While living in Chicago, then-acquaintances Roni Geva and Margaret Katch had both had abortions, separately, at the same clinic. When they reconnected in Los Angeles, they made a short independent film together to beef up their acting reels; the project kindled a passion for filmmaking.
Determined to work together again, they quickly hit on the perfect idea: a comedy web series about abortion.
When Geva and Katch were dealing separately with unplanned pregnancies, both had looked to the media for portrayals of women like them—women for whom abortion wasn’t a tragedy or a difficult choice, women whose primary emotion after the procedure was relief, not regret. Both came up empty. While movies like Obvious Child and TV shows like Shrill have recently made incremental progress toward portraying abortions as a potentially positive and empowering decision, even a few years ago that representation was incredibly sparse. And depictions of an abortion experience that was funny, as Geva’s was in real life, were simply nowhere to be found.
“Comedy has a history of normalizing otherwise difficult to talk about subjects,” Katch and Geva told me in an email they co-authored. They hope that by portraying abortion as part of life—sometimes serious, sometimes inconvenient, occasionally hilarious—they can help viewers to think of it in less politically polarized terms.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Hence, Ctrl Alt Delete, a quirky, low-key comedy set in an abortion clinic.
Ctrl Alt Delete premiered on Vimeo in 2017 with an anthology-style season, each roughly three-minute episode following one character through terminating her pregnancy. Katch and Geva had posted on Facebook asking people to share their abortion stories, and the season one episodes are based on those interviews as well as the creators’ own abortions. The storylines don’t overlap, but all the abortions do take place at the same clinic.
Geva’s abortion provided the template for the show’s first episode, featuring the drawn-from-real-life characters of an experienced, overly solicitous fellow clinic patient (Naomi Grossman, whose season one performance was nominated for an Emmy) as well as a counselor who advocates for zero population growth (Kate Duffy). Other season one patients—all cis women—include a teenager who casually mentions her abortion appointment to her father over breakfast, a 40-something mother of two who thought her fertile years were behind her, and an actress (based on Katch and played by Geva) who finds the rhythm method of contraception less reliable than she’d hoped.
Among other things, Ctrl Alt Delete quietly reminds viewers that birth control can fail, and an unwanted pregnancy is not evidence of a character flaw. One character didn’t know the antibiotics she took for strep throat could interfere with her birth control pills; another skipped a pill and forgot about it. Ctrl Alt Delete doesn’t distinguish between “good” abortions and “bad” ones. There are no dramatic monologues about the necessity of reproductive rights, just people who, for one reason or many, don’t want to be pregnant anymore.
In the second season, being released two episodes at a time every Wednesday throughout May, Ctrl Alt Delete draws back from the individual patients’ journeys to focus on the clinic itself. Katch and Geva interviewed people who work or volunteer in abortion clinics around the country and threaded their stories into a serialized narrative taking place over the course of a single workday. Though the whole season is only about 30 minutes long, it contains a surprising amount of richness and depth as well as humor. One woman (Ashley Rickards) terminates a wanted pregnancy when she finds out that her fetus has a chromosomal defect that will shorten its life expectancy to mere hours. At the same time, the omnipresent protesters outside the clinic assume a more menacing presence when a pizza box is left in the parking lot and one overzealous receptionist (Alice Lee) believes it might be an explosive.
Katch and Geva handle the various plot threads gracefully, moving without apparent difficulty between the cast-of-wacky-characters interpersonal exchanges that make up any workplace comedy and the heavier issues that come from being employed in such a stigmatized field. There are bomb protocols alongside office flirtations. The unexpected appearance of an employee’s family member throws off the balance between work and personal life—all the more so because the employee lies to her relatives about what she does for a living. Season two also makes reference to LGBTQ issues for the first time, bringing in a speaker (Jer Adrianne Lelliott) to lead a workshop on respecting gender pronouns, although the show hasn’t included any trans or nonbinary people seeking abortions thus far. While this is a comedy, not a tragedy or polemic, it doesn’t shy away from the recognition that abortion access is a fraught, polarizing, and sometimes scary area in which to work.
Season two casts new actors as several of the clinic personnel, including Ed Begley Jr. as Dr. Rosenblatt, who’s been performing abortions and dispensing endearingly creaky dad jokes since Noah’s Ark—“Something had to be done about those bunnies.” Naomi Grossman reprises her Emmy-nominated performance as Lorna, an abortion clinic frequent flyer who recites recorded instructions along with the loudspeaker and has a favorite chair. Grossman is one of the funniest characters on the show, but she’s poignant too. She’s always trying to connect with other patients, offering advice and commiseration. It might be a stretch to describe Ctrl Alt Delete’s ethos as “abortion brings people together”—but then again, it might not. Lorna, at least, is ready to forge community out of this scrappy crew.
Although she’s the best part of the first season, Grossman has less screen time in season two. Still, the sight of her signing up to be a clinic escort is a hopeful sign of things to come: After multiple birth control failures and abortions, Lorna is ready to help others navigating the unjustly draconian requirements to obtain the health care they need.
Geva and Katch say they don’t want to be interpreted as political commentators, that “it’s sad that abortion is even a political issue. It’s a personal medical choice.” Still, their series brings much-needed empathy and normalcy to a controversial topic. By putting a funny, human face on the often vitriolic abortion debate, Ctrl Alt Delete reminds viewers that we know these people. They’re our friends. They’re us.