Parenthood – “The Situation”

“The Situation”

March 30th, 2010

Fittingly, subtlety isn’t particularly easy to analyze when it comes to television series. While I would never argue that Parenthood’s morals are subtle, as it tends to go for the blindly emotional over the starkly realistic, I still feel like some of what the show is accomplishing could be considered subtle. Even if things eventually get wrapped up in a neat bow that lays out the circumstances at hand, things always tend to start with a small moment that becomes something more, and so the least subtle of conclusions may still come from subtle origins.

“The Situation” works for most of its run time because the characters aren’t necessarily being driven by clear moral foundations; Drew doesn’t start spending time with Adam and Max because his Dad let him down again, Sarah doesn’t strike up a friendship with Amber’s teacher because of some sort of life problem, and Crosby (while directed by others) manages his paternity situation fairly effectively. In the end, the lessons apparent in each story are drawn to the surface through more direct action, and the show gets as sappy as it always does; however, up to that point, there continues to be enough small moments of subtlety for me to stick with the show for the rest of the season.

One of the things that worked so well with Adam and Kristina’s struggles with Steve, Haddie’s boyfriend, is that there was no confrontation. Part of the struggle of parenting is just having to let things play out, and while Steve may be a little bit gropey and a whole lot too comfortable using adults’ first names he is pleasant, comes from a decent family, and not some sort of problem child that requires intervention. And rather than the story devolving to the point where Adam tries to intervene, the show smartly keeps the parents as observers: they gossip about it, and they listen in on their fight over Love, Actually in hopes that it signals the end of the relationship, but they can’t make any sort of move once it’s clear that it’s just another bump in the road. Both Krause and Potter had a lot of fun with those scenes, and it was just played out like everyday life: Haddie didn’t throw a fit over the invasion of privacy, choosing instead to make her point and move on, and Kristina didn’t have a heart-to-heart after the breakup. It was just a parents-eye view of young love, and that it got the rest of the siblings reminiscing about their own pasts made for a nice scene that reminds you of the potential in this basic premise.

And while it was caught up in some of the show’s most manipulative narratives (the use of baseball as a sign of Max’s progress remains ill-advised), I thought the “Adam as surrogate father, Drew as surrogate son” story started from a really interesting place. You’ll note that it happens perfectly organically: Drew wasn’t in a particularly bad place, Max wasn’t particularly struggling, and Adam wasn’t desperate for some sort of connection. Rather, Adam is starting to find his son’s lack of response to be more of a “situation” than it was before, and so he latches onto the normalcy that Drew offers them. It could have gone in a direction where he starts to favour Drew because he’s more like a “real” son in his desire to play ball, or they could have had Max entirely reject his father in favour of his cousin, but the show wasn’t willing to go so far as to give into those subtexts, and I don’t entirely blame them for that. Sure, the ending of the story was a bit too saccharine (Adam and Sarah sharing a moment reminiscing about the struggles of both father and son within their two families, Max making the big catch based on the confidence gained from the practices), but there was some nice moments for everyone involved that spoke to the potential for these families to interact without blowing it entirely out of proportion or anything like that. Yes, it wasn’t subtle in the end, but it started from a subtle place, and that counts for something.

This wasn’t an episode that really changed my mind on any of the show’s pros or cons, really. I have found Crosby to be far more laidback and mature throughout his experience with Jabbar than I would have imagined from the pilot, and he remained so here: yes, both Jabbar’s mother and his girlfriend get frustrated with his honesty, but he actually presents the information in a fairly measured fashion, and when he talks to Sarah about the situation we see that he has quite clearly made a connection with his son that goes beyond the storyline at hand. It doesn’t feel like the show is working to endear us to Crosby, or using this to build some form of connection, which is letting Dax Sheppard remain charming without making the character seem smug. It’s a stark contrast to the Julia stories, which are becoming paint-by-numbers: Julia forces her own personality onto her daughter, it goes terribly, and then she learns a lesson about herself that she proceeds to forget by the next episode. While Crosby is having to mature and come to terms with something new that is sticking around for a while, Julia looks like a terrible parent for just figuring this out recently, and an even worse parent for forgetting the previous week’s lesson so quickly. I quite like Joel, who is willing to tease her about her situation, and I thought spinning her problems off of the conversation about her lack of an amorous encounter in the merry-go-round worked quite well, but the sort of “connect the dots” story won’t make the characters come off as any less of a cliché.

As for Sarah and her “friendship” with Amber’s English professor, I like Jason Ritter and I like Lauren Graham, so I’m going to let me intense dislike of “Parents dating Teachers” drama slide…for now. The story followed the “meet cute” strategy a little bit too cleanly, not unlike something out of “Love, Actually” if we’re being honest, but both performers are charming and I’m willing to let them play out the inevitable jealousy and mother/daughter confrontations so long as it’s Graham and Whitman doing the acting.

The more I think about it, I have to presume that the “Love, Actually” comparison was probably intended: if you’re the kind of person who takes a really cynical take on that film, chances are you’re going to have a really cynical take on this television series. The problem is that “Love, Actually” gets to wrap things up neatly because we expect that of feature films, but televisions shows need to keep going, and repeating the same patterns over and over again isn’t going to win over Steve or just about any self-respecting audience member. For now, they’re getting away with it on the strength of the performances and some subtleties around the edges, but that’s not going to last forever.

Cultural Observations

  • Just to be clear, I thought “Love, Actually” was just alright, but I’d at least be smarter than Steve and point out how much I loved the Bill Nighy parts.
  • Interesting that they chose to have Jason Ritter play younger than his actual age just to make the age difference that much more potentially awkward; if he were 30, obviously, it would be too socially acceptable. Also of note: I kept wondering why Joan’s brother wasn’t in his wheelchair.
  • No Craig T. Nelson this week – in an ensemble this big, I’m perfectly fine with this.
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