Almost Family, premiering on Fox on October 2, is a show about a 21st-century kind of dysfunctional family. Playwright Annie Weisman (Desperate Housewives) and producer Jason Katims, known for beloved shows like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, draws from controversial real-life incidents, as well as an Australian TV show, to create the hour-long drama.
Raised as an only child, Julia Bechley (Brittany Snow) of Almost Family discovers she has 100 siblings — at least. It gets worse: Julia’s father, celebrated fertility doctor Leon Bechley (Timothy Hutton of The Haunting of Hill House), used his own sperm to get his patients pregnant. So, not only is Julia surrounded by strangers that are technically her siblings. Her father, too, is rendered a stranger by his actions.
While Dr. Bechley is fictional, his transgressions are rooted in real life.
Almost Family premieres only a month after the New York Times published a sweeping expose about fertility doctors who used their own sperm to impregnate patients. In the article, people describe the existential free-fall that came after their whole identity was instantly rewritten.
“You build your whole life on your genetic identity, and that’s the foundation,” Eve Wiley, who grew up believing her father was a sperm donor from California, told the New York Times. “But when those bottom bricks have been removed or altered, it can be devastating.”
In particular, Almost Family resembles a scandal that took emerged at an Indianapolis clinic in 2018. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the fictional Dr. Bechley was active, Dr. Donald Cline used his own sperm to impregnate women. Cline is believed to have fathered at least 71 children.
An even more extreme case took place in Britain between 1943 to the mid-60s, when Australian biologist Bertold Wiesner provided most of his sperm bank’s supply himself. He fathered at least 600 children, or about two-thirds of the children who came out of the clinic.
The examples go on. In 1992, Utah-based fertility doctor Cecil B. Jacobson, who fathered up to 75 children, was sentenced to five years in prison. After Dutch doctor Jan Karbaat died in 2017, DNA tests revealed he had 200 children. “We’ve got the same nose, eyes, teeth...It felt directly as if we already knew each other a long time,” Martijn van Halen, one of Karbaat’s children, told the Associated Press.
As with the real incidents, Leon Bechley of Almost Family ran his clinic back when sperm donation was a far more anonymous process than it is today. It's unclear how many children will come forward claiming Bechley to be their father (season one will feature numerous guest stars portraying new siblings), but we know three for sure: Julia Bechley, her former best friend Edie Palmer (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and ex-Olympic athlete Roxy Doyle (Emily Osmnent).
However, the specifics of Almost Family aren’t pulled from headlines. Almost Family is actually based on Sisters, a charming Australian dramedy from 2017 currently streaming on Netflix. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Sisters’ producers planned to create a show about women undergoing IVF. While researching, producers came across cases like Dr. Cline’s and Dr. Wiesenthal’s.
"We went, ‘This is really a story about family and what it is.' It's about nature versus nurture. How your identity is constructed – and what happens when a central pillar of your identity is suddenly removed,’ Sisters’ producer Imogen Banks told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Though a quirky comedy, Sisters never downplays the magnitude of Dr. Bechley’s transgressions. After all, as one character proclaims, it’s “genetic rape” — assault survivor Diane (Magna Szubanski), who conceived her daughter at the clinic, feels particularly violated. Later in the season, entire plotline is devoted to how the revelations of her biological parentage estranges Roxy (Lucy Durack) from her father, Ron (Roy Billing), the man who raised her.
Amid the chaos, Dr. Bechley (played by Barry Otto in Sisters) remains completely unapologetic for his actions. The characters grapple with their new normal without the cushion of an apology, or even an explanation.
Mixing humor with even more pathos, Sisters is a smart exploration of a topic certain to saturate pop culture as IVF and at-home DNA tests become standard. This “new” kind of family is connected by genetics, not experience, so siblings and parents must decide how close to become. In a recent panel at The Wing, Snow revealed she had an unexpected connection to the unique plot line, telling the audience about a friend who recently discovered she had dozens of siblings from a fertility clinic.
Almost Family is poised to be very similar to Sisters — Snow even binge-watched the Australian show before filming, and Angelo visited the American show’s set.
But the ultimate test will come in the first episode. Very quickly, Sisters takes the premise of having hundreds of secret siblings to the worst (and most logical) possible outcome. Angelico’s Julia learns she had a one-night stand with her a man who just might be biological brother Will Almost Family be able to handle this terrible situation as deftly as Sisters? Watch the pilot on October 2 at 9 p.m. ET to find out.