Come tomorrow afternoon, many of us will congregate with family members we haven't seen in a full 12 months. We'll banter about the weather, feign interest in meandering anecdotes and quietly critique every aspect of each other's being. Come nightfall, we'll embrace warmly and promise to re-adjourn 365 days hence, then set about covering the freshly picked emotional scabs with ointment.
But for the next few hours at least, we're all about bringing families together. In that blithely unaware spirit, I heartily recommend ABC's new celebration of unity and forgiveness, "Find My Family," perhaps the least cynical show in the history of televised programming.
"Find My Family" comes from the folks who brought us "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which spawned not only a new telegenre (Must-Weep TV) but also a cottage industry of caring ("Home Edition"-branded hug fenders, etc.). Apparently that wasn't treacly enough for ABC, though, as "Find My Family" makes its big-hearted predecessor look like "Mickey Rourke Presents: An Unauthorized History of the Snot Rocket."
The mission of "Find My Family," as its for-literalists title suggests, is to reunite families that have been fractured, whether by adoption or some other traumatic circumstance. Over the course of 22 snappy minutes, the show introduces an individual or individuals, conveys a few details about their familial disrepair and allows them to justify their past action by branding it "a really, really, really, really, really, really difficult decision." Then the show locates the misplaced child/sibling/whatever and stages an almost impossibly hokey reunion, which takes place on a sun-dappled hill in the shadows of the subtly named Family Tree. Much regretful rejoicing ensues.
Being a jerk, I was unable to surrender myself to the manufactured uplift. Instead, I found myself scribbling down question after question. Like: Do the individuals on the show get paid? Or: If one or more members of the affected families aren't on board with the tele-exposure, how does "Find My Family" work around them?
Equally troubling is how the show glosses over the investigations that precede the reunions. Outside of a few quick pans to official-looking documents, viewers are largely kept in the dark about the techniques used to track down long-lost family members. The privacy implications of such invasive behavior aren't acknowledged, either.
"Find My Family" is about the emotional money shot, rather than the process or the back story. I don't know why this unsettles me, but it does. Without having more access to the histories of the affected individuals -- ABC misses an engagement opportunity by not making relevant documentation available on the show's website -- I feel as if I'm merely eavesdropping on their intimate moments. Compare this approach with the one taken by A&E's "Intervention," which goes out of its way to lay bare the root causes of its protagonists' illnesses. The more you know, the more you care.
Of course, ABC immunizes itself from charges of emotional exploitation in part by employing two hosts, Tim Green and Lisa Joyner (L.A.'s sexiest reporter, according to her online bio), who themselves were adopted at an early age. Not surprisingly, they let their feelings roam free, adding an effusive glaze with asides like "I just want to give you one more hug."
The hugs, however, take a backseat to the tears. The unitees and unitors don't just cry on "Find My Family." They weep. They wail. Their bodies convulse with the accumulated emotion of decades. Too, they bawl in concert: at one point during Monday's premiere episode, tears streaked simultaneously down the cheeks of no fewer than six people (two parents, three kids and one host). Synchronized sobbing is no small feat.
I just hope nobody creates a "Find My Family" drinking game in which participants down a sip or three whenever somebody on the show cries. They'd waylay their livers by the first commercial break.
On a purely intellectual level, then, I consider "Find My Family" as manipulative and superficially told as anything in the soft-focus Diane Sawyer canon. But here's the real question: on an emotional level, did the show have its intended effect on me?
Did its emotional apogee -- the moment when Ma and Pa reunited with their long-gone biological child under the Family Tree, as some "I will be... there for you ... if you need me" hyperballad inundated my living room like a malfunctioning fire sprinkler -- set my upper lip aquiver? Did I suddenly notice some "dust" in my eye that required attentive dabbing with a tissue-like apparatus?
It did. I did. Approximately 23 minutes in, I felt something moist and sticky pooling in my right eye. Even after the credits rolled, I couldn't stem the encroachment of its hot, salty tide.
Turns out this was just the introductory salvo in a particularly mean case of conjunctivitis. Never before have I been so relieved to be contagious.