Now that was an episode of Parenthood worth writing home about. It’s easy to forget, in the series’ constant embrace of ducking its harshest conflicts in favor of easygoing comedy, that this show boasts some actors who can just let it rip when they want to. You remember why you were so excited when this show replaced Maura Tierney with Lauren Graham? Well, tonight’s episode reminded you, when she let Drew—and the rest of the TV viewing audience—know just why she was so upset with him for going to see his dad without telling her. It’s hard to do that kind of yelling well on TV. It’s so intimate a medium that anything that stays at a certain emotional pitch for too long becomes hard to take. But Graham somehow went right to the angry place and then just kept on building, giving the scene somewhere to go and taking the audience with her. It was a splendid piece of small-screen acting, a fine reminder of why Graham’s a master of working in the medium.
But the rest of the episode matched up to it. (And am I forgetting a scene or did Joel and Julia just not appear at all tonight?) The end of the Haddie drama was suitably “both sides have to give a little, but the parents have to give the most” to feel realistic. It’s the kind of thing that parents have to do more and more of as their kids head toward adulthood, and I loved the scene where Adam and Kristina, who’s learning to let go, laid down their ground rules for Haddie being able to date Alex. I mean, yeah, it was a little cheesy to have everyone go to the park to play basketball with the guy at the end (even if Max prefers playing basketball with Alex to playing it with anyone else), but it was such a nice scene—and scored by the genuinely enjoyable Bowerbirds—that I’m willing to forgive a little cheese, particularly if it means America’s greatest teenager is back home where she belongs.
The other storyline centered on Jasmine and Crosby, whose conflict has been bubbling along nicely all season. The show plays Jasmine’s utterly understated ability to pretty much get whatever she wants mostly for laughs, but I was impressed with how quickly it was able to take the left turn directly into drama with this one. It’s not that the show falls back on clichéd jokes about how Jasmine “wears the pants” or anything like that. It’s that the series is taking seriously the conflicts that erupt between two people when they prepare to unite their lives. At first, everything’s all hunky-dory, and everybody feels like there’s no way anything could go wrong. And then the little differences start to open up, the little places between two people where they’re not exactly the same.
For Jasmine and Crosby, those differences have opened up because she’s a strong-willed person, who raised his son on her own for several years, and doesn’t terribly feel as though she should have to listen to anybody else on anything. She knows what she wants, she knows just how to get it, and she’s not going to let something as simple as her future husband’s lack of a plan stand in the way of her getting there. This makes her sound horribly, horribly malicious, but she’s not, not really. She’s just in love with a man who doesn’t see the world in terms of long-term planning. He’s a guy who tends to let things just happen and assume that the best will follow. I get that. I’m that kind of a guy, and whenever someone tries to pin me down, I have a little trouble talking about what’s coming in the future. But when you’re a single mom, what’s around the next corner becomes the ONLY thing you care about.
And so the two have it out, in a magnificently written and acted scene, where Dax Shepherd somehow tops his previous work on the show by saying all of the unfeeling things he’s thinking in the moment, then immediately wishing he could take them back, and Joy Bryant reveals a strength in her performance that hasn’t always been there in the past. Jasmine’s got backbone, and that makes it easy for her to get her way when confronted with someone like Crosby, who’s just happy to let the woman he loves get most of what she wants. But when he starts to realize that some of the things he wants, really wants, are getting trampled in that process, he tries to stand up for himself, and the only way he knows how is to yell and shout and say the most hurtful things he can think of. (Honestly, the more I think about it, this is a trait that all four Braverman siblings AND their parents have, and it’s a nice piece of connection in the writing by Jason Katims and his team.) It’s a devastating scene, and it’s all the better for not having a resolution at episode’s end. Crosby’s back in his houseboat. Jasmine is crying. Sometimes, the arguments don’t go away.
But the big news tonight is the return of Drew and Amber’s dad, played by John Corbett in A MAN’S MOST IMPORTANT ROLE. He’s in town to play a few gigs, and he agrees to meet Drew after Drew contacts him, mistakenly thinking Sarah gave her son the blessing. While Parenthood has dealt well with the compromises between married parents and the hard road for single parents, it hasn’t really done much with divorced parents, trying to come to an understanding about how to raise their kids, when one of the two isn’t a full-time caretaker. It also doesn’t help that Sarah’s ex is a recovering addict (or so he says), someone she can’t trust to be around her kids, lest he still be deep into the bottle. The scenes where Sarah realizes this man she doesn’t trust and doesn’t ever want to see again has, nonetheless, resurfaced, as she knew he must, are great, and the little duet between Graham and Corbett in the hotel room is another perfectly pitched little scene.
As you probably know, I tend to grade these shows on curves, against other episodes of the shows themselves. Compared to some of its less compelling episodes back in season one, Parenthood hasn’t gotten truly bad this season, but it’s also been stuck in a kind of neutral, a place where it’s pleasant enough but often doesn’t seem to be building to anything. Tonight’s episode, though, makes a lot of things snap into place this season, giving the stories a focus and drive that they’ve needed for quite some time. And all the show had to do was take that left turn into drama, something that it’s been needing for quite a while, to pull it off. I don’t want every episode to be like this, but I do want to know that when the characters need to get serious with each other, the show will let them. I’m giving this episode an A because it featured some great writing, some great acting, and a new mission for the show going forward: more like this, please.
- Another good scene I couldn’t work into the above: Camille talking with Haddie about how she needed to go home to her parents.
- This is also the first episode where I felt like Alex was something more than a saint. Maybe that’s because he’s clearly tempted to violate his code where Haddie’s involved but ultimately doesn’t.
- I loved Amber’s standoffish sarcasm when she sees her dad for the first time backstage, even as he’s quietly blown away by how much she’s grown up.
- "You were basically a fetus, OK?"
- "I guess I should relax and enjoy your amazing stick-figure plan for our family."
- "A vest and pants ... is one piece away from a suit."