Inspired by the sprawling, multi-armed conversation about the state of television criticism (see here, here and here, among other places), I’ve decided to take the next week or so to check in with the series that I watch every single week, but never actually write about. There’s been a lot of discussion about writing longer form pieces on series with more episodes in the tank, so I’m going to try to experiment with that and see how it goes. Today, I check in on Parenthood.
Parenthood has always had an uphill battle to deal with. It’s based on a decent 1989 Ron Howard film that was quickly turned into a television series that failed. It’s jam-packed full of likable, fairly famous performers. And perhaps most importantly, a good deal of the series’ creative team comes directly from Friday Night Lights, including EP Jason Katims. Those are some difficult circumstances to deal with from a number of different audience quadrants and as someone who hoped that the series could be a worthy replacement to FNL, I’ve had a middling relationship with the series. I’ve never disliked Parenthood one bit and in fact, I’ve enjoyed every single episode that I have watched. But even with the series’ great pedigree and inherent quality, there was always a sense that it was holding back, whether to avoid becoming too raw like FNL did or for some other reason that I am unable to define.
In general, it felt like Parenthood didn’t want to go to those darker places with its characters. The series is inherently going to have low stakes compared to most television dramas because of the premise, but even when that low stake space, there is room to push the characters to emotional lengths that make things seem much more intense. From the beginning of the series, there have been criticisms about the series’ depiction of “white people problems,” wherein each episode the characters deal with this super-small issue that ultimately gets resolved without a whole lot of lasting tension between the characters. In that way, the series serves as a makeshift and lightweight procedural. Again, this is totally fine and I would have absolutely watched six seasons of Parenthood in that form. I might have continued to be slightly disappointed in what it gave me for those six years, but again only slightly so.
Fortunately, right on cue with the departure of FNL from our lives — well, those of us watching it on the DirecTV schedule — Parenthood has kicked things up a notch to focus more on the frustrating, angry and emotionally draining parts of being in a huge family like this. The last half-dozen episodes have been fantastic and although I’m not sure the series will ever reach FNL levels of emotional honesty and intensity, Parenthood is coming really, really close and still doing so while staying inside itself as a more mainstream broadcast network family drama. The little family “cases” are still there every week, particularly with Joel and Julia who rarely have anything really important to deal with, but major issues are carrying over to multiple episodes, problems are lingering and there’s a sense that not everything is going to work out in the end for some of the Braverman clan. That makes for both much improved individual episodes and also more substantial lasting arcs.
One of the ways the series has ramped up the real tension is by presenting sharper conflicts for the characters to deal with, which in turn, makes them angrier. It’s kind of obvious to say something like “angrier people make for better television,” especially when that is not always the case, but the Braverman’s needed some edge to them. Problems have been resolved too easily and it was time for some of these folks to deal with “real” problems I guess you could say. From the beginning, it’s felt like the series was built on this idea that these characters wouldn’t yell at one another too often, there would be a lot of “talking it out” scenes, etc. But lately, characters have been getting legitimately angry for extended periods of time and it seems to fit the series’ actors really well. Moreover, the yelling and the arguing ratchets up the intensity and the rawness that Parenthood desperately lacked in most of the first season and for the first half of this season. Everyone knows that having to deal with your family is a stressful practice a lot of the time and it feels as if the series is finally waking up to that truth with more honesty and emotion. Again, it’s not Coach and Mrs. Coach having it out on Friday Night Lights, but I mean, what else on television comes close to that series’ greatness anyway?
So the arc with Seth finally morphing back into the lives of Sarah, Drew and Amber fits perfectly into this new vibe the season is hitting us with. This isn’t just a story about Drew being a loner or Sarah having trouble finding her footing in the world, it’s a story about why those things ever happened to begin with and the emotions behind their individual frustrations are real and raw. Seth’s return makes Drew feel less alone in a world that apparently wants nothing to do with him, while it brings up a whole bunch of terrible memories for not only Sarah and Amber, but Zeek and Camile as well. The actors on this series have always had great chemistry, but this arc with Seth really gives this corner of the Braverman family a sense of history. John Corbett fits perfectly with the other actors in this family and his presence has brought the best out of Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer. In the past, we’ve been told that these kids are acting a certain way based on their experiences with their father (or in Drew’s case, a lack thereof), but it’s clearly more effective when we actually get to see their father and watch them deal with who they are and what role he may or may not have played in that development. That leads to a number of small scenes in three or four episodes with Amber slowly getting more annoyed with her father’s return and then it all gets capped off with a blow-out from her in “Do Not Sleep With Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist.” There is a real sense of emotional frustration and hurt that has slowly built up over the course of the story and that makes the ultimate pay-off that much more satisfying for us in the audience.
Seth’s impact on his family also shines a light on the series’ other intelligent approach to improved storytelling, one that has also been working well for Crosby’s struggles: Collateral damage. Because this is such a big, but close family, the decisions of one Braverman are ultimately going to impact the lives of a number of other Bravermans. Sometimes that’s for the better, but in recent weeks, it’s been for the worse. Like I said before, Seth’s return has not only frustrated his ex-wife and disenfranchised daughter, but also brought out some old feelings of anger in Zeek. He still remembers all the problems Seth caused for him and his daughter way back when and to see him again doesn’t really make Zeek feel nostalgic, that’s for sure.
Similarly, Crosby has been on a destructive tear as of late and by the time this episode ends, he’s had his hand in messing up the lives of not only Jabbar and Jasmine, but also Gaby, Adam, Kristina and Max. Much like Seth’s relationship with his children, we’ve heard a lot about how Crosby used to be a giant mess of a person, but we’ve mostly only see the improved version of the character. Now, we’re getting the full vision of what it means when Crosby screws up and it’s clearly not pretty whatsoever. I think his decision to sleep with Gaby is clearly the wrong one because of all the problems it’s caused in the aftermath, but I think the season did a nice job of leading up to that horrible decision. Crosby and Jasmine aren’t really right for each other at all and as the season has progressed, the weight of the relationship has slowly been piled on Crosby until he couldn’t really take it anymore. But now, he’s made a massive mess for himself and for Gaby and Adam’s family and no one really knows what’s best. Dax Shepard has been fantastic from the beginning of the series and it seems like the writers are rewarding him by putting all this narrative weight on his shoulders, but he’s handled it masterfully yet again. Throughout this episode, he’s looked like a sad, beaten dog with nowhere to go and he just keeps morphing in and out of houses, hoping to find answers to his problems with little success.
Obviously, having a character cheat on his finance is predictable, but the joys of Parenthood (much like FNL) is how it makes those predictable moments still smack you in the face. We all knew that Crosby was eventually going to make this stupid decision, but the episodes in which he contemplated it, actually did it and then had to deal with the consequences have been some of, if not the best in the series’ run. And we also knew that it was only a matter of time before Max discovered that he had Asperger’s syndrome, but that doesn’t make the unfortunate reveal at the end of this episode with Adam yelling it at the top of his lungs because he’s just so freaking angry with his brother any less heartbreaking.* I’m sure that Adam and Crosby will eventually come to an agreement and Adam and Kristina will eventually figure out how to talk to Max about his disability, but in the mean time, I’m going to revel in the messiness of their lives in this current state. Not only does it make for more entertaining television, but also more effective storytelling as well.
*I also appreciate how the series doesn’t let little character ticks go away. Adam has a moderate problem with his anger and I like that Max finds out about his issues because his father just can’t control his rage in certain spots. Seems fitting.
Parenthood has always been good, but in recent episodes, it’s become great. Jace Lacob wrote a piece about this yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more. If you’re missing FNL or even if you’re not, it’s time to check out Parenthood.