In its first two seasons, I occasionally dipped into NBC's 'Parenthood,' but I admit I fell far behind in the Braverman chronicles, which I'd kept hearing good things about (the further I fell behind, the more good things I'd hear and read).
Given the crush of new and returning programs this month, I won't have a ton of time in coming weeks to write about 'Parenthood,' which returned Tuesday night. But I very much wanted to say that I'm extremely glad I caught up with this excellent show (over the past few days, I watched as much as I could of season 2), and I'm fully on board now.
I really recommend getting on board as well, if you can. Not only is 'Parenthood' a solidly rewarding drama, I'm half amazed (and fully glad) that the show exists at all.
As I wrote about here, it seems like television is reacting to these uncertain times by heading in a couple of predictable directions: Toward high-concept fare that has recognizable or marketable hooks (vampires! haunted houses! zombies! fairy tales! dinosaurs!), or toward the usual doctor-lawyer-cop fare, possibly with a twist (how long until we see a vampire prosecutor?).
Who knows, maybe that's what TV needs to do to survive in the multi-platform age. But whether or not that's the case, the industry appears to be pretty uninterested in supporting dramas that don't have some kind of hook-y premise. Shows that are just about life -- regular, zombie-free life in unhaunted houses -- well, good luck if you're pitching that kind of thing these days.
'Parenthood' doesn't have a hook, really, and it sets itself a major challenge each week: The show's writers craft hours of television that have beginnings, middles and ends -- yet the show's story lines revolve around situations that don't really end.
Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) is trying to accept her daughter's attempts at independence and create a new life of her own. Adam and Kristina Braverman (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) are trying to deal with their son's Asperger's diagnosis and, after Adam lost his job, just trying to keep the family afloat on a day-to-day basis. Crosby Braverman (Dax Shepard) is trying to grow up for real in the wake of the infidelity that ended his relationship with his son's mother.
These situations -- which are among the show's strongest story lines -- play out over long periods of time, yet executive producer and head writer Jason Katims and his writers are able to construct storylines that work on both an episodic and season-long level. The fact that Katims, who was also the mastermind behind 'Friday Night Lights,' has been able to do this with two broadcast network dramas that don't revolve around lawyers or aliens is a marvel that should be studied by scientists.
You may have been waiting for the "and yet...," so here it is. I'm one of the critics who's been using the phrase "laundry folder" to describe shows that don't occupy your full attention yet have a few modest charms and give you the occasional reason to pay closer attention.
There are story lines on 'Parenthood' that function as laundry folders: Any story line that revolves around Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia (Erika Christiansen) is almost skippable (I have nothing against either actor, but when they show up on screen, that's my cue to check email). When the show does spend time on them, it's usually just long enough to give us the outlines of a broadly sketched situation that doesn't feel nearly as nuanced or compelling as anything else on the show. And though they're great when given good material, as the Braverman patriarchs, Bonnie Bedelia and Craig T. Nelson rarely get anything meaty to play, given how much time 'Parenthood' spends on other family dynamics.
But I've loved how much dimension and quiet dignity Monica Potter has given Kristina (and I say that as someone who was worried in the show's first season that her usual brittleness might ruin the whole show for me). I've admired how unlikable and stubborn 'Parenthood' has been willing to make Adam, who is a good dad but can be as headstrong and aggressive as his occasionally irascible dad.
I've been extremely impressed with Dax Shepard's performance as Crosby, the ne'er-do-well who finally realizes that youthful irresponsibility is a crutch he's leaned on for too long. Max Burkholder has given a fully realized, Emmy-worthy performance as Max Braverman (the show is on its surest emotional ground when depicting his story lines, which is impressive, given how maudlin or cliched that story could be). And by this point, I've begun to think that Lauren Graham has some kind of mind control ability, given how easily she can cause me to become choked up during one of Sarah's impassioned speeches.
Like a real family, 'Parenthood' sometimes sprawls and can be messy or a little irritating around the edges. Some story lines can be a little repetitive (for instance, I'd love to see more of Mae Whitman's range put to use in the Amber stories). But in the main, this show is very much worth watching. And it's still possible to catch up. To do so, I watched season 2's 'Seven Names,' and then from 'Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs' (which has a great guest performance from Michael Emerson) straight through to the end of the season (though I think it'd be possible to skip 'Taking the Leap' and 'New Plan').
I don't claim to be a 'Parenthood' expert (I'm hoping on the next family road trip I'll get time to catch up on the season 2 episodes I missed). But this well-constructed drama is something to treasure on the TV schedule -- it's a show that respects our everyday experiences and emotions and yet also manages to entertain.
There are certainly interesting possibilities on the horizon. I'm hoping Adam goes into business with Crosby and that they take over that recording studio (the contrast between the brothers, who could learn a lot from each other, could be interesting). I'm interested to see how Kristina handles a baby at her age. I could -- and this is not an exaggeration -- watch Jason Ritter and Lauren Graham act together all day long.
And I hope that, as it did with 'Friday Night Lights,' NBC sees the wisdom of keeping around a gem that just isn't like anything else.
Two notes: You can watch the final four episodes of season 2 and the season 3 premiere here. And yes, I did hear Max's reference to 'FNL' in the episode. Nice!
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