Parenthood: "A House Divided"
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Parenthood: "A House Divided"

I don’t know why I enjoy the Julia and Joel plots on Parenthood so much more than virtually anyone else who enjoys the show. It certainly helps that they’re around my age (though they have a kid and I don’t), and it certainly helps that Julia seems like she’s almost always been a bit of a “good child,” like I was for most of my life. But where many other critics and viewers find these two tooth-grindingly irritating, I find them weirdly identifiable. Maybe that’s because I, too, am tooth-grindingly irritating? I don’t know. But Julia’s frantic attempts to throw the greatest bridal shower ever and Joel’s work at walking her back from the ledge resonated with me, man. No idea, why, but I found the scene with these two funny and weirdly moving, just as I enjoyed Crosby saying that Julia is trying to prove something by hosting this shower because that’s just who she is.

I bring all of this up because I’ve been thinking, again, about why I enjoy watching the show without quite loving the show, why I find it good without finding it great. It’s a show that I thoroughly enjoy while watching it, thoroughly enjoy writing about, and then almost never think about once during the rest of the week, when even truly awful shows like The Cape will hang with me a few days afterward. I got into a Twitter discussion with some fellow critics and viewers over the weekend where I kept telling people deriding the show that it was actually pretty good and telling people who were calling it one of the best shows on TV that it wasn’t THAT good. You either really love Parenthood or really hate it, it seems, and it’s somewhat rare to be stuck in the middle about the show.

I have some theories as to why that is (and they actually pertain to tonight’s episode), but first, I think what keeps me coming back are the characters. When the storytelling’s a little off and when the situations are fairly predictable, the characters’ reactions to those situations are almost always rock-solid. Take, for instance, the idea that Adam would accidentally consume a marijuana lollipop (at least it wasn’t a brownie!) given to him by his boss and thus become high. This is a situation that every show on television ever (and, uh, Transformers 2) has used at some point in its run, and it’s a situation that’s simply stopped being capable of amusing me because I’ve seen it so many times. Accidental drug use is rarely portrayed with anything like intelligence (usually, the character just acts as if they’ve taken leave of their senses), so it becomes tiring to watch the wacky antics. It’s often just a way for writers to sneak a drug use plotline past network censors, since the person taking the drugs doesn’t know they’re drugs.

But I liked this plotline. Part of it was the fact that the show rather realistically treated Adam like he might behave if he accidentally got high. You can still see the part of him whirring underneath the devil-may-care attitude, the part that’s saying, “Wait. I’m high? How am I going to get out of THIS one?” But on the top, you’ve just got a guy who’s had too much on his plate and now has nothing on his plate and is vastly relieved by that. Similarly, Peter Krause didn’t play this as some overwrought dive into crazy drug mania. He just played it as a guy who’s temporarily having a great time and doesn’t have a care in the world. Notice that it takes everybody at the bridal shower just a little bit to realize there’s something wrong with him, and that’s because Krause doesn’t play this with forced wackiness. It’s just how something like this might actually go down for his character.

As for what I think might be ailing Parenthood, I think it actually might be network notes. Every time the show threatens to get too dark, it abruptly pulls up. (The exception to this, the exception that made me think the show was turning a corner, was the last stretch of episodes in season one.) Stuff like Adam’s anger at the unfairness of the world or Sarah’s relationship with her kids and their dad or Crosby’s attempts to become a good dad has the potential to be really interesting portrayals of the kinds of dramas everybody goes through in everyday life. But every time any of this gets too dark, the series abruptly backpedals from it, as though someone, somewhere doesn’t think the show can handle the tougher stuff, even though we all know it can (and have seen executive producer Jason Katims and his writing staff tackle this stuff on Friday Night Lights). The primary aim of Parenthood seems to be to be pleasant at all times. And that’s a fine goal, since it’s nice to have a show like this on the air, but it also holds the show back from time to time. 

An example: Zeek and Max going on a camping trip was a really nice little storyline, but the part where Max freaked out seemed like it might have gotten a little more time to build and blow up. Instead, we abruptly joined Zeek and Max mid-trip, right before Max blew up, and while the scene where Adam talked Max down with his talk about the lacewings was probably the best in the episode, this whole storyline felt like all build-up with minimal payoff, considering how long Adam and Kristina spent warning Zeek about how to deal with Max. Similarly, Sarah quitting her job to pursue her dreams and pay for her kids’ college flitted right on by. This is all stuff that could be treated a bit more seriously, but Parenthood would often rather not engage with it too deeply. Again, that’s not bad, but I think it prevents us from getting a real understanding of the characters. It’d be better to see them at their best AND their worst, and the show seems resolutely uninterested in that.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe Katims and company are sneaking some stuff past NBC anyway. The Haddie/Alex relationship has been ultra-boring, but the war OVER the relationship has been some of the best stuff the show’s ever done. It’s hard to say that any party here is “wrong,” and it’s hard to say that anyone’s “right.” Alex IS a nice guy. Haddie IS too young to be dating him and put up with all of his issues. But she IS right that she’s old enough to start making some of her own decisions and she has earned a certain level of trust from her parents. And Camille’s right that if Adam and Kristina push this too hard, they stand every chance of creating some sort of rift between them and their daughter and between themselves (since Adam’s at least wavering on the idea of letting Haddie see Alex). Me, I still think they’re in the right to keep their daughter from an older man with his own apartment, but at the same time, I can’t see an easy way out of this for all involved. It’s the situations in life where nobody knows quite what to do to make it all better that make for the best drama, and this is one of those. I like that the show hasn’t closed it up neatly just yet, and I hope it takes some time to let it fester.

Stray observations:

  • Spoilers for the next week on: John Corbett’s turning up as Sarah’s ex. I think that’s good casting. Anybody disagree?
  • I enjoy the increasing role of Camille as someone who hangs out on the edges of everybody else’s storylines and offers occasionally unsolicited advice.
  • The littlest kids sat this episode out, which left Crosby and Jasmine with time to have a LINGERIE FASHION SHOW. YEAH! 
  • "We should have crushed their spirits while we had the chance."
  • "I figured it out." "You figured what out? Cold fusion?"
  • "Seriously, he slipped me a mickey?"

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