I think if I ever sat down and seriously tried to analyze the racial politics of Parenthood, I would burst into flame and realize how heavily I’ve supported something vaguely grotesque. The very qualities that make Parenthood such an enjoyable series to just hang out with also make it horrifying whenever race enters the picture, almost wholly unintentionally (I hope). The thing that’s most appealing about Parenthood—the way that it boils down to a show about how your family may be the most irritating people on Earth, but they can also make everything better if you just give in to the Borg hivemind that is their love—gets downright creepy whenever the show ventures outside of its white, vaguely upper-class sensibility.
Take, for instance, Victor. Victor is Latino, and he came from a bad past, with a mother who was unable to care for him properly. Now, he lives in the middle of white paradise, and his biggest problem is that he’s having trouble reading at a fourth-grade level. But even that can be helped with careful time and attention from a loving grandparent who has nothing better to do than lavish love and care on the adopted grandson he accepted without question. I’m absolutely not trying to denigrate what Julia, Joel, and Zeek are doing here. People who adopt older children are, by and large, saints, and the world is better for having them. But the struggles of Victor’s integration into the Braverman family were almost all about the Bravermans and very little about how he felt about being uprooted from everything he’d known and tossed into the middle of a brand new life that must have seemed slightly surreal. This had the unintended effect of making Victor the antagonist within his own storyline (a storyline that ended up being the main flaw in an otherwise perfect season of television). Join the Bravermans. Resist or die.
I get it. We’re not supposed to take this show that seriously. It is, in a very real and necessary way, a fantasy of upper-middle-class life, like a photo in a catalog that suddenly started moving. That is what I like about it at its best, but it’s also what trips the show up at its worst, particularly when you consider how much Friday Night Lights had to say about race and class and how you live life when you know money can’t solve all your problems. Because it’s a fantasy, the characters of Parenthood cruise from success to success, after the requisite amount of difficult, inter-family conflict. Again, this is one of the reasons the show works, and I’d be loathe to change it. But it creates such an insular viewpoint that it ends up having unintended consequences every time the show leaves that viewpoint.
I get why the show wanted to bring back Mr. Ray. Seeing Peter Krause act like a dork is always good for a laugh or two, and Adam being viscerally uncomfortable is good for more than that. The show’s lack of a larger Berkeley (which we talked about a little last week) also meant that he was the one plausible character in the show’s universe that could give Kristina a sizable enough campaign donation to keep her mayoral race going. (That said, I would have loved it if Alex or Gabby had emerged from nowhere to lavish money on Kristina because they had become unexpected tech millionaires and she had once paid them a minor kindness, Great Expectations style.) But Mr. Ray has never been anything but the show’s caricature of a successful rapper, and he gets only the most minor of moments in that regard here. When he shows Adam the value inherent in being a DIY guy in the current music industry, it all happens offscreen. And his concern for Berkeley’s schools feels like the feel-good equivalent of a punchline: It arrives as a way to undercut all that’s gone before.
I’m sure the writers intend all of this to be more about Adam’s awkwardness around people who don’t behave like Bravermans. And that can be funny! When Adam half-heartedly acknowledges the role of Jesus Christ in Mr. Ray’s success, that’s amusing because of how Peter Krause delivers the line. But Mr. Ray only becomes a human character and something other than a bunch of tics and tropes the writers associate with hip-hop stars when his kid enters the picture, and that’s way at the end of the story. I liked the character’s initial appearance back in season three because you understood that he was dicking around with Adam because he thought it was funny to dick around with him. Here, it seems like the show has bought into the idea of who Adam thought Mr. Ray was to begin with. (That said, when he gives Adam the check and insists that the speed bump at the end of his street be removed, I smiled.) It’s the same as it was with Victor: He’s not a character in his own right. He’s someone the Bravermans happen to.
It feels weird to be saying this about this episode, because outside of those bits and pieces, I thought this was the strongest, most confident episode of a season that’s started a little slowly for my tastes. In particular, the stuff with Amber and her mom continued to be really strong, and I also liked that the show did a storyline about the so-called “Friend Zone” that didn’t demonize the girl for not liking the protagonist in that way. And the reveal that Victor was going to learn to read by helping Zeek work on the car—and thus reading all of the manuals and information needed to fix said car—was very sweet. Zeek even stood up for the idea that Sydney wasn’t bad at car maintenance because she was a girl; she was bad at car maintenance because some of us are very clumsy and have big, stupid fingers, and I’m sorry cars are such mysteries to me, Dad.
I’m even learning to just go with the mayoral election, while continuing to think it’s a fairly sizable mistake. At this point, four episodes in, it’s clear the show’s not going to abandon it out of nowhere (it has another chance to this week and doesn’t take it), and the scene at the end with Max telling Kristina she’d make a good mayor terrifies me in terms of thinking she might win (though him telling her he knows politics are complicated because he was the president with just the right tone of dismissiveness is awesome—this is a man who made Skittles rain from the sky; do not cross him). But I’m kind of liking how this is less and less a story about Kristina and more about a machine she set in motion, one that’s being driven by Heather (a perfect example of how the show actually does use race-blind casting very well when it wants to), who sees in Kristina both someone she believes in and someone she can use to advance her own profile. In particular, I liked the scene where Kristina and Heather met with the developer and Heather kept making up Kristina’s platform for her, while Kristina nattered on weakly about education. Every time this storyline depicts Kristina in over her head, I like it more.
But “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” keeps bumping up against the Braverman assimilation problem. I don’t mind that this is a show about a bunch of white people. I absolutely get why it is. But I occasionally wonder if the show ever pauses once to consider the way that because it’s a show about a bunch of white people, it often seems to suggest things it doesn’t want to, when it insists that other characters get out of the way of the protagonists. I’m not going to condemn the show for its depiction of racial politics, not when it does so many other interesting things, but when I see a scene like the Mr. Ray one, or a storyline like the Victor one, I can’t help but wonder all the same.
- Braverman of the week: I’m going with Drew. The scene where he gets advice from Crosby and Adam about how to win Natalie’s heart was really charming, and I liked that he didn’t keep up the façade of being a huge Joni Mitchell fan (though I would hope he found something to like in her music). The bit where he told Natalie he liked her but they would still be friends if she didn’t feel the same was exactly the way to handle having feelings for a girl who may or may not reciprocate them, far better than going online to rage about the “Friend Zone.”
- I’m wondering what dark secrets Ryan has in his past connected to his family, and how that will all contribute to his relationship with Amber going forward. I’d really like to see these two kids work it out, but Sarah has a point when she says that Amber’s ignoring a lot of warning signs when it comes to him. But she’s her mother’s daughter, and she’s going to be stubborn and insist on that lake wedding regardless. Also: Have you ever noticed that people outside of the Braverman family who marry into it—other than Jasmine, I guess—don’t seem to have close relationships to their own families? It just makes the Bravermans seem more like a religious cult, which I am all in favor of.
- The title of this episode is also the title of the series finale of My So-Called Life, which Jason Katims got his big break on. I wonder if he has any opinions on whether Angela ended up with Jordan or Brian.
- Max hasn’t gotten a lot to do this season, despite seemingly being around a lot. I wonder if the show is playing through Max Burkholder’s transition into obvious adolescence while the character is supposed to be younger than the actor is.
- One of my favorite characters on the show is Exasperated Sydney, though she was mean to her brother when he was taking so long doing that reading. This is just going to make things more awkward when the two end up in the same class.
- I liked how relieved Joel seemed to be at not having to be at home with arguing children, even if that was all he had to do this week.
- Speaking of bringing in actors for very brief scenes, I hope that Joy Bryant enjoyed getting a full paycheck for appearing on Crosby’s iPad screen for five seconds.