“Perchance to Dream”
April 27th, 2010
Last week, Parenthood was given a second season, and I was pleased: yes, I have at times voiced my intense frustration with some of the show’s tonal inconsistencies, but in doing so I admit that they seem like a show working itself out more than a show which has no chance of ever reconciling its various parts. Rather, it’s a show that very clearly doesn’t want to know what it is yet, a show which wants to embrace the slack that we cut freshman series by trying out as many things as possible. The result is occasionally a show that makes me want to tear my hair out, but it’s also occasionally a show that really resonates emotionally, and there has always been moments which make you think that maybe these crazy Bravermans might just make it after all.
“Perchance to Dream,” easily the most consistent episode of the show thus far, feels perfectly timed to make me excited to see where this show goes in its second season. The show has, to this point, felt like one where the characters are sort of adrift in a sea of uncertainty, as changes and challenges to their family force them to react and respond accordingly. However, this week’s episode dials down the drama and creates “slice of life” scenarios which the show plays for some humour but ultimately uses to draw out some meaningful character moments that feel like they’re building towards something more than a saccharine conclusion. It finally feels like we’re seeing something out of Act Two rather than Act One, and showing characters capable of being self-aware and who share relationships with other characters which don’t have clear hierarchies that lead to formulaic storylines.
Dare we dream that Parenthood might some day become the dramatic powerhouse that is Jason Katims’ other show, Friday Night Lights? Well, no, but I do think we’re to the point where the idea doesn’t seem like a hilariously improbable notion.
To go to Friday Night Lights for a second, part of what made the show work so well is that it had the glue of High School football to hold the show together: it was something which led to characters interacting, and which provided a central location for conflict and drama that didn’t feel like it was being forced upon the character. Parenthood doesn’t have that: family and the eponymous concept may be a central theme of the show, but they’re something that is sort of nebulous and ill-defined. While high school football culture is something that can sort of be boiled down to key ideas and blanket devotions, families are all different, and trying to sort out who the Bravermans were individually while the show was also trying to define their family dynamics in a way which wasn’t too rigid or too vague has ultimately been a burden on the show.
What “Perchance to Dream” does so well is make everything seem really natural: having moved past the drama of Sarah’s return, and Sarah’s affair with Amber’s teacher, and Crosby’s surprise son, and Julia’s feud with Racquel, and the suddenness of Max’s autism, the show got to just show an hour of these characters trying to define themselves through normal behaviours. In some cases, this means Adam turning his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality into a personal crusade that crosses so many lines I don’t really know where to begin, but that’s consistent of how the character responded when Haddie dating was more of a “dramatic,” rather than “real,” part of the story. In other cases, it means Amber and Sarah’s fight over college quite nicely settling on Sarah coming to terms with her own regrets over her past rather than trying to force her life lessons onto Amber without taking into account her own interests, or it means Kristina leaving the “drama” of family to get a taste for re-entering the work force.
When characters do make a big deal out of something, as with Adam and Haddie or with Julia trying to teach Sydney a lesson about honesty, it comes back on them: Haddie calls Adam out on his double standards, and Joel is quite right to point out that Sydney is perfectly channeling her mother with her handling of the broken vase situation. I would contend that Adam remains the show’s most problematic character, a little bit too broad at times, which is making behaviour not that dissimilar from how Coach Taylor treats Julie feel a little bit too broad, a little bit too light. However, that’s really the difference between the two shows: Parenthood is much more bouncy than Friday Night Lights is going to be, and so a character like Adam is just a little bit more unhinged. I think Peter Krause overdoes it, and I think the dancing went just a few steps too far tonight considering how the show wanted to play the dramatic scene later, but I’m warming up to the character enough to “believe” the relationship he shares with his family.
The show’s most successful storyline is entering what would largely be considered dramatic territory, as the inevitable coupling of Crosby and Jasmine is officially underway. I’ve been wary of this, as it felt like it could be the result of the credits (where Joy Bryant has always been a regular, and Marguerite Moreau was always a guest star) rather than something which happens organically. However, Bryant and Shepard have quite a bit of chemistry, and this episode had so many scenes that just felt “real” that I buy it: between Crosby carrying a sleeping Jabbar to bed after not even getting to the flying bikes in E.T., and helping him get over his fear of pooping in unfamiliar toilets (Elliot Reid would surely understand), there were just scenes that felt like parents being parents, especially meaningful in their case because they have never been parents together.
The show doesn’t pretend that its not all a bit weird and uncertain: as charming and wonderful as they are trying to get their son to focus on singing rather than his nervousness, having abandoned their dinner date without a moment’s hesitation and without a single dramatic interruption, they are still awkward about it the morning after hooking up. And it makes sense that Jasmine would be a bit overwhelmed by what’s happening, even while being swept off her feet, and Crosby is just as anxious about the pressure to avoid screwing it up. And the show will probably introduce some intense drama into the situation, as surely his ex-girlfriend will re-enter the picture, just as surely as Haddie will have sex for the first time, and Amber will face some sort of crisis, etc.
The difference between the show now and the show at the start of the season is that they seem to be building drama through small and realistic moments of parenting rather than turning small moments of parenting into unrealistically dramatic scenes. The show just feels a lot more comfortable now, and the entire episode felt like it was able to get to somewhat dramatic or character-altering moments using small scenes that were a little broad (like Jim’s poetry about Sarah’s vagina) but which never felt so broad that they seemed counter-productive. Everything in “Perchance to Dream” was working towards the same goals, some of which were nice parallels (Sarah and Kristina both placing their own futures in context with their families) that really hit home.
It’s never going to be Friday Night Lights, but it has every chance of being its slightly more broad, upper middle class equivalent, which isn’t the worst aspiration I can imagine.
- The mother/daughter parallels are a major component of the show, especially with Sarah and Amber, but the extension into Julia and Sydney again makes me realizing just how the show is managing to find mothers/daughters who are believably related. With Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham it’s more physical appearance, but I’ve been really impressed at how cadence and mannerisms from Potter/Christensen are making their way into their TV offspring’s performances. The show wasn’t just pretending that Sydney sounded like Julia: it was dead on.
- I thought Drew going to Adam to learn how to dance seemed ill-advised, but it continues the “Adam as surrogate father figure” angle. My one complaint about that story is that we don’t get to see Drew approach the girl at the dance: I get that they don’t want to create a whole set for a single scene, with all of the extras and the like, but it makes the poor kid seem like an afterthought. I also really worry about how exactly he gets back and forth between his house and Adam’s, but that’s not really important.
- I would contest the show’s depiction of pretentious English majors, but I’ve met people like that.