After last week’s excellent “Road Trip”—which your regular reviewer Todd cited as a series high, and I liked almost-but-not-quite as much—this week was bound to be somewhat of a refractory period for Parenthood, and while “Just Smile” had plenty of the sweet, spontaneous moments that typify the show, it seemed to be running almost on autopilot, plot-wise. (Autoplotlet?) After taking a break from most of the season’s ongoing storylines to pile in the car and go visit grandma, Parenthood got back down to business with progressing a couple of its ongoing stories, along with a couple of new/standalone conflicts to boot.
Where last week’s episode split the Braverman clan into cars and sent them down the road with a common objective, this week split the Bravermans into different episodes completely, with very little connective tissue among the four storylines—and left out completely several other key Bravermans. (Whither Zeek? Drew? Not so much Camille, because let’s be honest, if she had been in this episode, chances are good she wouldn’t have had much to do anyway.)
Which isn’t to say that “Just Smile” wasn’t satisfying, in that comfort-food way Parenthood so often is. It started to tie up one of this season’s snaggier plot threads, Julia and Joel’s adventures in the fetus trade; gave Adam and Crosby something else to bicker and make up about; and further established Mark as World’s Best Boyfriend No. 1 A+. Plus, another entry in the Amber vs. Adulthood saga, which is always a treat. But it felt fragmented and base-hitting, like a weekly phone check-in with far-away relatives instead of a family reunion.
Adam and Crosby’s story, while technically the A-story (if we’re going by the title, anyway), felt the most perfunctory, a goofy bit of miscommunication-meets-gotcha-journalism that nonetheless resulted in some pretty believable character moments for both. With The Luncheonette more or less chugging right along and Rachel supposedly neutralized, the writers needed to give the business-partner brothers something new to squabble about this week, in the form of a journalist from a weekly magazine who turns a feature on the studio into a fawning, cliché-ridden profile of Adam. What at first seems to be yet another instance of Crosby being a whiny little brat—He sulks! He seethes! He accuses Adam of stealing the incredibly original and not at all trite quote “Music saved my life” from him!—unfolds into a nice little examination of the brothers’ respective insecurities. Crosby wants Adam to apologize for “stealing” his interview, but what he really wants is to be (correctly) identified as the soul/heart/passion/whatever of their enterprise. Adam (correctly) maintains that he didn’t do anything wrong, but can’t deny that the article, and the way it made his family treat him, was a self-esteem boost he sorely needed. Neither is in the wrong, but what each wants from the situation is at odds with what the other wants. Luckily, Crosby has a sassy cellist client to help remind him that once music saves your life, you have to actually keep on living it—which in Crosby’s case means making some damn music and, apparently, banging a sassy cellist next week.
Like a lot of conflict on this show, Adam and Crosby’s story was wrapped up over coffee by episode’s end, while over on the other side of the episode, Sarah and Mark were cracking open a new chapter in their story (also over coffee). While this story suffered from one of my least-favorite devices—a character, in this case Sarah, spending a whole episode fretting over what someone else, Mark, might be thinking—Lauren Graham’s typically excellent work saved this from being a bunch of “I don’t know if my boyfriend likes me anymore” dithering. Granted, it’s a little more complicated than that: Following Mark dropping the baby-bomb a couple weeks back, Sarah checks in with her doctor to see if it’s even a possibility. It is, but when Mark doesn’t respond to her oh-so-subtle cues (look at the baby booties!), she panics that he’s changed his mind. Further complicating matters is the fact that Sarah doesn’t know if she even wants the thing she’s worried Mark doesn’t want. She doesn’t necessarily want to open that door, but she doesn’t want to lock it up and throw away the key, either. Luckily, despite being a less-than-serious-by-Braverman-standards poker player, Mark is basically the best person who ever lived (with the worst facial hair) and says all the right things, leaving the door cracked for the writers to go down that road in the future should they choose to. (I’m honestly not sure they will, nor that I want them too—there’s been a surplus of baby drama on this show as of late.)
Like her mom, Amber has been thrown into the middle of a situation she’s not even sure she wants to be in with her new Kristina-granted position with City Councilman Caramel Latte. I love watching Amber buck up against the expectations set for her, only to eventually defy them in her own effortlessly hip way. Everything about her story this week was pretty much telegraphed from the moment she was accidentally, awkwardly rude to Bobby Latte at the copy machine, and the whole business with the overachieving Ivy League interns (“Nothing wrong with a state education. Go Bruins.”) was a little lily-gilding, though worth it for Whitman’s reactions, both verbal and non. But you can’t help but root for Amber, and while we all knew that the councilman was going to walk into that coffee shop (coffee-based resolutions again!) and commend Amber for being a straight-shooter about his ad, and that she was going to get all uncomfortably proud and hopeful, it’s always nice to see Amber put one in the win column. I just hope she can keep her poor-decision-making skills reined in around that cute, young, idealistic councilman, because I don’t need to see her screw up yet another job opportunity from one of her aunts. You hear me Amber? Stay away from that attractive older-but-not-too-old man!
Speaking of inevitabilities: Julia and Joel are getting their baby! And Zoe is apparently living with them now, giving Julia lots of opportunity to hover and fret over her as she deals with her baby-broker/boyfriend. Frankly, I’m glad this storyline seems to be wrapping up—that baby looks ready to pop—though Zoe is starting to grow on me. The scene where she comes home from getting her boyfriend to sign the adoption papers and break up with him was pretty deft; you could see the armor she put up around herself during her confrontation with him slowly falling away as she talked to Julia and Joel, before she had to escape to her room. Zoe’s situation is an interesting one; I just wish we could have gotten it without all Julia’s icky fetus-poaching in the early going.
With the exception of one scene where Sarah, Julia, and Kristina get together and drink wine and exchange notes on their respective plotlines—something this show returns to frequently—there was very little intersection among the four plotlines, making it seem like there were long stretches of time between the Amber and Julia segments in particular. Now, it’s a tall order to expect dovetailing plots from a show that has as many character permutations as this one, and Parenthood rarely goes that route anyway; there’s almost always a Braverman or two off doing his or her own thing any given week. But it’s rarely this divided, and after last week’s group outing, it feels even more pronounced. The Bravermans aren’t meant to function in isolation, as evidenced by last week’s excellent group outing. Hopefully next week (when Todd will return), they’ll be back up in each other’s business again.
• “I thought 40 was the new 30.” “Not for your ovaries it’s not.”
• At first I thought Mark really did bring biscotti to the poker game. It just seems like the sort of thing he’d do.
• “Both Julia, Kristina, and your gynecologist, both of all three of them.” Sarah discovers the joys of dating an English teacher.
• “Here, rub my metacarpi.” Cellist Flirtation Techniques 101.