers, and introducing a baby into the mix would have disrupted the family’s dynamic. Similar considerations led the creators of Freeform’s The Fosters to have a character lose a baby. Back in 2014, Sherri Saum, who plays Lena Adams Foster, one half of the couple parenting five teens, was pregnant with twins. Executive producer Joanna Johnson told me that they were excited about incorporating Saum’s pregnancy into the show. Unlike her partner, Stef, Lena had never given birth to a child, and Johnson—whose own two children are adopted—said she could imagine Lena longing for that experience. Lena is also the only person who doesn’t have a blood connection to someone else in the household; she has never raised an infant; and she lives in a home where her own ethnicity is not reflected.
At the same time, though, the writers didn’t want to introduce a baby. The logistics of working with infants are daunting—because of regulations limiting the hours babies can spend on set, shows need to sign up twins or triplets—and, Johnson said: “We didn’t want to be that show where you never see the baby. That didn’t feel authentic, and we try to be authentic as much as we can.” The Fosters is about the challenges of raising five kids who are all around the same age—a premise the addition of an infant would derail. “And then there was great drama to be had in facing the loss” of a much-wanted baby, Johnson added.
In “Mother,” which Johnson wrote, Lena loses the baby when severe pre-eclampsia forces doctors to deliver it at 20 weeks. When the episode was filmed, Saum was about eight months pregnant, and the show’s producers were nervous about asking her to do the scene. Johnson explained: “We went to her, and we said, ‘This is what we’re thinking, and this is why. Can you play this? If you don’t feel you want to, we won’t do it.’ But Sherri is phenomenally professional, and she said: ‘That’s what it needs to be. Absolutely, I can.’ ”
As the recent BBC production of The Night Manager proved, pregnancy can also accentuate a character’s vulnerability. In John le Carré’s 1993 thriller, the honorable British intelligence agent fighting to bring arms dealer Richard Roper to justice was Leonard Burr, a gruff Yorkshireman. In the TV version, Leonard became Angela, a down-to-earth and very pregnant Yorkshirewoman. The team behind the TV adaptation had always intended to feminize the role—as executive producer Stephen Garrett told the Television Critics Association gathering in January, that was in part a recognition that the spy world was less of a male preserve in 2011, when the mini-series is set, than it was in 1993. But when Olivia Colman was offered the role, she told the creative team that she was expecting. “It became additionally exciting to have not just a woman in that role as the moral center of this story but a very pregnant woman in this very threatening world,” Garrett explained. The added poignancy was most obvious in a scene in the final episode, when Burr narrowly escapes being discovered in Roper’s hotel room. As she enters the elevator, relieved at having survived the close call, she tenderly touches her belly, and the danger she had faced when one of Roper’s enforcers had been just inches from her hiding place suddenly seems doubly terrifying.
At least one showrunner added the complication of pregnancy just because he could. Two years ago, Adam Reed, the creator of FX’s animated series Archer, put a bun in the oven of kickass international spy Lana Kane. While The Fosters elected not to add an infant because they didn’t want to have to explain why the baby was never seen, iconoclast Reed actively wanted to make fun of that infuriating TV trope. Asked why he had brought a baby into the mix, he told the Daily Beast: “I worry that people will get bored of the show, so I figure, ‘Here comes cousin Oliver!’ But the baby’s not along on every mission. It’s like shows where the kid would ostensibly be part of the family, but then you’re just like, ‘Oh, where’s our kids? They’re over at Joe’s house,’ and they won’t be in the rest of the episode.”
Of course, actresses have been reproducing since before the invention of television, and over the years, directors have developed an arsenal of tried and true techniques for hiding a pregnant belly. This year, a couple of comedies drew attention to their distraction techniques. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) went undercover in a Texas jail and wore a “fake” baby bump so that she could hold regular consultations with her ob-gyn, who was actually another cop; and on New Girl, a heavily pregnant Zooey Deschanel avoided the stomach-revealing problem of standing up by injuring her ankle, which forced Jess Day to spend much of the first episode of Season 5 in bed or tooling around on a neighbor’s mobility scooter. For the most part, though, shows rely on voluminous clothing, open fridge doors, cushions, grocery bags, and, of course, laundry baskets.