One of the things I’m most fascinated with in TV is when bad storylines happen to good shows. It’s just something that any show that runs long enough will have to put up with, and it’s always interesting to me to see how a series deals with what happens when the wheels leave the road and they’re suddenly hurtling through the ditch. Some shows try to bring everything to a controlled stop, then slowly retrace their tracks until they’re back on the road. This is agonizing, but it’s usually the best approach to make sure nothing gets damaged. (Example: Whatever Homeland is up to right now. Agonizing and hard to watch but will hopefully result in higher structural integrity when it’s all over with.) Some shows frantically jerk the wheel, risking a rollover and even greater damage, but hoping to get back on the road as quickly as possible. (Example: The Good Wife pulling out of its Kalinda spin in early season four by basically just jettisoning the storyline like a booster rocket.) And some shows just keep going, gritting their teeth and insisting that, dammit, they’ll get to a great destination via the road or the ditch, and would you stop with your whining back there?
Jason Katims has always favored this lattermost approach. It’s a little infuriating. He’s such a good, conscientious writer, and he tends to attract similar people to fill his writing staffs, to say nothing of the quietly beautiful performances his series coax from their actors. But once a show of his gets trapped in a storyline spiral, the audience is going to see that thing through to the bitter end. Some of you have been saying that Kristina’s mayoral run is doomed to failure, that the show has placed the election in November so it can quickly jettison the storyline in case it doesn’t work. And maybe that’s the case! Maybe that’s really what we’re building toward.
But I just have this numbing sensation in my gut, the same sense I got when Landry brained that guy in season two of Friday Night Lights or when Julia decided she was going to buy that baby back in season three of this show. I get the sense that we are going to follow this thing through to its conclusion, and nobody’s really thought about how much this show is going to change if Kristina somehow becomes the Mayor of Berkeley. The election plotline has sucked up so much oxygen in this early going that it becomes harder for other storylines to take on the same sort of weight, and now more characters are getting sucked into its orbit. This week, Sarah takes Kristina’s campaign photo, because she’s started a photography business we’re just starting to hear more about. Soon, every character on the show will be working for this campaign, and the series will turn into a show about the mayor of Berkeley so swiftly we won’t even know what hit us.
Okay, probably not. The reason I continue to stick with dumb storylines on Parenthood or on other Katims series is because the destinations are generally worth it. Even murderin’ Landry ended up having a lot of interesting stuff to say about fathers and sons, and that Julia storyline wound up resulting in some of the best episodes the show ever made. There’s every possibility that this storyline turns into a moving meditation on how Kristina handles this second act in her life, the one she thought she might not have, and copes with the fact that she just tossed herself into the mayoral election because she didn’t really know what else to do. And I appreciate that the show is going out of its way to have characters continue to tell her what an odd idea this is (though it would be so great if Haddie would call in to say as much). Yet when Kristina briefly talked at episode’s end about scaling back her campaign, about talking with Heather about putting the brakes on it, I felt this vast sense of relief that the show had come to its senses. Until, no, Adam handed over his wallet, and we were back to the races.
(Sidebar: I think a big reason this plot isn’t working for me is because the series’ focus is so Braverman-centric. That’s a good thing when it comes to something like Aida refusing to take a bottle and only stopping her incessant crying when she’s being breast-fed, but it becomes far more problematic when the show wants to talk about its fictional Berkeley as a whole. We really have no idea how the community views Kristina—if it even knows her—and who these donors to her campaign are and what people think about Bob Little and on and on. The tight focus that usually acts as such a virtue for the show just feels inadequate when it comes to such a community-focused storyline.)
The other stuff is working okay, even if I’m a little antsy to get to the meat of the season. The Zeek and Camille storyline is particularly sweet, and I like the way that the series isn’t having Camille back down in the face of Zeek’s defense of the old house by evoking his memories from the place (and, quite likely, the fact that it contains half of the standing sets). The Drew storyline was nice to see, just in terms of Drew getting something to do and in terms of his roommate problems not introducing unnecessary angst between Ryan and Amber, even if I found it a bit bizarre that his roommate would simply back down because Drew brought in his sister and future brother-in-law. (Also: Ryan’s title is Sergeant York? Okay.) I continue to like the way that Jasmine and Crosby’s storyline underlines just how much being parents of a new baby can absolutely suck. They both seem utterly defeated and lost and sort of wishing they could go back and rethink this whole thing, and that’s a tone you don’t often see on shows like this.
Joel and Julia, meanwhile, get the back-up storyline here, and it’s not a bad one, though it contains shades of the coming “Joel and Julia are tempted to stray” plotline I think we’re all dreading a little bit. It’s been tough to wring conflict from these two, because they’re generally so stable and happy, but taking Julia out of the work environment where she best understands herself and then introducing this tiny little wedge between the two of them in the form of their mutual dissatisfaction with the situation has caused some interesting things to happen. I liked how their fight about Victor eventually turned on some other things—like how Joel fears Julia growing closer to some other dude while he’s busy with work, even if she never cheats on him—and I like the way that the show understands that it can be just as devastating to realize that your spouse is somehow becoming better friends with someone else than they are with you. There’s still stupid in this storyline, but at least it’s outweighed by smarter, smaller decisions.
Above all, I like the way that this season is holding itself together through the sheer gumption of being about transition. Kristina finds herself with a new page to start filling, while Zeek and Camille can’t figure out how to agree on how to age gracefully. Sarah has seen yet another relationship fall apart, and is embarking on yet another career, and everyone’s a little skeptical of her. Julia is having to adjust to the thought of being a stay-at-home mom long-term, and it’s a bit deflating. And Crosby is figuring out how to be a father to an infant. There’s nothing remarkable here, but that common theme in all of the storylines, that common sense of earth-shattering change that nonetheless feels tiny and small and perfect, keeps things bound together better than they probably should be. Now let’s buckle in and see how long everybody keeps driving around in the ditch.
- Braverman of the week: Camille. She’s the silent partner to so many of these storylines, but I love how she lays it out there and insists that Zeek hears what she has to say. The scenes between the two of them are the best of the episode, and I’m so glad they finally have a storyline. (Also, if you’ve listened to my Parenthood podcast, you know that my co-host Amy Whipple thinks Camille’s line about waiting for the mail in last week’s episode was directed at my recurring “Bonnie Bedelia Spends Her Time” feature. I have my doubts, but it would be cool! Also, listen to my podcast.)
- Looks like Nora can add “seeming like she’s going to appear in campaign paraphernalia for her mother before she doesn’t” to her Wikipedia bio!
- I will confess to having no idea why Hank thought the photo of Kristina that he chose was so much better than all of the other ones Sarah took. And I’m also completely down with Sarah’s business model. I need photos of all my cats.
- Honestly, shouldn’t Adam be looking more closely into Kristina’s campaign’s finances? All campaigns have budget directors! I don’t get why bankrupting the family is supposed to be something we’re cheering for. (Well, I mean, I know why I’d cheer for it, but I doubt that’s what the show wants me to be thinking.)
- Remember when Victor and Sydney wanted to murder each other? They’ve come a long way since those days. Also, I don’t blame Victor for not being very interested in Island Of The Blue Dolphins. That book is super boring!
- I did like that little scene between Zeek and Crosby in the old car Zeek was fixing up that we will probably never hear about again. Crosby’s frustration is right there on the surface this season, and it’s nice to see him trying to keep it in check for the benefit of his family, even as he wonders if he’ll ever love this baby girl the way he knows he’s supposed to. I suspect he got most of the way there in that final scene, though.
- “They’re family. They don’t take you seriously because they know you.” Sick burn, Hank!