“What’s Goin’ On” with NBC’s Parenthood? I Have No Bloody Clue.

“What’s Goin’ On” with NBC’s Parenthood?

April 20th, 2010

When I was watching last week’s episode of NBC’s Parenthood, in particular the scene where Sarah (Lauren Graham) shares a moment over some Faulkner with Mark, her daughter’s English teacher and twelve years her juniour, I was not surprised. The scene plays out exactly as you would have imagined it would play out as soon as the two characters met, sparks flying over shared metaphors and the romance of literature as their love defies social constructions of age and awakens something inside of them. I was ready to write the scene off as the precise opposite of subtlety, falling into every cliche we could have predicted, but then I heard something in the background…and then my jaw dropped.

It was “In These Arms,” a song by the Swell Season; for those who don’t know, the Swell Season is the moniker under which Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are currently recording music following their Oscar-winning success with Once. However, my jaw did not drop out of simple recognition of this very beautiful and haunting song; rather, it dropped because Hansard and Irglova were at one point in time romantically involved, with eighteen years separating them. It was at that point that I came to a very important conclusion: someone, somewhere, on the staff of Parenthood is screwing with me.

It could be the Music Supervisor, as there is plenty of evidence to indicate that whoever is choosing music for this show is in fact still living in 2006, or it could be the performers, some of whom seem to have made it their life’s work to entirely take away my ability to tell when this show is trying to be serious and when it’s trying to be sarcastic. For every time when I think I finally have Parenthood pinned down, when I grasp at some sort of straw that convinces me that this could some day develop into half the series that Jason Katims’ Friday Night Lights became, there’s moments which leap off the screen and just beg me to ridicule, abandon or at times even throttle this series.

And I’m sort of loving it.

I think everyone needs a series like Parenthood which seems to confound every expectation. The music is a fine example of this: I have absolutely no idea what songs like “Young Folks” and “Put Your Records On” are doing on a show which seems to be set in 2010. It makes me wonder whether it’s some sort of commentary on these characters that they’re so behind the times that they actually believe these songs to be current, and the fascinating thing is that I’d believe it: after all, “What’s Goin’ On Down There?” had a story about Adam’s struggle to be hip, so perhaps the use of these songs is to indicate that these nutjobs just haven’t bought a CD since people stopped buying CDs (although perhaps they would be more uncool if they kept buying CDs?).

The scene which gave the episode its title was so bizarre I don’t even know where to begin: whenever the show tries to go for laidback or casual, in this case featuring the Braverman women (Julia, Sarah and Kristina) discussing personal grooming, it’s like the needle gets knocked off the track and everything turns to static. Blame it on the Cougar Town-esque glasses of wine, or the fact that they were listening to Corinne Bailey Rae, but there’s no connection between how any of them were acting in that scene and their stories in the episode or in previous episodes. I think the idea is that they’re supposed to seem more like real people if we see them letting loose, or talking about subjects that real people will talk about, but those little slices of life need to feel congruous with the remainder of the episode. Instead, this one raised a lot of questions about who these people are and what kind of lives these lead which the show isn’t actually bothering to answer, and that’s going to eventually lead to the show’s downfall.

Lauren Graham’s character isn’t all that spectacular, but we have a very clear stance of who she is: she’s unlucky in life, unlucky in love, and trying to keep her family together in a period of crisis. We understand why she wants to date Amber’s teacher, we understand why she has some right to be at least a little bit selfish in not seeing what’s right in front of her, and we understand why she eventually breaks it off with Mark; Sarah is by far the most “enjoyable” part of the show because the predictable storyline coincides with a character who is fairly easy to read, and whose reactions play out in measured and consistent fashions which Graham handles with her usual grace.

Everyone else, meanwhile, appear to be on some form of drug. Adam’s impatience this week came from nowhere, Haddie’s sarcasm and genuine compliments were honestly indistinguishable, Julia’s sudden crisis of conscience was dropped like a rock, and Crosby’s similar crisis of conscience was oversexualized for the sake of comic effect. It’s as if Sarah is the only character allowed to stay even momentarily grounded: Adam gets his “Me Time” at the end of the episode by heading out to the waves, but there was some part of me which expected his “Me Time” to have a far more euphemistic meaning, both because I can’t separate Krause from Nate Fisher and because it seemed like something that one of the show’s seven different personalities would do.

And there are times when I wonder if there are people on this show, like perhaps the music supervisor, are aware of how all over the map things are and are doing their best to work in subtleties which call attention to the madness of it all. I think there is actually some subtlety in this show: either Monica Potter or Sarah Ramos is doing a fantastic job of mimicking the other’s cadence and mannerisms, and Mae Whitman is managing to find a way to merge Amber’s bad girl attitude with “hot teacher crush” in an admirable fashion. But for the most part, it seems like everyone is just sort of swinging for the fences, just making it all up as they go along, and it’s making for an absolutely bizarre television experience unlike anything else I’ve experienced this season.

I don’t know if it makes the show better or worse that I’m constantly convinced it’s winking at me, but it’s certainly keeping me engaged – I don’t know if a constant sense of mystery and confusion surrounding character motivations is really a staple of the family drama, but television is always evolving.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m still a little hazy on the whole “Gabby was at a bar” thing: do they really think Minka Kelly isn’t 21 (don’t let Friday Night Lights fool you, Bravermans, the woman is 30)? And is Adam really that much of a prude that he would so exaggerate her behaviour in some effort to justify his own behaviour/hangover?
  • Of this week’s shocking developments: I am absolutely flabbergasted that Crosby would have any sort of romantic tension with the mother of his child who despite being otherwise unconnected with the family is a series regular. FLABBERGASTED.
  • I think Mr. Cyr cheated and highlighted that paragraph after the fact to get into Sarah’s pants: sure, it goes against everything we know about the character, and my generally positive opinion about Jason Ritter, but anything can happen on Parenthood.


Filed under Parenthood

5 responses to ““What’s Goin’ On” with NBC’s Parenthood? I Have No Bloody Clue.

  1. tabernacle

    Every “Don’t be weird, Mom” out of Amber’s mouth is gold. Mae “Her?” Whitman kills me with the little dismissive flicks of the hand she throws at Lauren Graham.

    I don’t know either what the big deal is over Gabby and Jose Cuervo. Maybe simply the disconnect of seeing someone outside the usual context? (Say, one’s teacher at the movies)

    The show was lucky to get Lauren Graham. She is great at maneuvering between all these different tones you mention.

  2. Sam

    it’s true, this show is all over the map, but i keep coming back, too. i think just about everyone in the cast has enough charisma that i’m willing to buy the huge swings in tone as character nuances rather than writing flaws, even though i should know better. with graham and krause especially, there’s just a history of playing roles that oscillated between broad comedy and almost melodrama, so somehow they make it work.

    watching this week’s ep, it occurred to me, hasn’t krause been playing this midlife crisis character for like 10+ years now?

  3. On Lauren Graham:

    One of the best music choices I’ve ever seen on television is in the opening scene of the Gilmore Girls pilot when Laurali Gilmore enters Luke’s Diner to ask for coffee and Luke says he’s cutting her off, like a drug dealer. The music? There She Goes by The La’s which is a song about Heroin.

  4. Wow, I’ve barely been watching this show. Well I’ve been watching it, but I haven’t really been paying attention. I thought that it was a pretty good show, and I continue to watch it, but I think the timeslot, right after Lost, means that I’m not really analyzing it.
    Maybe in the fall when it comes back I’ll actually be able to fully watch the show.

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