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September 3, 2014

Review: Taking on 'Parenthood' and Liking the Results

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 14th 2011 4:30PM
One of the dangers of this job is that you don't always have enough time to keep up with programs that have a lot of potential.

In its first two seasons, I occasionally dipped into NBC's 'Parenthood,' but I admit I fell far behind in the Braverman chronicles, which I'd kept hearing good things about (the further I fell behind, the more good things I'd hear and read).

Given the crush of new and returning programs this month, I won't have a ton of time in coming weeks to write about 'Parenthood,' which returned Tuesday night. But I very much wanted to say that I'm extremely glad I caught up with this excellent show (over the past few days, I watched as much as I could of season 2), and I'm fully on board now.

I really recommend getting on board as well, if you can. Not only is 'Parenthood' a solidly rewarding drama, I'm half amazed (and fully glad) that the show exists at all.

As I wrote about here, it seems like television is reacting to these uncertain times by heading in a couple of predictable directions: Toward high-concept fare that has recognizable or marketable hooks (vampires! haunted houses! zombies! fairy tales! dinosaurs!), or toward the usual doctor-lawyer-cop fare, possibly with a twist (how long until we see a vampire prosecutor?).

Who knows, maybe that's what TV needs to do to survive in the multi-platform age. But whether or not that's the case, the industry appears to be pretty uninterested in supporting dramas that don't have some kind of hook-y premise. Shows that are just about life -- regular, zombie-free life in unhaunted houses -- well, good luck if you're pitching that kind of thing these days.

'Parenthood' doesn't have a hook, really, and it sets itself a major challenge each week: The show's writers craft hours of television that have beginnings, middles and ends -- yet the show's story lines revolve around situations that don't really end.

Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) is trying to accept her daughter's attempts at independence and create a new life of her own. Adam and Kristina Braverman (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) are trying to deal with their son's Asperger's diagnosis and, after Adam lost his job, just trying to keep the family afloat on a day-to-day basis. Crosby Braverman (Dax Shepard) is trying to grow up for real in the wake of the infidelity that ended his relationship with his son's mother.

These situations -- which are among the show's strongest story lines -- play out over long periods of time, yet executive producer and head writer Jason Katims and his writers are able to construct storylines that work on both an episodic and season-long level. The fact that Katims, who was also the mastermind behind 'Friday Night Lights,' has been able to do this with two broadcast network dramas that don't revolve around lawyers or aliens is a marvel that should be studied by scientists.

You may have been waiting for the "and yet...," so here it is. I'm one of the critics who's been using the phrase "laundry folder" to describe shows that don't occupy your full attention yet have a few modest charms and give you the occasional reason to pay closer attention.

There are story lines on 'Parenthood' that function as laundry folders: Any story line that revolves around Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia (Erika Christiansen) is almost skippable (I have nothing against either actor, but when they show up on screen, that's my cue to check email). When the show does spend time on them, it's usually just long enough to give us the outlines of a broadly sketched situation that doesn't feel nearly as nuanced or compelling as anything else on the show. And though they're great when given good material, as the Braverman patriarchs, Bonnie Bedelia and Craig T. Nelson rarely get anything meaty to play, given how much time 'Parenthood' spends on other family dynamics.

But I've loved how much dimension and quiet dignity Monica Potter has given Kristina (and I say that as someone who was worried in the show's first season that her usual brittleness might ruin the whole show for me). I've admired how unlikable and stubborn 'Parenthood' has been willing to make Adam, who is a good dad but can be as headstrong and aggressive as his occasionally irascible dad.

I've been extremely impressed with Dax Shepard's performance as Crosby, the ne'er-do-well who finally realizes that youthful irresponsibility is a crutch he's leaned on for too long. Max Burkholder has given a fully realized, Emmy-worthy performance as Max Braverman (the show is on its surest emotional ground when depicting his story lines, which is admirable, given how maudlin or cliched that story could be). And by this point, I've begun to think that Lauren Graham has some kind of mind control ability, given how easily she can cause me to become choked up during one of Sarah's impassioned speeches.

Like a real family, 'Parenthood' sometimes sprawls and can be messy or a little irritating around the edges. Some story lines can be a little repetitive (for instance, I'd love to see more of Mae Whitman's range put to use in the Amber stories). But in the main, this show is very much worth watching. And it's still possible to catch up. To do so, I watched season 2's 'Seven Names,' and then from 'Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs' (which has a great guest performance from Michael Emerson) straight through to the end of the season (though I think it'd be possible to skip 'Taking the Leap' and 'New Plan').

I don't claim to be a 'Parenthood' expert (I'm hoping on the next family road trip I'll get time to catch up on the season 2 episodes I missed). But this well-constructed drama is something to treasure on the TV schedule -- it's a show that respects our everyday experiences and emotions and yet also manages to entertain.

There are certainly interesting possibilities on the horizon. I'm hoping Adam goes into business with Crosby and that they take over that recording studio (the contrast between the brothers, who could learn a lot from each other, could be interesting). I'm interested to see how Kristina handles a baby at her age. I could -- and this is not an exaggeration -- watch Jason Ritter and Lauren Graham act together all day long.

And I hope that, as it did with 'Friday Night Lights,' NBC sees the wisdom of keeping around a gem that just isn't like anything else.

Two notes: You can watch the final four episodes of season 2 and the season 3 premiere here. And yes, I did hear Max's reference to 'FNL' in the episode. Nice!

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.


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Lauraine Combs

I love this show so much I cant begin to say! Lauren G. has been my favorite for a long time..she used to be on Rose O's show, as a guest, and she is hilarious! Monica Potter seems to me to be Julia Roberts sister by another mother or something! they have the same voice...Peter K. is amazing in everything he does...I wish those parents had been my parents! Im shocked to see them re=upped but so happy! I didnt like Crosby at first but he's kinda grown on me..and I must say Max gives me a headache...Im very on the fence about aspbergers, so.....but...he is a good kid actor....Julia and her husband seem to be the least interesting but that could change..maybe he'll have an affair....or a tumor! ? lolol in any case I LOVE LOVE LOVE this completely adult venture! no reality, no cops, no lawyers, no vampires, hardly any teens,...so Im thrilled w/this show!~

September 16 2011 at 11:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zb1opt

Parenthood is another great show that will be gone soon. I'm surprised it lasted this long. This is the third comment and the first one shows as being 17 hours ago. If the article had been about the 'ex-fatman gives a ***** a rose while racing around the island blindfolded in a bathtub trying to win their choice of five million dollars or five minutes on screen in next years, then there would have been hundreds of comments by now. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- And to AdrianD. Talking over each other? I find this less on Parenthood than most shows. I'll take that over the pounding pulse driving music making it impossible to hear the shows dialogue any time. It also often has it's own lyrics that also drown out the shows dialogue. It's easy to see why it's there. It's to tell the brain dead that this was a really good show, you loved it and will tell all your friends it was a great show! And now it seems to also sell the song at the end of the show. Some TV shows are getting to be like a movie that has dramatic whispered dialogue followed by people screaming or explosions or such. At the theatre the volume it so loud it's only painful when loud and you still hear the actors whispering. At home most don't have the volume that loud, especially if anyone else is in the house doing anything other than watching it with you. And even if they are and you would like to be able to yalk to each other now and then without screaming, it's not that loud. And I would think most don't have an audio system to handle it that loud, none or almost none if they are listening to the TV speakers.

September 15 2011 at 11:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
AdrianW

I stopped watching this show part way through season 2 for one reason - the characters always talking over each other. When that happens (and it was happening more and more every episode), I had extreme difficulty listening to any of the dialog at all - I also had to turn the volume down, it was so annoying.

Did they ever stop doing that, or is it still happening?

September 15 2011 at 6:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to AdrianW's comment
SlackerInc

Adrian, they still do it, and I see a lot of comments on message boards from people who hate it. I really like it, because it makes things seem more realistic. In real life, that's what people do! You just have to trust that the writers aren't going to let really crucial lines get stepped on so you can't hear it, and understand that not every line of dialogue is there to advance the plot.

September 23 2011 at 9:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
AUSTINIGHTS

I started watching Parenthood near the end of the first season (referred by a friend) because I was a huge fan of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - Jason Katims (tv writing genius). I have been in love ever since. This show is as brilliant as FNL and is MUST SEE TV. The problem with television these days are people are just plain drugged out on reality TV. If people are really wanting to be entertained - then watch Parenthood (TV Gold). But, it seems that Snookie & Co. just seems to be the rage. I'm a huge fan and will continue to be with the Braverman family. I'm glad you're on board, because its simply one of the best shows on network television.

September 14 2011 at 4:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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