When Todd asked me to fill in on this week’s episode, his exact words were the following: “Any chance I could talk you into covering Parenthood for me?”
This is not a show that many would really jump to cover. Normally, when stepping in for a single week, it’s a chance to offer some thoughts on the season as a whole before moving on to discuss the events of a particular episode. However, this model faces two distinct challenges when dealing with Parenthood.
The first is that I don’t really have any thoughts on the season as a whole. I guess I’d say that it’s improved over the short first season, finding its confidence and better understanding its characters, but this has not been any sort of dramatic turnaround. I think I like the show more than I did last year, but I’d say it’s mostly just a sort of family drama Stockholm syndrome. We know these characters better, and thus better understand their decisions; in the process, what once seemed trite (like the focus on contrasting the different parenting styles of the various siblings) has somehow become less so. Last week’s episode, for example, was the most overt “Parenting is Hard!” episode the show has done in a while, and yet I don’t remember rolling my eyes once. I ended up thinking less of the episode, but more because it felt so structurally staid rather than because of inherent frustration with these characters. And yet that’s not really critical analysis so much as a vague collection of half-thoughts, although perhaps it’s subtle in a fitting way for a show shooting for subtlety.
The other challenge is that it’s hard to get excited about an individual episode of Parenthood. Viewers were not waiting with baited breath to learn how Crosby’s musical would go without Joel at the helm, and my guess is that the identity of the new owner of Adam’s show company was not keeping viewers up at night. And because of the series’ natural, and thus slow, pacing, Haddie’s relationship with Alex is not going to suddenly explode into an illicit affair. It’s going to be secret text messages, a clandestine (and chaste) first date, and guilt-driven room decorating and pancake making. And what, as a critic, do I say about that?
However, I took this assignment immediately, perhaps because I like a good challenge or perhaps because I sensed that this episode was going to be particularly noteworthy. Perhaps some cosmic power was telling me that this episode would fundamentally change my worldview, forcing me to reconsider everything I’ve known to this point. Tonight, I will lie awake for hours thinking about “Meet the New Boss,” not because of some groundbreaking character development but instead because I will be asking myself a life-changing question: what are my shoes thinking?
The eponymous storyline in “Meet the New Boss” is ridiculous. By the end of the episode, the purpose is clear: this is meant to be the start of a midlife crisis for Adam, although he eventually realizes that this is not the economic climate in which to give into such a crisis. However, the execution is laughable, as Cory is this wretched collection of twenty-something stereotypes. He has secret handshakes! He eats from food carts! He plays video games! He wears hats! He doesn’t like to sit down for long periods of time! He has an entourage! He plays more video games! He smokes weed! The character feels like it would be more at home on 30 Rock than on a family drama, and while I like parts of that clash (like the nice bit of comedy with Kristina and Adam both getting hooked on the iOS game he developed) the tonal whiplash took me back to the show’s earlier episodes where it didn’t quite know what it was.
And yet it went so far in that direction that it yielded true genius. What are my shoes thinking? And what would come out of them if they were exorcized? We wear them every day, but do we ever think about the demons within them? And what kind of twisted magic is swirling around in those shoes that shape your butt while you walk? As I’m writing this, I find my eyes shifting behind me to the mat by the door, as I wonder whether the demons in my new boots might come into conflict with the demons from my old ones. How am I going to sleep tonight?!
Beyond that particularly bit of “deep thinking,” this episode stuck to the basics in ways which sort of confirm my general feelings about how the season has progressed. I just sort of like these characters at this point, which makes the sheer nothingness more bearable. I think there’s value in lingering in stasis for a while, letting something like Amber’s open mic night or the fate of the school play drive the episode’s action instead of something actually life-changing. Nothing happens with Haddie’s relationship with Alex, but the sense of comfort she finds in this set of lies will make the eventual deconstruction of those lies that much more satisfying. I had thought initially that her quick-thinking coverup about going to a movie with Amber would conflict with the open mic night, but that would have been tension the episode was actively avoiding. The episode was like Crosby’s big pitch to convince Joel to return to the play: we heard it coming from a mile away, and so we got a chance to sit back and enjoy the sentiment instead of being caught by surprise.
I think we do need to fault the show for returning to the “Mae Whitman/Lauren Graham Tearfest” well (which, by golly, never seems to runs dry), and for bringing the entire family together for Amber’s open mic at episode’s end despite the relatively short notice. And while I obviously “enjoyed” the ridiculousness of Cory’s presence, it lacked any of the subtlety and nuance which have marked the show’s finest moments. But in the end I sort of love Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham together, and got a fine chuckle out of Craig T. Nelson’s getup at the open mic night, and found enough comic value in Cory for me to mostly forgive the lazy storytelling and find pleasure in the bigger picture. There was no there there in most of these storylines, Crosby and Joel’s in particular, but I have enough residual love for Dax Sheppard and Sam Jaeger that a couple of fun scenes have me smiling against my will.
Not to lump together two of Todd’s critical passions of sorts here, and thus suggesting that he has a "type" or anything, but Parenthood is sort of like Cougar Town. Both shows occasionally feature storylines which would, out of context, be worthy of considerable ridicule, and have their vocal detractors (my friend Eugene despises Parenthood with every fiber of his being, for example). And yet, for those who have decided to go along for the ride, there’s something comfortable and familiar about them; it is as if we are part of the Braverman clan, and thus able to simply slip into a certain rhythm (or slip out of it when the characters do, as we see with Cory’s arrival).
“Meet the New Boss” lacks any of the weight of last week’s episode, and makes no similar attempt to tie the storylines together with any sort of central theme. It’s messy, it’s meandering, and it’s still not the kind of show I’m going to get excited about.
I have to say, though, that I enjoyed the hour quite a bit (if, at times, in spite of the hour itself). I didn't find it hard to sit down to write about, or in any way regret my decision to fill in. This is not one of the series' finest hours, but I think the show has reached the point where general appreciation for the characters and actors involved can elevate even mystical shoe spirits to a B-.
- Sue me, but I laughed a great deal at Haddie insisting, regarding her morning coffee, “I just want it black.” A terrible, terrible line, but I couldn’t help myself!
- Of course Crosby had a punk band called “The Burning Sensation.”
- In case you haven’t noticed his constant presence in all storylines relating to Sarah, Amber and Drew as of late, Seth has been mentioned a lot recently. I don’t believe it is actually possible for Parenthood to be spoiled, but I will simply say that this is not a coincidence.
- I shouldn’t be shocked that Mae Whitman rocks a mean open mic night, considering her general awesomeness, but it was still a nice surprise.
- The Parenthood/Arrested Development crossover audience got a nice Banana Suit homage in the Halloween episode, and here we get Amber expressing her love for the adorable nature of Michael Cera.
- Dammit shoes, stop looking at me like that!