I like to imagine that Jason Katims has a vault, a vault that only he knows the combination to. It’s deep beneath the NBC Universal compound, and to get to it, he has to go through a procedure very similar to the opening credits for Get Smart. He spins the big wheel to open it, and then, as a failsafe, he has to insert a key that he carries around his neck into the lock. Inside the vault there are many boxes, and on all of them are detailed breakdowns of plots from old family dramas, plots that he can break down into component parts and build back up until they are stronger, faster. He does this with the help of a supercomputer dedicated solely to the analysis of old episodes of thirtysomething and Party Of Five. As season four of Parenthood began, Katims made his way down to talk with his supercomputer. “Jason,” it said. “It’s season four. Time for a cancer arc.”
Yes, just as Charlie Salinger struggled with cancer in season four of Party Of Five and Nancy Krieger Weston struggled with the same in the fourth season of thirtysomething (and, okay, part of the third season, too, but the supercomputer doesn’t make such distinctions), Kristina Braverman appears to have the disease. It would seem to be breast cancer, though I suppose we might get some weird curveball next week. And I don’t want to diminish this storyline, which has the potential to be quite powerful. (The thirtysomething iteration is justly famous, especially for its brutal twist ending.) It just feels like one of those Hail Mary passes a show throws up every so often. If it lands, it’s one of the best things the series has ever done. If it doesn’t, well, there’s every chance the whole game gets thrown away. Parenthood has built up enough of a lead—to extend this metaphor—that I doubt it could sacrifice its whole season on this storyline, but it definitely has me concerned about how it all comes up.
When watched in light of what happens at the end (and if you’re paying attention, Kristina drops several hints about her doctor’s visit, hints that get more and more blatant), the rest of the episode very nearly falls into a cliché storytelling device: the “you thought you had it bad, but things were about to get worse” device. Typically, this is used in Victorian novels where the protagonist is forced to confront a saintly child with the consumption who shows the protagonist just how wonderful it is to be pure and good. Then, the child dies, and the protagonist is forced to contemplate the horrors of a world that would kill something so beautiful. In the modern age, we think we’re too sophisticated for this plot device, but it pops up all over the place (though usually not attached to saintly children). Somebody who thinks they’ve got problems bumps into somebody who’s dying or has a close friend or family member who’s dying, and boy howdy, does that teach the protagonist what life is really all about.
The reason I think “Left Field” (and there’s another big hint about what’s coming down the tracks at episode’s end) mostly skirts this issue is because it gives all of the other stories equal weight to Kristina’s discovery. Her diagnosis is awful and terrifying, but it isn’t presented as so much more important than, say, Julia finally beginning to bond with Victor a little bit that it sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. For the first 40 minutes of this episode’s 42-minute running time (assuming you’re ignoring the references to doctor’s visits), this is another enjoyably small-scale endeavor, in which Hank and Sarah clash over how she should handle Drew’s breakup with Amy, Jasmine and Crosby try to get along without a firm schedule, Adam and Kristina deal with Haddie’s exit, and Joel and Julia finally coax Victor into going to school. The show, of course, doesn’t treat any of these stories as if they have life-or-death stakes, because they don’t. But it treats them with an appropriate amount of weight, so when the actual life-or-death stakes show up, they don’t feel hilariously out of place.
There’s no scene with the wisdom and warmth of last week’s scene between Victor and Haddie, but the way the show weaves the family stories in and out of each other at this point is almost always expert. There is a slow escalation in the Adam and Kristina household, where Kristina wants a dog to fill the Haddie-shaped hole in her life, so she tells Max the family will be getting a dog in the ultimate passive-aggressive move. Once Max knows about the dog, he’s set on getting one and there’s little that Adam can do to stop the freight train, even though he doesn’t want one himself. He can only carry a silent grudge against his wife and then negotiate for a special trip to “Funky Town,” during which she will do that thing she never likes to do. Adam finally caves, but the dog he and Max adopt is a smaller rescue dog, not the purebred golden retriever Max originally had his heart set on. It’s a good compromise, and good compromises are what this show is all about.
Meanwhile, I’m still enjoying the Victor storyline, but I’m not sure about how the show seems to mostly be eliding his troubled past. He’s a sullen kid who doesn’t want to go to school, sure, but he’s a kid whose mother forfeited her parental rights because of some awful situation. Don’t you think he’d have a bit more, y’know, scarring from that? I’m not saying I want this storyline to be constant psychoanalysis of the kid—particularly since it’s working, and it’s rare for Joel and Julia storylines to work—but it does feel like this should be a whole lot messier, even five months in. Still, Julia staying in her car outside the school all day to make Victor feels safe was sweet, and I loved that final scene between Joel and Julia when he found her up at 3 a.m., working. (Then again, wouldn’t she have told him about what she did for Victor at some point between the end of school and 3 a.m.? I didn’t buy that she hadn’t.)
The other two storylines were also good, if a bit slighter. I love the way that Jasmine and Crosby can go from having a nice time to a screaming fight in seemingly no time flat, but I also like that it’s not a threat to their relationship anymore; it’s just who they are. Similarly, I’m still leery of the fact that we’re clearly being set up for some sort of romantic complications between Sarah and Hank, but the scene where he tried to give Sarah advice on how to deal with Drew was very funny, while the scene where he actually gave Drew advice was low-key and unexpected. This isn’t an all-time great episode up until the final reveal, but it’s a very good one, continuing the streak the season seems to be building. I just hope Katims and the supercomputer know what they’re doing with Kristina’s diagnosis. Much of the season is going to hinge on that, and it could blow up in their faces. Then again, everything else has been so good that I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
- Braverman of the week: Not Adam, for singing “Funky Town.” I think this week’s winner almost has to be Zeek, whose advice to Drew is almost always hilariously inappropriate but also weirdly perfect for the situation.
- One of the hallmarks of a good show, I think, is whether the guest characters—no matter how insignificant—seem as if they’ve wandered in from another show we could be watching that would be almost as interesting. And in terms of that challenge, the golden retriever breeders that Adam, Kristina, and Max visit are pretty much top of the charts.
- Drew’s sullenness is really working for him this season. I predict he’ll be sleeping with Amy’s best friend in no time. (Also, farewell, Amy. We hardly knew you!)