March 2nd, 2010
I’m currently trying to imagine a world where someone could handle watching both ABC’s Brothers & Sisters and NBC’s much-hyped Parenthood, the centrepiece of its Olympics advertising campaign. I used to watch the former show back in the day, and it had its moments: Sally Field makes a strong matriarch, the family squabbles featured a number of strong actors (Rachel Griffiths, Justin Annable, Emily VanCamp), and once its melodrama settled down enough to reveal itself as human drama the show could even be quite poignant on occasion.
And Parenthood reminds me a lot of that show, at least generally speaking. You have an extended family who gathers together for tense family dinners, you have the various siblings sharing a unique bond that is as deconstructive as it is constructive, and you have each separate family within the larger family dealing with their own issues with every other family peering over their shoulder.
I don’t think I can really tell you why I like Parenthood more than I ever liked Brothers & Sisters, but if I had to really try I would say that it is less smug. It feels more natural and less self-aware, either because the characters are slightly less idealistically wealthy or because I simply like the talent behind this show better. Or maybe, just maybe, the shininess of a new show is outweighing the staleness of an old one, the repetition and heightening melodrama of Brothers & Sisters being traded out for the fresh, unused template of Parenthood.
Perhaps in four years, I’ll be raving about another show just like them; for now, let’s talk about this one, because I quite enjoyed it regardless of how similar it may be to something else.
I will pretty much watch Lauren Graham in anything, so perhaps my affection for Parenthood is built entirely around her Sarah, a single mother struggling to overcome her past mistakes and start her life on a new trajectory. Yes, the character risks stepping too close to our beloved Lorelai, what with the “single mother to teenagers” and the “fast-talking and argumentative” factors, but Graham is pretty great at capturing both the chaos and the drama of such a role, and by focusing her parenting on her teenage son as opposed to her daughter the episode resists the more obvious story in favour of the one which wasn’t quite as apparent in the early madness of the move back to her parents’ house. The easy route would have been Amber running back to Damian, but Drew was the less developed character, and the subtlety there was much appreciated – Graham is funny, certainly, and she fits in well with the other siblings when it becomes more about the bickering and the like, but she killed both on her date with Mike O’Malley and in that scene at the gas station, and she really is the soul of this pilot.
The heart, however, really comes down to the story that both Alan Sepinwall and Jace Lacob have written about in more detail, as Adam and Christina discover that their son Max has Asperger’s, a form of autism. My knowledge of autism is admittedly quite limited, but I thought the storyline was definitely the heart of the episode: we see how these parents have worked with their son’s differences for years, accepting them as abnormal behaviour rather than any sort of learning difficulty. The challenge that Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and Co. face with the story is that they’re dealing with it in the same episode where a “surprise paternity” is deployed with far less subtlety (but not little subtlety – more on that in a minute), so there has to be a way to keep the Asperger’s diagnosis from seeming like another bit of family melodrama. Peter Krause and Monica Potter, however, stepped up to the plate (sorry for the baseball metaphor) in a big way, as Potter was heartbreaking in the initial discussion about the diagnosis and Krause really sold his concerns in his conversation with his father outside of the school concert. Rather than escalating the tension and drama, the diagnosis stopped it dead, and giving Max his moment of progress (with his first big hit actually getting him into baseball despite his father’s fight with the umpire) helps reminds us that Asperger’s is not going to keep this kid from living his life.
I think the smartest thing the show did, to be honest, was how they’ve given the family two black sheeps: Crosby might be the one with commitment issues, and Crosby might be the one who has a son he didn’t know existed, but Sarah is the one moving home with no money to her name, and so the show has split up the usual black sheep qualities to make both seem more realistic. Dax Shepard isn’t a great actor, but he fits this role quite well, and even if it’s laying it on a bit thick for the guy with commitment issues having a four year old fall into his lap I think that the story has some potential when it comes to the central theme of the show (which, just in case you didn’t know, is parenthood. Fancy, huh?). It has more potential, really, than Erika Christensen as the lawyer who accepts the fact that she will always be a close relative to her daughter since her husband is the chosen parent – Christensen isn’t bad in the role, but it felt like the one story that sort of announced its presence without really proving the point, the scenes hitting the beats you’d expect without really breaking away from that in any capacity.
Like I said, I don’t really think I can differentiate the show from Brothers & Sisters: the condoms in the desk drawer point to a philandering patriarch (see: Brothers & Sisters), secrets don’t stay secrets for very long (see…you get the idea), and the various in-laws don’t entirely get along. But there is something about the show that managed to do all of those stories without seeming like it was taking one too far, or letting one dominate the rest of the show. When the show got real, it stayed real, and when it felt like it was heading towards melodrama it resisted going so far in that direction that its ability to do real dramatic work was challenged. It’s got a good cast, some great talent behind the scenes, and some strong critical responses.
And so I’m going to watch it, at least until another show just like it emerges just as this one starts introducing scheming illegitimate children with sinister motives.
- Craig T. Nelson didn’t get a whole lot to do here, but “Coach” did a fine job placing pressure on Max early on before having that great moment with Krause as the diagnosis settles in the family dynamic.
- Mae Whitman will forever be Ann, I hope she realizes that, but she is quite good here as well.
- Really curious to see where the ratings land on this one: the show had a strong Biggest Loser lead-in and a mountain of Olympics promotion, which is going to create a lot of pressure that might not be able to materialize for a fairly subtle family drama in a timeslot where, for months, NBC has aired nothing of interest. Tuesday is the one 10pm slot where NBC has a chance to be competitive with a strong lead-in, but it’s also the slot where an honest-to-goodness drama series (The Good Wife) has already taken root, so I’m not sure if Parenthood will draw the kind of viewership the hype might drive some analysts to expect. I’m hopeful it can find an audience, but I just think the hype will result in “Parenthood is…a disappointment” headlines in the morning.