Childbirth is a miracle. It’s also a pain in the butt for the entertainment industry.
Long-running TV shows often have to find creative ways to handle an actress’s pregnancy, given lengthy filming schedules and intersecting plotlines.
“New Girl” went in an unusual direction in the most recent episode: It wrote out Zooey Deschanel’s character completely. Megan Fox, another slim, pretty brunette, will play a subletter named Reagan for the few episodes that Deschanel took maternity leave.
But most of the time, even in an extremely body-conscious industry, TV series will write pregnancies into the story or hide baby bumps with clever clothing and camera play. It affects all kinds of shows, from long-running, renowned series like “Frasier” and “Seinfeld” to action shows like “Alias” to quirky comedies like “30 Rock.”
The cover-up option requires help from the prop and wardrobe departments. “Towards the end of the pregnancy, it’s such a group effort,” said costume designer Kirston Mann, who has worked with pregnant actresses on her current show, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” plus “Parks and Recreation,” “United States of Tara” and “Up All Night.” “Yes, we get big bags [for them to hold] and props gets laundry baskets and then sometimes, it’s just like [actresses are] sitting at a desk… It’s camera angles and it’s standing behind people.”
Here’s a semi-comprehensive look at how some other television series have handled actresses’ pregnancies throughout history, dating back to 1952.
The actress and show: Zooey Deschanel, “New Girl”
What they did: Hid it… and her. The fifth season implemented the usual hijinks at first, including Jess (Deschanel) being laid up in bed after breaking a lot of bones while falling down a flight of stairs, and then having to ride a scooter. But then Deschanel was written out of the show for six episodes (her character was sequestered for jury duty), making room for Reagan (Megan Fox) to come in.
Did it work? It’s a bit weird to have a show called “New Girl” without said girl. But it is certainly a unique way to handle it.
The actress: Melissa Fumero, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
What they did: Hid it. It would be too soon for Amy (Fumero) and Jake (Andy Samberg) to have a little one on the way. Amy wears fairly normal clothes and silhouettes until halfway through the third season, when big bags and carefully held folders come into play. “We would do a small like black [shirt] underneath with a lighter sweater so that your eye isn’t going [to the stomach],” Mann said. “Or if we do like a dark, solid suit. It’s just so that there’s always a center line that’s vertical and narrow, and then whatever the top layer is contrasts so that your eye doesn’t see a whole swath of roundness.”
Did it work? Yes. Even when you do notice, it doesn’t particularly matter or take away from the plot.
The actress: Gaby Hoffmann, “Girls”
What they did: Wrote it in. Boy, did they ever. The show’s writers showed Caroline (Hoffman) attempting to have a home birth in an apartment tub, resulting in a very, very naked Hoffmann underwater.
Did it work? Yes. Just… yes.
The actress: Kerry Washington, “Scandal”
What they did: Hid it. They deployed every trick in the book, from giant purses to chest-up camera framing to blurred foreground shots reminiscent of an Orson Welles film.
Did it work? Not really, but no one cared. The show’s fans knew the real-life star was pregnant, and all the ridiculous ways they covered her bump provided a drinking game of sorts.
The actress: Hayden Panettiere, “Nashville”
What they did: Wrote it in. Viewers seemed surprised to learn that Panettiere suffered from and was treated for postpartum depression, a condition her character Juliette Barnes also had.
Did it work? Just by virtue of shining a light on an often hidden condition that affects many mothers, yes.
The actresses: Alyson Hannigan and Cobie Smulders, “How I Met Your Mother”
What they did: Hid it, and then wrote it in. Hannigan and Smulders announced they were pregnant within weeks of each other in 2009. Consequently, both spent the majority of that TV season standing behind objects.
Executive producer and director Pamela Fryman said she didn’t try to be subtle about obscuring the pregnant bellies, at one point using globes and basketballs to block Hannigan’s stomach. “It’s a comedy that people were invested in, like, really invested in these characters and these people,” Fryman said. “I just think that was sort of the perfect way to handle it — just acknowledge it with a little bit of a laugh, but keep telling the story that you planned to tell.”
When they showed Hannigan’s pregnant belly after a hot dog-eating contest and pretended it was food bloat, Fryman said, they were directly poking fun of the situation. “It was just a little looking at the audience going, ‘We know you know, you know we know. This is kind of funny, right? Moving on.'”
Two years later, Hannigan became pregnant again, but her on-screen relationship was much further along, so her character, Lily, was pregnant, too.
Did it work? Yes. It was a typical hide-the-bump scenario for both Hannigan and Smulders, and then the playfulness helped the comedy.
The actress: January Jones, “Mad Men”
What they did: Wrote it in — sort of. The twisted writers made the normally very fit and body-conscious character go through an unflattering “Fat Betty” phase, as fans untastefully named it. Jones wore a fat suit and prosthetic chin that masked her pregnancy.
Did it work? Not really. It’s not that it didn’t make sense to have Betty go through a physical transformation. As show creator Matthew Weiner noted, he could “have her walk around with laundry baskets in front of her, or I can really accept the fact that when her ex-husband, whom she rejected, married a woman 10 years younger than her, that that was a crushing blow to her self-esteem.” But overall, the plot seemed a bit forced, the neck prosthetics were distracting, and it didn’t really add anything worthwhile to Betty’s already complicated character.
The actress: Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation”
What they did: Hid it. Lots of careful camera angling, custom clothing, sitting and objects placed directly in front of the belly area.
“We don’t buy pregnancy suits. We put little side panels and back panels in and as they grow, they’re like a little stretchy, so they’re comfortable,” Mann said. “Whereas like a Pea in the Pod suit would [have] a front band [in the pants] that you can kind of relax your belly into it, we keep it so that it still looks like pants are being zipped up, not pulled on…then that way you can keep the thinner leg look.”
Did it work? Yes. Poehler’s character Leslie Knope wore a lot of suits, which helped with costuming.
The actresses: Angela Kinsey and Jenna Fischer, “The Office”
What they did: Hid it, and then wrote it in. Kinsey was shot a lot from the waist up or with stuff masking her stomach when she was pregnant, though later donned a fake belly when her character, Angela, was with child on the show a few years later but Kinsey was not. Fischer wore a fake baby bump when her character, Pam, was pregnant, but when Fischer became pregnant in real life later on in the series — surprise! — Jim and Pam welcomed a second baby, which wasn’t even announced on the show — Pam just disappeared.
Did it work? Yes and no. All the hiding worked fine, but giving Pam a second baby made her stuck taking care of the babies while Jim gallivanted off to his dream job in Philadelphia.
The actress: Sarah Jessica Parker, “Sex and the City”
What they did: Hid it, and shortened the season to eight episodes. Her character, Carrie Bradshaw, was dressed in loose-fitting clothing but that was about it.
Did it work? Yes. Carrie was experimental enough in her fashion choices that her different silhouettes didn’t seem odd, though we’re sure many were disappointed by the season ending so quickly.
The actresses: Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox, “Friends”
What they did: Wrote it in and hid it, respectively. When Kudrow was pregnant, her character Phoebe stepped in as surrogate for her brother and his much older wife, who were having trouble conceiving naturally. And in the last season, when Monica (Cox) and Chandler are going through the adoption process after finding out they aren’t able to have a child of their own, Cox was coincidentally pregnant with her first baby.
Did it work? Yup! Phoebe was just offbeat enough to make the semi-incestual-but-not-really plot work, and after 10 years, “Friends” fans were so invested in the show that Cox’s actual pregnancy didn’t matter as much as Monica and Chandler’s long sought-after adoption.
The actress: Katey Sagal, “Married With Children”
What they did: A combination of writing it in and hiding it, due to tragic circumstances. Sagal’s first pregnancy was originally written into the show, but after she gave birth to a stillborn child at eight months, the show’s writers made the entire pregnancy part of a dream sequence so Sagal wouldn’t have to deal with having a baby in her character’s life after losing her real one. When Sagal became pregnant again a few years later, they chose not to write it in again, this time opting for careful camera framing and a few episodes where Peggy was only featured as a voice on the phone.
Did it work? Does it matter? The writers did what they had to do in order to make a terrible situation slightly less painful.
The actress: Phylicia Rashad, “The Cosby Show”
What they did: Hid it. Her screen time was reduced, and she had her stomach blocked by a large teddy bear and other objects. The producers even cut a hole in the Huxtables’ mattress so Clair (Rashad) was sunken down and looked normal next to Cliff (Bill Cosby) while laying on their bed.
Did it work? Yup. Nobody seemed to be any the wiser.
The actress: Lucille Ball, “I Love Lucy”
What they did: Wrote it in — despite the fact that CBS wouldn’t allow the word “pregnant” to be used in the 1952 episode. And Ball is visibly pregnant in the pilot episode of the series, but it’s never mentioned again. Even twenty-five years later, TV standards hadn’t changed much. On “Kate & Allie,” Susan Saint James’s character, Kate, broke her leg and was bedridden because Saint James was pregnant in real life… but Kate was single. A big no-no.
Did it work? Yes. It was one of the first TV shows that had a pregnant character onscreen, and is certainly among the most influential.
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