“Let’s put everybody in a room and have ‘em passive aggressively snipe at each other” is one of the main go-to moves in the Parenthood writers’ room, and every season, there are a handful of episodes where at least one act or even more than that is given over to the family sitting around in a room and being mad in each other’s general direction. And “Limbo” had a doozy of a scene in this regard, in which a family dinner descended into chaos as politely as possible. Nobody really raised their voices, but the whole thing was an excuse for the Bravermans to share dirty laundry in front of a pastor and Jasmine’s family. As Camille put it earlier, this was a family that needed some celebrating, but in the midst of everything else, they didn’t have a lot of celebrating to do. Things are spiraling out of control for too many family members, and that means that it’s easier to get upset about very minor things.
“Limbo” is credited to Jessica Goldberg, a playwright who is spending her first season on the show this year. There are quite a few new hires on the writing staff this season, and just based on the scripts she has credited to her—the wonderful “Let’s Be Mad Together” and the very solid “Jump Ball”—I’m tempted to say Goldberg is the new writer who most understands this show and what it’s going for. There are melodramatics in her scripts, but they’re usually situations that are ongoing throughout the season. For the most part, she excels at the kinds of two-person scenes that Parenthood has always handled so beautifully. Now, it’s always risky to attribute solid qualities of any given episode to the writer credited for that episode, given how the TV writing process works. But given how the episodes featuring her as the credited writer have turned out, I’m hopeful that Goldberg’s involvement in these three is more than a coincidence.
In particular, I’m thinking of the conversation between Joel and Julia, which finally begins to move this storyline toward something like resolution again. At this point, I don’t really care if Joel and Julia stay together or split apart, because I’m simply ready for the show to get these two to a place where they’ll have a conversation about what’s really going on between them. The series had made so much of this storyline hinge on Julia and Ed’s kiss, which is kind of ludicrous, when you consider how Joel and Julia have been written previously and, y’know, how they have two kids together. Every week, we get together and share thoughts and theories about just what’s going on in comments, and while I agree with some of those more than others, the problem with all of this is that it really does seem like this could be settled with one big, nasty argument that gets all of the shit out in the open so they can look at it for a while. Because these two characters won’t really talk about what’s going on—beyond Joel’s occasional very brief mentions of how Julia’s kiss with Ed bothered him—we have to sort of guess at what they’re going through, because neither character is the world’s most expressive.
At the same time, Julia’s plea with Joel to fight for her was probably the highpoint of the episode for me. It’s the kind of thing that will either cause the two of them to come back together to at least have that big, messy argument or cause them to drift irrevocably apart. But somebody needed to start talking, and it made more sense for it to be Julia than Joel. There are a lot of angry feelings swirling around this storyline in the show’s fanbase—and in the characters on the show themselves—and I wish the series would just nut up and commit to a storyline where these two go to counseling or something that will allow them to finally be brutally honest with each other. But I think so much of that stems from the very odd way so much of this was handled. It’s time for the characters to come clean with each other, but it’s also more than past time for the show to come clean with its audience about this whole thing.
The rest of the episode was very much in form for the back half of this season. Once the show got past the mayoral campaign, it immediately became a better show again, but it still lacked the strong focus that gave seasons three and four so much momentum. It’s kind of hanging out in that holding pattern still, but I’d rather be with characters I mostly like in the holding pattern than trying to force through some overarching story that just doesn’t work. So much of this season has been about these people’s fundamental inability to connect with each other at this point in time, and while that’s kind of depressing for a show about a family, I think it was inevitable to have a year when nobody was really on each other’s wavelength. “Limbo,” then, seems like it might be about healing some of those wounds, about having Camille and Crosby come to a contretemps and having Joel show up at Aida’s baptism, even if he’s not going to be the godfather, but it’s also about that giant scene around the dining table, when things seem to be not actively falling apart but slowly eroding, piece by piece, as if the Bravermans might all start to fall away from each other.
One other nice thing about this episode is that it gives Sarah something to do that feels driven more by her professional and family obligations than it does her romantic life. Plus, it gets back to the show’s title, as it features Sarah removing Max from Hank’s studio when he tries to push her out of a chair so he can use the fancy printer that she rented for her current assignment. Rather than let Max have his way, as Hank suggests, Sarah instead kicks him out of the studio, thus kicking off an intra-family squabble that eventually incorporates Adam and Kristina, because of course it does. What I liked about this story was how Sarah insisted that maybe Max was how he was because Adam and Kristina didn’t say “no” enough, just because she was feeling sassy about it. I like when the show dives into this sort of parenting minutiae, and it’s something the series hasn’t done nearly enough of this season. The resolution—Sarah just rents the expensive printer for another week—was a little too reminiscent of how all of the Bravermans’ problems are solved with money, but this was otherwise a nice example of how solid these kinds of minor key stories can be.
So while I had some problems with this episode on the whole—and I’ll get to Drew’s storyline in the strays, because ugh—I ended up liking it a fair deal because of some solid scenes and some stories that offered the kinds of plots the show has offered too little of this season. And most of all, I appreciated that dinner scene, where everything kept escalating toward worse and worse, until Zeek had to go to Joel’s new place, just to get things moving again. It wasn’t the most elegant of solutions, but it all reminded me of how reluctant these people are to actually tell each other how they really feel, particularly when they’re hurt, even for all the talking they do. This was the episode where the Bravermans stopped being polite and started getting real.
- Braverman of the week: Camille, who does everything and hosts a giant dinner for her granddaughter, just to show off that she still can get this giant house together for an occasion; she just chooses not to anymore.
- Drew’s reading Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and that’s how I’m starting to feel about whatever is happening with his roommate and Natalie. Yeah, this kind of storyline is probably pretty realistic, but I don’t terribly care about either of the guest characters. On the other hand, Drew and Amber getting stoned, then having to go to the dinner, was pretty amusing, particularly when Adam and Kristina called them out on it during the polite fight.
- Speaking of Sartre: “Jean Paul Sartre?” “Star Trek?”
- My favorite thing about this episode was how all of the Bravermans had to be sort of careful about not mentioning to Renee or the minister that they don’t really believe in God/are members of a cult that worships Santa Claus.
- Did anyone mention Haddie and/or Piecat even tangentially?: No. And Jason Katims held a pseudo-Ask Me Anything earlier in the week from the About A Boy Twitter feed, and none of you asked him about Piecat. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in all of you.
- Greatest Adam and Kristina moment of the season: being enthralled that Adam was asked to be Aida’s godfather, followed closely by when Adam realized he was just a fill-in, and everybody felt sympathetic for him but also gently mocked how much he wanted to be a godfather. (Also good in this storyline: Sarah wondering why she can’t be influential in a child’s spiritual development just because she’s divorced.)
- We’re into the home stretch of the season, folks, with only five episodes left, airing straight through until April 17. I haven’t felt terribly confident in a season six most of the year, but my renewal sense has been ticking upward in recent weeks, because NBC hasn’t had anything work in this timeslot in years, and Parenthood isn’t doing so well but also isn’t utterly embarrassing itself. I think there’s a chance this could be renewed. But Katims had better pull out all the stops in the season finale, just in case.