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HBO's Nuclear Family Sheds New Light on a Landmark Legal Case

The personal story of a lesbian couple faced with a paternity suit forms a complex and challenging family saga.
  • Photo: HBO
    Photo: HBO

    If, as the saying goes, there are two sides to every story, HBO's Nuclear Family is a dodecahedron — and a rather thoughtful one at that. Part of a long tradition of personal documentaries, director Ry Russo-Young's new three-part docuseries chronicles the landmark legal case that defined her childhood when her lesbian parents were sued for legal paternity by her sperm donor/biological father. What the new series lacks in objectivity, it makes up for with access and insight.

    The story of Nuclear Family begins in the late 1970s with Ry's parents, Sandra Russo (who goes by "Russo") and Robin Young, who got together in a time when gay relationships were beginning to gain some degree of social traction, but the idea of gay families — with same-sex couples raising children together as an autonomous unit — was still very much on the social fringes. Encouraged and informed by a pamphlet and some friends, Robin and Russo sought out a sperm donor and carried out a rather DIY method of artificial insemination (at one point, an empty jar that once held artichoke hearts was employed as a vessel). Still far from simple for queer couple, adoptions like these today are protected by legal contracts, but none of that existed back then; instead, the agreement Robin and Russo came to with their sperm donor was both informal and, in retrospect, quite naive. Robin and Russo were looking for someone to make a genetic contribution, then largely step aside, save for being open to being contacted in the future by the child if they were interested. That was the idea. But real life tends to grow and evolve and tangle along its own trajectory.

    Russo-Young's three-episode structure puts the story of this evolution into the first third of the documentary, as Robin and Russo's family (they have two daughters by two different sperm donors) grows and enjoys happy times that begin to include Tom (the sperm donor), Tom's boyfriend, Tom's boyfriend's son, and on outward. The intentional irony of "Nuclear Family" as a title spotlights the tension between the inherent and often beautiful complexity of the queer family in all its novelty and openness as it butts up against, in Robin and Russo, two married parents who quite understandably want to dictate their own family on their own terms. The rift that grows between Robin/Russo and Tom arises from conflicts that feel deeply understandable and relatable: they don't much care for Tom's longterm boyfriend; Ry's sister (whose biological father is told to keep his distance after his drinking problem becomes an issue) is being noticeably left out of Tom's dynamic with Ry; Tom wants to invite Ry to California to meet his extended family and be introduced as his daughter. It's this last part that ends up being the flashpoint where Robin and Russo, unwilling to allow Tom's role to creep any closer in the direction of autonomous co-parent, dig their heels in, leading to an impasse that ultimately leads to Tom suing Robin (though crucially not Russo, because as the non-biological parent, she had no legal rights) for shared custody of Ry. These legal proceedings encompass the show's second episode, while the third deals with the aftermath and a revelation about Tom that re-calibrates some (if not all) of what we've just seen.

    As characters, Robin and Russo are fascinatingly complex, both steadfast and stubborn, with a directness to their communication style that make them perfect for television. One of the best decisions that Ry Russo-Young makes as a director is to cast a wide net for her interview subjects and to (seemingly) encourage them to engage with her directly, since these people are her family, friends of her parents who knew her growing up, and the attorneys who worked on her case. The diversity of perspectives makes for a rich telling of the story, with Robin and Russo's voices heard most forcefully, though not exclusively. The ways in which the court case is made more complicated are myriad, both from a legal perspective as well as a moral/social one. One big one is that Tom was a gay man, who initially agreed to the sperm-donor arrangement because the idea of helping a lesbian couple start a family appealed to him. Another was that Tom was brought to Robin and Russo by their dear friend and fellow lesbian activist Chris, who found herself caught in the middle when things went bad. Each added perspective — from Tom's boyfriend's son, who testified in court that he saw Ry very much as a sister, to the attorney assigned by the court to represent Ry's interests as an independent third party — makes the story more richly sad/frustrating/furious.

    By the end of Nuclear Family, these perpendicular perspectives all manage to converge in a series of moments and catharses that are both incredibly compelling and exemplary of a generation that's never not had the means and the methods of telling their own story. The exquisite stubbornness of Robin and Russo ends up clashing with just about everyone in their story, including ultimately the child who's telling the story, but it's in their refusal to surrender the idea that they were no less worthy than straight couples of having autonomy over their own family that Nuclear Family burns the most brilliantly.

    Nuclear Family premieres on HBO Sunday September 26th at 10:00 PM ET.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Nuclear Family, HBO, Ry Russo-Young