I do not come from a large family. I have the two parents and one sister. Both my sister and I are married, but neither of us has kids. When the whole family gets together, it consists of six people, and we mostly sit around playing board games and talking (comparatively) quietly with each other. My wife, on the other hand, comes from a giant, sprawling family of the sort that Jonathan Franzen writes funny novels that abruptly turn despairing about. She's got four siblings, multitudes of nieces and nephews, and any number of other relations to keep track of. When that family gets together, it's essentially controlled chaos, the all of them competing to be heard over each other, to have the funniest joke or the best game at Madden or anything else they can be competitive about. Even now, after I've found my biological families and have slightly larger numbers of people to visit, dropping in on my wife's family's celebrations feels strange to me. I'm not used to all the activity.
The best thing about Parenthood is the way that it captures the feeling of stepping into that alternate life. The very first scene of the second season premiere shows oldest brother Adam trying to get out the door to go to work and dealing with the problems of both of his children, his wife, and his younger brother, Crosby. It's a chaotic, messy scene, and it feels like early morning in a house where everybody's just trying to get out the door. It's a nicely confident scene, one that announces, "Hey, remember what you liked about this show? Here it is again!" It leads into an hour that's imperfect in a lot of ways, but then, this show is imperfect, often content to just be pretty good, rather than push on toward great.
The biggest problem with the hour is that the first half feels a little too giggly and chaotic. Nearly every plotline devolves into the most obvious comedy possible. Look at how we re-meet these families. Adam's in the middle of chaos. Crosby is trying to keep up with his girlfriend and son via Skype. Julia is listening to her daughter loudly announce to the park that her whole family came out of a vagina (this, actually, is more amusing than it sounds). And Sarah is ranting at her kids about wearing shoes and giving Adam an idea for a shoe lojack that he will promptly grab and pitch to his boss. Also, Zeek needs to repair the roof. All of these scenes feel like they're spinning just a bit too quickly, like the chaos has taken over a little too heavily. Sure, there are good gags in them, but they feel hyperactive. "HEY, REMEMBER WHAT YOU LIKED ABOUT THIS SHOW?! WELL, HERE WE ARE AGAIN!!! WHY ARE WE SCREAMING?"
The worst misstep here is William Baldwin as Adam's boss, a guy who says Adam takes up ALL OF HIS TIME on family stuff, purely because he keeps wandering in when Adam has his daughter or sister or some other family member hanging out in his office. Also, for whatever reason, he hates families. I don't inherently have a problem with storylines where work and family life come in conflict - though you have to be very, very cagey to do one that hasn't been done a million times before - but one of the worst possible ways to do this is to give a dad torn between his work life and his family life a co-worker who's constantly flaunting his bachelor lifestyle. You can show us that Adam is having trouble keeping all of the elements of his life balanced (especially as he keeps dragging his home life into his work life), but you don't need to show us that by dragging in a stereotypical playboy character from one of the color episodes of Bewitched. It's a step too far, and casting William Baldwin in the part makes it even worse. All it reminds you of is how Alec Baldwin would have found the smirky humor in the material.
The other storylines feel a little too happy and goofy at the start as well. Really, this is a common problem Jason Katims' shows have. The second season premiere of Friday Night Lights, for instance, was full of bright happiness, as though everyone involved was just happy to have been renewed. Katims' strength is sly humor and moments that show how tiny things in people's lives can feel like the most dramatic things to them in that particular moment. Maybe Katims is just so happy to be back and working that he turns these episodes into broader comedy than he wants to, but broad comedy is not necessarily the guy's strong suit. Somewhere in the middle of the first couple of acts, it was easy to expect that Zeek might stumble downstairs making Three Stooges noises and get hit in the face with a pie.
But somewhere in the middle of the episode, things just start to click. I find that's pretty common with Parenthood, where the early moments in any given episode make me roll my eyes, but the last half ends up packing an unexpected punch. It's as though Katims and his writers settle down and remind us of why following these people is so much fun most of the time. The scene where Joel and Zeek fight or the scene where Crosby realizes just how hard it must be to deal with Max some of the time or the scene where Joel seems ambivalent about the prospect of another child? All of those hit right, dead-center and on-point. Even the comedy relaxes as the episode goes along, like that great little joke about Crosby and Jasmine's Skype sex being interrupted by bad signal. It's an old joke - technology gets in the way of sexy-time - but it was executed with panache.
In some ways, Parenthood is another one of those shows you're going to get sick of me complaining about every week, because I don't think it's as good as it could be. At the same time, every episode has a moment as good as the one that closes out this episode, with Hattie lying in bed and listening to her brother talk, clutching a stuffed animal, returning to a childhood she's rapidly leaving. She's driving and clashing with her mother and everything now. But for just a moment, she gets to connect with her little brother and enjoy something like peace and quiet. Parenthood succeeds when it captures the quiet moments and the chaotic ones. And though the journey between them was a bit rough, the show did just that in its first and last scenes.
- So I've been watching this show on DVD, and one of the things that baffles me is the fact that the use of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" is maintained in the pilot (twice!) but then not maintained as the show's theme song. Indeed, I got so used to the new theme song used on the DVD that I was briefly confused when "Forever Young" turned up again tonight.
- Obviously, Crosby is going to sleep with TV's Minka Kelly (whose character name I don't want to bother to remember), perhaps just before Jasmine and Jabbar make a surprise return from New York. What's the over/under on which episode this happens in? I say episode three.
- This week in Parenthood dialogue that is vaguely amusing out of context: "Why is nobody wearing shoes?" "I've had a slew of tantalizing relations."