“The Deep End of the Pool”
March 16th, 2010
Early on in a show’s run, writing reviews is about checking in with its progress: I’m not writing about last night’s Parenthood because it was particularly good or because it was some sort of game-changing episode, but rather because it’s early in a show’s run, and assessing its quality at this early stage helps me consider its future potential. While ratings are obviously important early in a show’s run (for the record, Parenthood is consistently slipping, as one would expect), the show’s creative trajectory is infinitely more interesting, which is why I’m taking the time to write about “The Deep End of the Pool” this afternoon.
In short, I thought the episode was pretty solid in that it drew attention to the biggest concern with a show like this one and seemed to suggest that it is capable of heading in a different direction: combine with some scenes that I really enjoyed, and you’ve got a pleasant way to spend an hour, which might just be enough to keep the show around on NBC’s dire lineup.
My favourite scene in this week’s episode was, easily, the scene where Sarah is forced to shamefully walk back into Berkeley Coffee after having dumped her short-term “boyfriend” of sorts. That may seem odd, considering that the entire theme of my review will come from a fairly emotional and substantial scene later in the episode, but I loved the idea that this guy was so down on his luck when it comes to the ladies that his co-workers were all fawning over Sarah, delivering her free coffee and even doing the same for Julia when she came into the shop. The camaraderie that existed between those baristas was like a show within a show, so when Sarah walked in and you saw them all grouped together supporting Jim in the post-breakup depression, and they all turned to her and gave her the evilest look imaginable, it was both really funny and really believable. The show, in a few brief scenes, made me believe that there was this entire other community existing outside of the show, that even small supporting characters were living in a show of their own.
Ensemble shows like this can often feel as if we’re sort of blindly following the premise, that everything we’re seeing is happening because there is a television show involved. I loved that scene because it made vengeful baristas believable, something that is not as easy as it might seem. To provide a fitting example, the town of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls sort of straddled the line between feeling organically crazy and crazily inorganic; sometimes it felt like the characters just happened to be living in a ridiculous town where ridiculous things happened, and other times it felt like the writers were having the ridiculous town invade the show’s narrative for the sake of creating a particular reaction. In the case of Berkeley Coffee, it felt like Sarah was invading their world rather than their world invading the series, and that’s an important distinction in order to allow the scene’s humour to land without feeling forced.
The problem that this show faces is that it does have a premise, and that premise is somewhat sudden: Sarah just returned home, Crosby just found out he has a kid, Julia seems to have just realized that her daughter is slipping away from her, and Max was just diagnosed with Asperger’s. In the case of Julia and Crosby, I think that the revelations do seem a bit too sudden: they feel like television plots, even if Dax Shephard continues to surprise me by drawing more out of the Jabar storyline than I had anticipated in terms of both comedy and drama. I don’t quite understand why Julia is just now realizing that her daughter is starting to drift away, and Christensen’s performance (while good) seems to be making the character more stubborn and bullish than sympathetic, to the point where I was almost disappointed that her torture tactic actually worked. It’s not that these stories are bad, but they feel like they’re sitcom stories, even if the execution is pretty effective.
But Sarah and Adam’s situations can’t be separated from the past, a point that Haddie’s conversation with her father makes expressly clear. While he wants to believe that it is only recently that Max became a pressing concern for the family, she points out that it’s always been this way, that they have subconsciously organized their lives around Max’s problem for as long as she can remember. While, from our perspective, Max’s recent diagnosis makes this a new problem, in fact this is just an extension of previous problems that have been accepted as normal. Similarly, Sarah’s struggles are more familiar than she wants to realize, and so her struggles feel like the latest stage in a longer journey rather than a sudden shift in her character for the sake of us as viewers.
So long as Parenthood sticks with stories that don’t feel manufactured, I think that there’s some real potential here: the cast remains pretty uniformly strong, the balance of drama and comedy continues to work, and even the most melodramatic moments (like Zeke revealing his martial troubles) are being played with a confident subtlety that suits the show. I’m not jumping up and down, but consider this my vote of confidence that the show is on the right track even if some of the stories aren’t quite working as well as others.
- Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I could have sworn that the teacher working in the classroom at Max’s new school was Sonja Sohn – if so, that would be three Wire alum in the timeslot last night.
- The final scene of everyone enjoying time at the pool was a big ol’ cliche, but I think those scenes are doing a really good job of keeping things light amongst the family, which is an interesting perspective: by keeping the melodrama out of the family dynamic, it’s giving all of the characters a safety net, which is a much better use of the ensemble at this early stage.
- Nice little moment with Drew stepping up to try to fix his mother’s car; I really enjoy that particular dynamic, and I think the focus on the mother/son relationship over the mother/daughter (outside of the fun bed-sharing scene) is helping keep Graham from falling too far into Lorelai territory, even if this is just “Lorelai has a son” in some ways.
- For more thoughts on the episode, check out Noel’s review at Monsters of TV and Alan’s thoughts at What’s Alan Watching.