The “new baby” episode has been a long-standing tradition for many T.V. shows. However, current shows like Justified, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and more are handling pregnancy and fatherhood in new ways.
The third season of the acclaimed series Justified now shares a common link with decades of television that came before it, it will have a “new baby” episode. The on-screen pregnancy began over five decades ago when Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy was capitalized upon in the series I Love Lucy. Ratings soared, and in the 1953 episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” was viewed by 44 million Americans. In comparison, the presidential inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower, which aired the following day, only drew 29 million viewers. While the “new baby” episode is a significantly less novel concept than it was a few decades ago it can still be a draw for viewers, like when The Office beat out Grey’s Anatomy when Jim and Pam had a baby.
But an interesting, divergent trend has emerged in recent TV dramas: a subdued, sometimes all-but-unremarked-upon approach to the birth of a child. AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad have each seen their lead protagonists grappling with new fatherhood—going through the full arc of the experience, from pregnancy to birth—but in a way that hasn’t significantly alter the either show’s overarching narrative.
Justified has more in common with Mad Men and Breaking Bad than its general approach to the “new baby” plot device. Each of the show’s pregnancies was unplanned, and all three babies are potential casualties of the fundamentally unstable unions that created them. What we’re seeing is a new approach to what a new baby means on television. These babies aren’t characters unto themselves; they’re plot devices, which threaten to draw our leading men away from their respective callings (the law, advertising, and methamphetamine, for those keeping track at home). There’s a reason that “new baby” episodes tend to feature more heavily in sitcoms; where babies offer a host of new opportunities for jokes in comedies, they rarely offer more than obstacles to be overcome in dramas.