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A&E watches pretty young things learn to be parents

''Oh, Baby . . . Now What?" is what ''The Real World" might be if it weren't so artificial.

The A&E documentary has all the elements: pretty Los Angeles 20-somethings, roommate tensions, coming-of-age epiphanies. It's just that the source of conflict is naturally occurring: Brad and Sara are having a baby, and, in a sense, so are their friends.

Thus the film, which premieres tonight at 10, is the sort of cautionary tale that might be shown in high school. (The birth scenes alone, blurred but graphic, might frighten more girls into the contraception aisle.) It's also a portrait of delayed adolescence; it's hard now to imagine a time when more 23-year-olds had families.

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Responsible parenting seems especially at odds with the hipster portions of LA, where life can be uncharmingly cavalier. Sara, a yoga instructor and cocktail waitress, got pregnant a few months into dating Brad, a waiter and aspiring actor. ''I don't believe in birth control," she explains; it's unclear what part, exactly, she thought was false. Still, while she and Brad are clearly incompatible (and at first don't even live together), they try to do things right, muddling through couples counseling and, after baby Hunter is born, finding slightly quease-inducing ways to make ends meet.

Their friends don't come across so well. Meghan, Brad's roommate, is insulted not to be invited to the home birth, as if she's been left off the guest list at a rock club. Bonnie, Sara's roommate, is perturbed when Hunter's relatives visit. Some will grow from this experience; some, not so much. Meghan moves on by exorcising Brad from her apartment with the help of a new age herbalist.

Executive producer R.J. Cutler, who masterminded ''American High" and FX's ''Black. White.," has his usual story-line luck; for Brad and Sara, enlightenment comes in the form of an ill-fated camping trip and a baby sunburn. ''I don't think you really live until you have to think about something besides yourself," Brad says in the morality money shot.

The lessons are almost painfully obvious, but they're also universal, even for parents who engage in better planning: When you have a baby, your old life slips away, and after a while, you don't really mind. And whether you have a baby or not, relationships take work.

''Oh, Baby . . . Now What?" is nicely nonjudgmental; it leaves you with a mild sense of dread, but also a nugget of hope. Brad, in particular, bears his learning experience well. ''Dude, your mom's being a total idiot right now," he tells Hunter at one point, and when the baby gazes back with that infant wisdom, you know he'll try to work it out. Babies do have a way of making their parents grow up.

Oh, Baby . . . Now What?
Time: Tonight at 10

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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