Same as it Ever Was?: Second Impressions for Life Unexpected, Parenthood

“Ocean Uncharted”

&

“I Hear You, I See You”

September 14th, 2010

Life Unexpected and Parenthood have a lot in common, industrially speaking: while their thematic similarities don’t go beyond “family” being a central component of each, their most important connection is that they are both midseason shows which were renewed for a second season.

This is important because it means that they, compared with other sophomore series, didn’t get as much time to tell their stories. Without full 22-episode seasons, we never really got to see everything that Liz Tigelaar and Jason Katims had to offer, which makes these debuts especially important. We’re not as committed as we would have been after a “full” season, and therefore each series goes into its second year looking to prove that they are going to make the most of this opportunity and that we should continue watching.

I want to discuss the two series together because they take two very divergent paths (and because I’m short on time): while Life Unexpected presents entirely new scenarios which complicate the series’ existing premise, Parenthood seems entirely comfortable in the rhythms it developed last season. Neither decision is necessarily better than the other, but I do think that one premiere was more effective than the other as a result of their strategy.

The problem with Life Unexpected in its first season was that it ran its initial premise into the ground: so many of its stories retold the pilot that at times it felt like the series was simply incapable of moving on from its “Previously On” segment in any given week. There were some solid performances amidst that repetition, and the premise never felt as saccharine as it could have, but by the end of the season there was really nothing more they could do with the premise in front of them. The show could no longer be about Lux’s sudden arrival because Lux’s arrival was no longer sudden, which meant that Season Two has Tigelaar going back to the drawing board: while there are still some slight residual conflicts from the spring, primarily Baze and Cate’s history with one another, the show chooses to introduce entirely new sources of drama for the second season.

And I think that I would have fewer issues with this if it wasn’t all very, very clunky. I don’t mean in terms of the plot of the episode, with regards to the bar burning down: it was a purposefully manipulative story which has numerous logical holes (see: why would Cate, and not his father, be the one person who gets to visit Baze in the hospital?), but its function was at least emotional rather than expository. We cannot say the same, however, for Lux’s meet cute with her English teacher, or the hot blonde bartender who makes a phone call to an unnamed relative, or the wedding gift from an unknown woman from Ryan’s past – there is no point where any of the people involved feel like honest human beings, people who inhabit a world other than the television one.

I have some issues with where the episode ends up in regards to Lux and “Minnesota,” as the meet cute turns into the latest in a long line of teacher/student flirtations in television, but I think I’d have fewer issues if it had gotten there in a way which felt organic. The “meet cute” felt as if it was reaching for poetry and couldn’t find it: if I had to offer a comparison, it had a sort of Logan/Rory vibe (Gilmore Girls, for the uninitiated) to it that I don’t think the show has yet earned. We knew too little about the character to really believe in their romance, which was a problem throughout: we don’t know this Stepford marriage counselor who steals Cate’s job, or Ryan’s sister Paige, or really anyone else who is newly introduced into the story.

It’s a thematic element of insurrection, of Ryan and Cate returning from their honeymoon and finding the world around them invaded by these new characters, but it took the show too far away from what worked. What worked was the family dynamic, and as repetitive as it got it was also the show’s core – while, again, it was thematically purposeful to have Baze and Lux separated until the very end of the episode, it meant that the episode felt distinctly offputting in a way that I don’t think serves the show well. The familiarity we had with the first season was missing, replaced with a familiarity with genre tropes that we’ve seen way too often as of late (Friday Night Lights and Parenthood each did the teacher/student story recently, and with a bit more nuance in terms of its introduction). The show has never particularly lived up to its title in terms of delivering the unexpected, but in an episode where it tried to surprise and provoke the audience everything was rote to the point of being a disappointment.

Parenthood, meanwhile, took the opposite approach in that there is almost nothing new in this premiere: there is only a single new character, with Billy Baldwin is introduced as Adam’s boss, but that exemplifies the episode’s strategy. The goal is not to introduce anything new, but to tap into potential which the first season didn’t have time to tap into. Adam has always worked for a living, but the series is now expanding to include that workplace amongst its spaces of operation. It’s a logical expansion for the show, and one that is echoed throughout the episode: for example, look at how Sam Jaegar’s Joel, who took a back seat to Julia throughout season one, emerges here as he squares off with Zeke. The narrative has always been sitting there waiting to be explored: I don’t remember learning what Joel did before he became a stay-at-home Dad, and here we got to see some of that resentment rise to the surface in order to flesh out their relationship, and make Joel a partner rather than a sidekick narratively speaking.

The episode is far more interested in those sorts of subtle expansions than any sort of major change. Everything has that sort of comfortable logic about it, celebrating what the series does best by having Kristina teach Haddie how to drive, Max planning for his first sleepover and the disappointment which comes with it, Crosby dealing with a long distance relationship, Zeke dealing with how to improve his marriage, and Sarah once again dealing with how to stop drifting through life. It’s all of the sorts of things that were lingering at the end of last season, let play out without any sort of major insurrection. The show sticks to small scenes instead of big ones: Haddie breaks off the side mirror on a recycling bin instead of rear-ending someone, and Sarah asks Joel to build her a desk instead of having an emotional discussion about how bad her life is. We don’t even get any scenes with the entire family together: while multiple siblings congregate at various times, there is no big group scene where the values of family are aggressively reinforced (one of last season’s problems), which makes this seem like a continuation of last season rather than a whole new chapter.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for all new chapters. In the case of Life Unexpected, the idea of Cate being without a job is smart to give her character something to aspire towards, so I’m willing to give the show some time to find its footing. However, I will admit to being highly apprehensive: there are a few too many ticking time bomb storylines that lack any of the emotional content which the show did well in the first season. I think part of that show still exists, but the premiere didn’t do a great job of showing it. However, perhaps this is the smarter move: since viewers didn’t get a chance to know your characters or your world entirely anyways, why not shake things up and create a new environment and vibe to capture those viewers tuning in for the first time?

Perhaps, then, Parenthood is taking the real risk: by simply continuing existing storylines without any real exposition in regards to the characters or their storylines, the show relies on viewers to remember their fondness for these characters (if such fondness existed beyond residual love for Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls). However, as someone who watches a lot of television quite closely, the laidback approach that Katims took was far more successful at setting my mind at ease about the season ahead: while Life Unexpected’s premiere was more “clear” about what is coming up in the future, Parenthood was similarly elucidating but simultaneously comforting. It’s telling, after all, that Life Unexpected undercuts its potentially comforting moment (Baze and Lux finally sharing a moment) with the teen soap forbidden relationship – yes, the show is of a different genre and on a different network, but it still says something pretty substantial about what kind of show Life Unexpected wants to be.

And in the weeks ahead, we’ll see if it’s a show I want to stick around for.

Cultural Observations

  • As a former English major, I’m starting to get fed up with the notion that only English teachers have inappropriate relationships with their students. I get that literature is romantic, but that literary allusions are an easy and largely effective storytelling tool, but just once I’d like to see a science teacher in that scenario. I’m sure there are some examples of the trope which aren’t about English or the humanities in general, but by golly it seems like we Arts-types are always the villains here.
  • Can’t say I’m particularly sad to see Bug go, as his character felt pretty extraneous as the first season progressed and seemed to be holding Lux back, but the way he was written out was really quite cruel: his sudden burst of romanticism, and his outright rejection of Lux at episode’s end, was over the top.
  • If I had one complaint about the Parenthood premiere, it was the lack of Mae Whitman outside of a single scene: I know that Sarah’s kids were a big part of season one, which meant that they would logically take a backseat here with their mother heading into the workforce and all, but I still demand more Mae Whitman even if she’s part of a ludicrously large ensemble (those credits seemed to go on forever).
  • A good sign for the show: this episode really went back to basics with some of the stories, with Julia and Kristina in particular basically just acting out basic rights of parenthood (the driving lesson, the sex talk), but it didn’t feel overly simple or obvious.
  • Tuesdays at 10e are a real log jam, as Sons of Anarchy is in the timeslot along with Caprica, Parenthood and The Good Wife. So, not sure how much Parenthood (or Life Unexpected) coverage will be taking place, or whether either show will remain part of my regular rotation as the year really kicks into gear.
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5 Comments

Filed under Life Unexpected, Parenthood

5 responses to “Same as it Ever Was?: Second Impressions for Life Unexpected, Parenthood

  1. Tausif Khan

    For your last Cultural Observation Hulu among shows you can’t watch and find which ones are quality. Tell us blog readers/twitter followers why you choose to follow what you follow please.

  2. I could not agree more with this review. The premiere of Life Unexpected really turned me off, especially the last five minutes when they threw in all of those inorganic, soapy “twists.” I like soap, but when it’s executed well. This was just sloppy and lazy. I also think it is a cheat to the show as they presented it last season to immediately give Cate and Ryan 1,000,000 obstacles to overcome. Wouldn’t it be a more interesting and organic story to actually allow them to be comfortable for a few weeks? I honestly thought, based on what the show did last season, it was aspiring to be something better than what it showed last night.

    Also: the teacher/student hookup was almost IDENTICAL to a storyline on Pretty Little Liars. They met in a bar, she pretended like she was older, they met again in school. SIGH. I am assuming the first episode was written before the PLL one aired, but still. It’s frustrating.

  3. I was left feeling underwhelmed by the PARENTHOOD premiere, but that may be because I need to warm up to those characters again. I foundf myself feeling VERY annoyed with the actor who plays Max. He really overplays it (he could take a lesson in when to go big and when to hold back from the child actors on MODERN FAMILY) and it’s extremely distracting. I can’t focus on the narrative because I’m wincing. And to imply that this is how children with Aspberger’s act is almost offensive. Not sure what the show can do about this–they can’t switch actors this late in the game. Hopefully, they’ll just keep him to a few one-liners here and there.

    I loved the Julia sex talk storyline. This is exactly what parents of bright children have to deal with all the time–difficult questions that you just didn’t expect to have to answer so soon. I love that Julia wasn’t sure how much information to provide and then just said “Screw it, here you go…” followed by the guilt and self doubt of “Should I have told this to my child?” Best storyline of the episode by far. Though that’s not saying much.

  4. Colleen

    Finally delurking to say how much your reviews mean to me and to beg you to make the time for more “Parenthood” reviews. My son’s a teen and lower-functioning than Max, but I see so much of my life and that of my friends depicted here with such love and humor. (Sometimes life follows art: I’d had a Haddie-like blowup at my guy about 15 minutes before she did.) And it introduced me to Dax Shepard, who is often my favorite in this strong cast.

    Congrats on the new gig, which I’ll also follow.

  5. Colleen

    Oops, I mean sometimes life anticipates art. I obviously need more coffee (and more “Parenthood” reviews!)

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