The third season of Parenthood debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
While pretty much no one was paying attention last TV season, NBC’s Parenthood turned from an intriguing curiosity—Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims’ attempt to turn a 20-plus-year-old movie into a TV series (for the second time, no less)—into a darn good television show. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t great TV, but it was surprisingly satisfying TV, the kind of thing you turn on at the end of a long day and relax with. The characters were well-defined, the writing was at once both snappy and sentimental, and the acting was nicely subdued. There are so few family dramas—meaning scripted dramatic shows about families, not shows intended for viewing by the whole family—that any time there’s one that’s even halfway good, it ends up having to stand up for a whole, sadly ignored subgenre. This leads to shows like Brothers & Sisters devolving into confused shouting. But on Parenthood, Katims and his writers stuck to their guns of small-scale, character-based storytelling, rather than big, crazy plotlines.
This all peaked in the episodes that aired in February, episodes that explored the fateful decision of youngest son, ne’er-do-well Crosby (Dax Shepherd), to cheat on his fiancée with his older brother’s autistic son’s therapist. (This all makes plenty of sense if you’ve watched the show from the first.) At the same time, that older brother, Adam (Peter Krause), was wrestling both with his anger at the universe that was marginalizing him and his daughter’s wish to date an older boy, a wish that took her previously well-behaved self out of his home and under the roof of his parents. And while that was going on, older sister Sarah (Lauren Graham) was dealing with the return of her ex-husband into her children’s lives. All three of these stories were told with sensitivity and emotional acuity, never pushing too hard for effect and always finding a strong center to lean on. The storylines dovetailed when Adam’s son, Max (Max Burkholder), stumbled into a fight between his father and Crosby, a fight that made him realize for the first time he was autistic and different from everyone else. It was heart-rending television, expertly told, and this set of episodes best made the argument that Parenthood could match Katims’ earlier series in quality.
Does the third season premiere of Parenthood match that high? Not quite but it comes close enough to recommend for those looking for something to check out tonight. The show’s major recurring problem is still present (about which more in a bit), but the center of the show has found a way to hit a reset button—providing lots of good entry points for people who might be new fans of this perpetually ratings-challenged show—without insulting the core audience. Nearly every character is beginning a new chapter of their lives, and if you’ve never seen an episode before, you’ll instantly recognize what’s going on. At the same time, if you’ve seen every episode, you’ll be more than thrilled to catch up with the characters again. There’s one blatant cheat in the episode—a relationship that seemed to be back on in the second season finale is now off again—but enough time has passed since the end of last season in the show’s world that this is forgivable (particularly since it makes far more sense from a storytelling perspective). The premiere is already better than season two’s premiere, and since that season took a while to find itself before becoming so very good, it’s easy to have high hopes at the end of this hour.
The big development from last season’s finale turns out to be Adam’s firing. As the premiere begins, he’s still jobless, and his unemployment is straining the family’s budget. (Though still taking place in a bright, sunny reality the recession doesn’t seem to have touched, the tense discussions between Adam and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) about dwindling savings could come out of any number of households in this current economic climate.) After months of being a house-husband and growing more and more frustrated with it—Adam’s irritation at how little his life works out like he wants or plans is one of the show’s most understated but best handled character traits—Adam finally gets an interview, exactly at the same time as he gets an unusual offer to become an entrepreneur with someone he may not exactly want to go into business with. (Kristina's pregnancy, also revealed in last year's finale, hasn't interfered with her new-found professional success, something that seems to drive Adam a little nuts.)
Meanwhile, Sarah’s daughter Amber (the terrific Mae Whitman) graduated from high school at the end of last season without grades good enough to get into any of her preferred colleges. Now, she’s drifting but looking for ways to define herself, which might include a terrible, terrible apartment her mom’s none too thrilled about. (Sarah’s son, Drew, continues to have pretty much nothing to do.) Crosby, meanwhile, has to deal with trying to get various people in his life to take him seriously and deal with how he’s going to handle several complicated parenting situations with his son (whom he only found out about in the series’ pilot). As always, the show handles all three of these siblings’ storylines with a kind of quiet reverence, suggesting that the toughest thing in life is just living it with dignity, without pissing everybody around you off. At its best, Parenthood is a show about the inherent drama of good conflict resolution.
On the other hand, the show’s great white whale—a good storyline for younger sister Julia (Erika Christensen) and husband Joel (Sam Jaeger)—remains out there in the ether, something the show just can’t quite land. Last season was filled with trying-to-get-pregnant drama, then unable-to-get-pregnant drama, and the season ended with the two deciding to adopt. Julia and Joel often seem trapped on an island of terrible (or at least deeply predictable) plotlines, and it’s sometimes as if the show loses all sense of how to write the characters as anything other than bumbling fools in some silent comedy. Tonight’s episode features Julia’s most obnoxious idea for how to get a baby in a while, and while the idea of two people trying to adopt and dealing with all of the legal loopholes involved would be a natural fit for this show, the storyline that begins here is, well, ridiculous.
On the other hand, the show often seems to realize that Julia and Joel storylines are less compelling than storylines for the other characters. (The three other siblings get far more screentime.) And when Julia and Joel are wrapped into the rest of the ensemble—which includes Bonnie Bedelia and Craig T. Nelson as the two who spawned this unruly brood—they fit in just as well as everybody else. At its best, as it often is in tonight’s premiere, Parenthood really gets the sense of what it’s like to be a part of a massive family where everybody’s trying to shout over each other and where everybody cares about your problems, but not quite as much as they care about the shit they’re currently going through. There’s far more good than irritating in Parenthood, and if you’ve been on the fence about trying the show out, tonight would be a great place to dip your toe in the water.