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Television

Television REview

In ‘The Lottery,’ extinction is not just science fiction

Marley Shelton (second from left) plays the head of a fertility laboratory in Lifetime’s new series “The Lottery.’’

Phillipe Bosse

Marley Shelton (second from left) plays the head of a fertility laboratory in Lifetime’s new series “The Lottery.’’

In his 1962 dystopian novel “The Wanting Seed,” Anthony Burgess looked at the relationship between population and culture. On the book’s extremely overpopulated planet Earth, war, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and self-sterilization were all considered positives. The idea was that people’s moral choices aren’t based on ethical merit; they’re merely the result of population control.

It’s a fascinating, deeply troubling equation, one that the new dystopian Lifetime series “The Lottery” dabbles in. The show, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., gives us a world paralyzed by infertility. It’s 2025, the population is plummeting, and the last six babies were born six years earlier. We’re becoming extinct. As a result, straight nightclubs offer “bar beds” for procreational efforts, and women dote a little too invasively on the last of the kids. Kyle Walker (Michael Graziadei), father of a 6-year-old named Elvis, tells the women at Elvis’s school to stop fussing with his son; they’re scaring him.

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When “The Lottery” conjectures about the scary cultural tilt that a lack of fertility could cause around the world, it’s at its best. How might the lack of youth change civilizations, beliefs, and plain old everyday life? Would mass infertility affect women differently from men? What extremes will peaceful people go to for the future of the species? They are the kinds of human questions that, when fleshed out in the course of the show, have resonance. They trigger our imaginations, like the best of the countless pop-apocalyptic stories out there.

Unfortunately, the makers of “The Lottery,” led by writer-producer Timothy J. Sexton, who was one of the five screenwriters on the similarly themed 2006 movie “Children of Men,” are more concerned with a far more formulaic suspense story line. A laboratory headed up by Alison Lennon (Marley Shelton) manages to fertilize 100 eggs, a breakthrough that the president’s chief of staff, Vanessa Keller (Athena Karkanis), seizes on. She persuades the president to hold a national lottery to find surrogate mothers for the embryos — “These embryos could be our moon landing,” she tells him — a plan that Darius Hayes (Martin Donovan), the director of the US Fertility Commission, does not support.

While the politicians fight among themselves, Alison takes matters into her own hands by tracking down a woman who’d donated one of the eggs that was successfully fertilized. Conspiracy ensues, with Alison stealing private information and running away from a thuggish bad guy. It’s the kind of paint-by-numbers nonsense that could be set in a dystopia or not.

When the show turns its attention to Kyle, as he copes with the government’s interest in Elvis and finds his parental rights challenged, it feels like a human story set in extreme circumstances. But the thriller side of “The Lottery”? That’s a losing ticket.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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