Season Premiere review — Parenthood, “I Don’t Want to Do This Without You”

NBC’s Parenthood is a hard program to review in the traditional episodic context. The comfortable rhythms and moderate-wattage storylines are easily explained and the performances are always solid. Sometimes, like in the middle stretch of last season, the series kicks it into another gear and it feels like there is more material there to poke around with a thematic stick. Other times, especially in the premieres and finales it seems, there’s not as much. This is all so lovely to say right before I decide to review the Parenthood third season premiere, I guess.

In its first two seasons, Parenthood has worked out a nice little formula that asks viewers to go on a multiple-episode journey with the Braverman clan. Now obviously every television series does that, but Parenthood is very adept at slowly building up disparate arcs and then eventually allowing them to combust all at the same time, causing a sizable number of familial problems all at once. The first season built to the (temporary) destruction of Zeke and Camille’s marriage thanks to bad investments, infidelity and lying. Season two featured the one-two punch of Crosby screwing up his engagement to Jasmine by having sex with Max’s behavior therapist while Sarah lost control of her daughter Amber after she didn’t get into college.

Each of these storylines was well-executed, but it was how they were executed that makes all the difference. Because the series spends quality time with each sect of the family and their individual issues, by the time those issues become much larger and destructive; the impact is so much greater. This isn’t life or death and the stakes are only moderately high. But the problems are relatable and constructed in honest, natural-moving ways that everything feels much rawer and intense. Watching from the beginning does pay its dividends.

However, what this means is that the early part of a Parenthood season isn’t quite as good. The problems that will define so many awesomely loud arguments in the second half of the season haven’t crystallized yet and the characters are typically in better places than they will be come season finale time. So it’s not that “I Don’t Want to Do This Without You” is a bad episode in any regard. It’s just mostly full of table-setting and revving up – with some glaring movements that I cannot get behind.

One of the issues with this episode is that it has to make up for what was a relatively bad second season finale. The drama with Sarah and Amber got a little out of control by the end of the season. Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham are wonderful, but even they couldn’t overcome what felt like slightly overcooked, soapy storytelling. If I can recall, teenage girls are awful and therefore it was believable for Amber to act a fool. Nevertheless, things just rubbed me the wrong way when Amber kept making stupid choices.

The premiere both works and doesn’t work because it explores similar ground and related tensions between the two ladies yet again. Obviously, teenage girls and their moms are going to butt heads on a regular basis and it makes sense for those issues to come back to the surface when Amber tries to find a new place to live on her own. And again, it’s all well-played by the two actresses. It just felt a bit familiar to me. I’m hoping that Amber gets more to do on her this season and the new apartment is surely a step forward in that direction. Hopefully.

I also wasn’t a big fan of Kristina’s pregnancy – though it was a welcome sight when compared with the alternative of having Haddie be pregnant – but I thought “I Don’t Want to Do This Without You” handled the new calibration of Kristina and Adam’s relationship and responsibilities very, very well. Too often Kristina gets stuck in the typical stay-at-home mom storylines and I’ve enjoyed it when Monica Potter has been able to portray a more assertive, independent version of the character. Creating a situation where Kristina is not only pregnant but working while Adam is still unemployed makes for entertaining interactions between Potter and Peter Krause, who plays frustrated better than just about anybody on television. Adam is so used to being the leader, the bread-winner, the “man of the house” and it’s great that the series is flipping the roles on him. Sure, he probably won’t be unemployed forever, especially since he’s getting into business with Crosby, but swapping the financial power in that Braverman household is a nice creative choice and one that should mean good things for the actors.

On the more negative side, I can’t help but sigh at the storyline with Alex and Haddie. I mentioned last night on Twitter that Michael B. Jordan should have his own series and preferably one where he doesn’t get arrested while looking noble. The whole situation felt too melodramatic for a series that usually avoids those kinds of rhythms and stories. Haddie’s drunk overreaction to Alex’s concern was stupid, the douche bag’s response to Alex’s concern was stupider and the inability for anyone at the party to explain the situation to the police was just downright idiotic. It is obvious that Alex won’t be around for much longer, but I really hate to see him go out like this, having to reveal his moderate criminal background to a family that is probably still a little uneasy with his placement. Sure, it might give Julia something to do, but the story is moving in a direction that I don’t care for it to go. Too much false drama there.

The rest of this episode was pretty solid. Julia’s quasi-harassment of the pregnant barista was obvious, but not out of character. Crosby and Jasmine’s touchy relationship played well and thankfully didn’t get too much screen-time. They need to move on and so do we, at least for the time being. This wasn’t the best Parenthood had to offer, but the opening episodes never are. Frustrations will swell, the dancing will stop and Peter Krause will start yelling more. And I can’t wait.

Other thoughts:

  • Adam and Crosby working together is a storyline with a lot of promise. Their relationship is one of, if not the, most interesting on the series and Krause and Dax Shepard bounce off one another so masterfully. I’m sure that things won’t go very well and yet I’m still excited to see how both of them screw this up.
  • Julia and Joel are always, always stuck in lesser storylines and it looks like this season is no different. Worst of all, it feels like Joel’s being left out even more than usual, at least as of now. That’s unfortunate because Sam Jaeger has a great presence about him that I don’t think the series has quite figured out how to use yet.
  • If you follow me on Twitter, you know that most of the discussion last night was about hair. Haddie’s hair was awful, Amber’s hair grew on me and even a short amount of screen-time couldn’t keep me from noticing whatever was going with Drew’s head.
  • What happened to Sarah’s play?

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