Reality TV is full of wild relationship dramas that encourage viewers to gawk at bizarre romantic arrangements—led by TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé franchise, as well as the network’s more recent You, Me & My Ex—and it’s into that category that A&E’s latest, Adults Adopting Adults, clearly falls. A series whose title says it all, it’s a wacko portrait of men and women who, for various reasons, have decided that having surrogate parental figures in their lives isn’t enough; they have to make such bonds legal, damn the consequences. And consequences there most certainly are, since the entire point of a television endeavor like this is to stage a figurative car crash that viewers can rubberneck from the comfort of their couches.
Premiering Jan. 31, Adults Adopting Adults focuses on a collection of tales, each one as absurdly bonkers as the last. First up are Danny and Christy, a childless couple in Chillicothe, Ohio, who’ve decided to adopt 20-year-old Illeana, a young Austrian stranger who’s pregnant with her first child and whom Danny met on a social media group for adult adoption. Or rather, Danny has decided this, and Christy is going along with it because she apparently has no say in their marriage and doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to her husband. This isn’t the first time Danny has wanted to adopt a grown woman; as he candidly admits, he tried with a prior 18-year-old, but that process fell apart because he began having romantic feelings for her. He’s also cheated on his wife before, which remains a sore spot for Christy. All in all, the situation sounds about as bad as one could imagine.
Danny’s untoward motivations for bringing Illeana into the household are obvious, and yet with a big smile, he routinely professes his excitement about being a dad, and performatively calls Illeana his daughter while Christy looks on in abject misery. Christy is in tears for approximately a third of her total screen time in the two Adults Adopting Adults episodes provided to press, and even when she’s not crying, she seems as enthusiastic about this turn of events as someone heading in for major root canal surgery. According to Christy, her friends’ main reactions to this impending disaster are “What the fuck is wrong with your husband?” and “We’re going to kill him,” which at least proves that Christy has level-headed people to whom she can turn. Danny, however, chalks up Christy’s objections as bumps in the road, all as he situates Illeana in a trailer right outside his front door, buys her tons of baby clothes and pays for her medical appointments, and says things like, “At the end of the day, Illeana, I want you to stay right here, ‘cause I like hugging on you and you’re awful sweet.”
Suspicions are rampant in Adults Adopting Adults’ first portrait: Christy thinks Danny is after sex, and fears Illeana is just using him for money and a visa; and Illeana worries that Danny is a creep and that she’s thrust herself into a messy marriage, not to mention potentially gotten herself in danger, given that Danny (a truck driver who used to run a survivalist business) has surveillance cameras monitoring his run-down rural property. The series gazes at this—and asks viewers to do likewise—with a delighted sort of disbelief, reveling in the dysfunctional strangeness and grossness of it all, as well as the potential for eventual conflict, which seems inevitable considering Christy’s disgust at being forced to tolerate Illeana (an obvious threat to replace her) in front of camera crews intent on broadcasting her despair to the world.
Danny, Christy and Illeana are only the first of numerous out-there stories recounted by Adults Adopting Adults. In Las Vegas, 39-year-old mother of two Kim wants to be adopted by Vickie and Joe so her children can have loving grandparents. At the same time, though, Kim is successfully working on reconciling with her long-estranged adopted mother Valerie, who doesn’t know that she’s about to be legally and emotionally replaced by Vickie—who, in turn, is worried that Valerie’s reappearance after all these years might jeopardize her chance at cementing her grandparental role. All of this comes to a head at a birthday party for Kim’s older daughter, and looking on in astonishment, Kim’s husband Joe can only sigh, “This is all so weird.”
“The series gazes at this—and asks viewers to do likewise—with a delighted sort of disbelief, reveling in the dysfunctional strangeness and grossness of it all…”
Then there’s Derek and Carol, a Black couple who are making plans to adopt 23-year-old Bianca, whom Carol met while working at SUNY Broome Community College. Carol has had previous experience with this process; during her first marriage, she tried to adopt a student, only to have her husband enter into an affair with that young woman. Carol doesn’t voice any concern that this scenario could repeat itself, although she confesses that Bianca acts like a “daddy’s girl” around Derek, suggesting that maybe she should be on alert. Derek’s brother Corey definitely is, telling Derek on a video call that their mother is not happy with what’s going on. That Bianca comes from a troubled substance abuse-plagued background, and has an alter ego named Gina, is of no concern to Derek, who’s mainly upset that his mom is being disrespectful by not trusting him to make sound decisions for himself and his family.
Adults Adopting Adults is predicated on the fact that all of its subjects are doing something unnecessary, inane, and destined to fail. Additional wannabe-adopted individuals will factor into later episodes, including sisters Felicia and Tawney, who are on their third attempt at convincing long-time foster caregivers Jenny and Michael to become their legal parents, and Frédéric von Anhalt, a former prince—and the ninth husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, and reported lover of Anna Nicole Smith—who appears eager to adopt a son (which would be his tenth adopted adult!) so he can have a “royal” heir. Will any of this work out? It seems unlikely! The bigger question, however, is whether there remains a continuing appetite for this brand of doomed-from-the-start reality-TV madness.