Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
In a recent Washington Post column, Richard Cohen caused much-deserved controversy when he said that conservatives would look at the biracial family of New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and see anything but what they conceive of as “family.” Wait until Cohen gets ahold of the upstart clan at the center of MTV’s Generation Cryo. It’s one created by science, made up of a network of half-siblings that all originate from the same Oakland-based sperm donor. These kids are strewn across the country, growing up in different types of households in different social and class strata, but all held together by DNA. Bloated by the MTV style, Generation Cryo ends up being a look at the ever-expanding definition of family and a fascinating manifestation of the “better living through chemistry” adage.
Generation Cryo’s main character is 17-year-old Bree. She’s a lesbian with a septum piercing, a Skrillex haircut, and a sunny disposition. Her moms split when she was 3, and she now lives with her non-biological mother—though her gestational mother lives down the street. Bree decides she wants to meet the man who donated his DNA to make her, so she can know a part of herself that has been always been a mystery. Her first step on the “Who’s my daddy?” tour is to meet some of the people conceived from the same donor, and she’s constantly amazed at the differences between their lives: Her first meet-up is with Jonah and Hilit, 17-year-old twins from Atlanta, who observe Shabbat. “That’s Hebrew,” Jonah and Hilit’s mother tells Bree about their pre-dinner prayers. “Yeah, it was!” the bemused Bree announces. She’s a sweet narrator, with a wonderful sense of emotional honesty.
That’s what feels so rare about Generation Cryo: Unlike many so-called “documentary” offerings from MTV, Generation Cryo examines real issues, and there’s legitimate tension that transcends MTV’s penchant for manipulating scenes for the highest drama quotient. The twins want nothing to do with their cryo dad, but affable Jonah agrees to help with a DNA test. The ensuing discussion between Jonah and Hilit’s parents stirs up some raw emotions; their father, Eric, feels a certain sense of inadequacy knowing that the man half responsible for creating his kids could become a tangible being in their lives. To Eric, his manhood and his station as a patriarch is on the line. Just as Generation Cryo looks at Bree’s newfangled family, the doc also shows the changing definition of paternity for a kid like Jonah, who has always known he was the product of science. To Jonah, his dad isn’t the guy whose sperm impregnated his mother, but rather the guy who raised him.
That emotional honesty doesn’t mean Generation Cryo is safe from the staged documentary stylings of other true-life MTV products, however. Bree is given stilted voiceover narration duties, and engages in production-prodded activities like an ice-cream outing to discuss differences of opinion between Jonah and his sister. But Generation Cryo separates itself from the likes of Catfish and Teen Mom by not treating its subjects as spectacle. They’re portrayed as people dealing with issues that affect their everyday lives, recalling some of the better installments of the True Life series.
The idea that adopted children want to find their birth parents is nothing new for televised fodder, both fictional and non-, and it’s a story that comes with built-in mystery and narrative highs and lows. But the cryo-kid search is different. There’s a moral quandary inherent in the search, namely that Bree’s bio-dad may not want to know what became of his bank deposit. One of the cryo-sibs, college student Julian, flat-out calls Bree’s quest immoral, but Bree doesn’t see it that way. There’s a certain responsibility that comes with creating life, she counters—whether you see it through to the end or not. With each sibling Bree meets, she expands the definition of what family is for herself and for the current iteration of the MTV generation. “It’s kind of like a Wizard Of Oz thing,” Bree says. “They were looking all this way for Oz even though it turned out Oz was just some dumbass, they still went through the journey because they needed to get home.”
Executive producers: Michael Lang and Ellen Windemuth
Debuts: Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern on MTV
Format: Hourlong docu-series
Two episodes watched for review