Guys, these reviews have always asked the important questions, so let’s ask the most important one of all: Where the fuck is Joel getting all his money? From the looks of it, he’s living in a pretty nice two-bedroom apartment, and though the building doesn’t look like it’s the best one ever, it’s nice enough to need an elevator (meaning there are probably at least four or five floors) and a pool. Plus, he bought an Xbox and a 3D TV. Assume the Xbox was a 360, and the 3D TV was on clearance, because it’s a dying technology. And assume he got the rainbow bracelet machine—which Sydney doesn’t even use because she’s fucking 10 now, Joel—and the bathing suits for cheap-ish, too. He’s still probably helping with house payments and other stuff back at the Graham home, since Julia still doesn’t have a job. And wasn’t the family’s grasp on finances tenuous enough before he got the contracting job? I get he wants to win his kids’ love again after leaving home, but he’s spending like a drunken fool.
Now, I know that the wealth of the Bravermans is meant to be at least a little complicated to figure out. Adam and Kristina used to worry about money all the time, and now they’re the sorts of people about whom the line of dialogue, “Do not let me interrupt your spa weekend to Mendocino!” can be spoken. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. They got a gift certificate. But they’re still hanging out with the kinds of people who give away gift certificates to Mendocino.) I know that, to some degree, this show is catalog porn, by which I mean that it’s meant to be admired as a kind of moving catalog display picture that you sigh wistfully over and kind of wish you could be a part of. Parenthood is at its best—as it was in most of the second, third, and fourth seasons—when it balances nicely that desire to be an adjunct Braverman faculty member with actual drama and stakes, small though they may be. The problem has always been that it needs to be about more than the catalog porn, and I’m not sure season five is passing that test anymore.
Or, put another way, I didn’t really have a fucking clue what “Just Like At Home” was even supposed to be about until its penultimate act, and that’s not really a good place for the show to be in. The storylines have been stretched so thin that they lack tension, as if the show simply couldn’t figure out how to expand some of this stuff to 22 episodes. And we’re talking about at least two storylines—Joel and Julia splitting up, Drew and Amy’s situation—that are hitting me directly where I live, reminding me of things that I and friends I’m close to have gone through. But then you come to something like Crosby trying to get his dad upset about selling the house all over again, or Adam and Kristina’s spa weekend (which consisted solely of them getting spa treatments and telling each other how in love they were), or Sarah’s umpteenth love triangle, and I just don’t know anymore.
Even the stories I’m still loving have had to clear their share of hurdles to get to where we are. We’ve been over and over how silly it is that Joel left his wife for things he, himself, did back in season one, and how it’s really all about how their marriage has been in trouble for a while now but they skated past that, and etc. But the more I realize that their marriage really could be over, the more unsatisfied I am by that idea. I’m not saying they need to get back together for this storyline to be worth it (though I continue to think Jason Katims and crew will come up with a way to force these two crazy kids to fall in love all over again). But if this really is It, if this really is the end, then neither character comes off particularly well, because everything felt so preordained.
As an examination of a marriage falling apart or of two people who’ve gone through so much that they’re just physically exhausted with each other, this has been pretty great TV. As, like, storytelling, it’s failed some fairly basic tasks. I really want to like it, too, because I thought the last few episodes handled this storyline so expertly. But the scenes in this storyline tonight felt repetitive, designed to get us to the point where Julia tells Victor (and herself) that it’s all going to stop being scary soon enough, if they will just live through it. And that’s nice and all, but I kept waiting for some sort of explosion or meltdown. The Joel and Julia characters have always been so reasonable that now they’re reasonabling themselves right into a divorce, without having the big, messy fight or the gigantic counseling screaming matches we know they’re capable of. In retrospect, maybe handing the inevitable “a marriage (almost?) splits up” to the show’s two most levelheaded characters was a bad idea.
But it’s all a fair sight better than whatever’s going on with the Sarah/Hank/Carl axis of anxiety. The revelation that Hank is likely on the spectrum somewhere has been lovely, extraordinary TV. Tying it all in to his affection for Sarah and a completely uninteresting third leg for a love triangle has not been. Why is Sarah always trapped in these love triangle storylines anyway? Why can’t we just have a story where she and Hank try to work together to complete the photography job, while he tries to deal with the realizations he’s had about himself? Why can’t we just have a story where she tries to help and understand him as probably the best friend he has? Why does romance have to intrude at every occasion, particularly when it feels like a few very minor variations on the same storyline?
But then the show’s able to sucker-punch me with something like the Drew-Amy storyline, and it becomes so very easy to forget everything else that isn’t working. I loved the way that Drew talked to his girlfriend as someone who loved her very much but realized he was way out of his depth, as someone who realized she needed to start talking to people other than him if she was going to move past whatever’s going on with her. I loved the way the show subtly referred to her abortion in their conversation. And I love the way that Natalie is entering this story not as another leg in a love triangle—Drew and Amy have some kinda weird, For Better Or For Worse-esque first love, true love thing going on—but as a friend who’s genuinely concerned about his situation and whether he can even handle it. (I’m sure Natalie still wants her some Drew, because he’s Drew, Cal’s sexiest man, but her approach has been much more as friends than as someone trying to split Drew and Amy up, as a lot of shows might have done.) Hell, the story even involved Amber in the capacity in which she often works best—giving advice to her other loved ones. The show keeps shunting this off to the C-story, but for me, it’s working better than just about anything right now.
And, of course, there are scenes like the ones where the siblings all show up at Julia’s house to support her in her time of need, while the various grandchildren (save Sydney and Victor) ended up at their grandparents’ house, scenes where the show successfully tugs at the bonds that tie these characters together in ways that are always moving, no matter how often the show exploits them. Or there are scenes like the one where Crosby tries to guilt his father into not selling the house, only to have Zeek tell him that, no, he loves his wife more than he loves his house (though it’s still weird how this storyline is all about Zeek and only about 5 percent about Camille). This is still a show that thrives off of 75 percent predictability and 25 percent doing something you’d never expect, and it’s still a show that’s getting that ratio slightly wrong this season. But there are just enough moments that blindside me to keep me hoping everything comes together in the end somehow.
- Did anyone mention Haddie, even tangentially?: No. But she is coming back. I can only hope that she is coming back accompanying a pie-loving cat, hellbent on smacking some sense into everybody who will listen to her. The Bravermans could use some tough love right now, and Haddie’s just the person to deal it out. (Also, did you know that the first suggested search when you type “piecat” into Google is “piecat parenthood”? We did this together, guys. We made this beautiful thing.)
- Seriously, the Adam and Kristina storyline was just the two of them talking about how in love they were while relaxing in hot liquids. I don’t think every storyline on this show needs conflict, but this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to see. (And for a second, I thought they were going to have Mud Person sex.)
- Dr. Pelikan is the greatest man alive if he’s willing to meet with Hank pretty much whenever Hank wants to meet with him. Then again, that is the undercover identity of Dr. Harold Abbott, so I could believe it.
- Goddamn, Bonnie Bedelia took that marshmallow off that stick while it was still on fire, and she didn’t even blink. The woman is hardcore, Katims. Give her a storyline!
- I did like the shifting emotions of Sydney and Victor as they went over to Joel’s place. Yeah, it was full of cool stuff, but it was also a little alien and strange to them. And if you believe, as so many of us do, that Sydney secretly broke up her parents’ marriage to get back at them for making her the younger sibling, then her sudden panic at confronting this reality was just good storytelling.
- Carl might be falling for Sarah! Taco truck! Editing! Snore.
- Braverman of the week: Adam, if only because he does not get to enter the “black sheep” contest because he’s “Mr. Perfectpants.”