Week after week, I find myself impressed by how perfectly modulated Parenthood is. It tosses a whole bunch of shit together, and it mixes tones like crazy, and it usually has four separate storylines that rarely dovetail, but it always, always works. If you’ve watched, well, most of the other ambitious shows on TV—the successes and the failures—you know how difficult that can be, but Parenthood makes it look easy. It just shrugs its shoulder and smashes Kristina weeping on the floor of her bathroom, covered in vomit, right up against Jasmine and Crosby arguing about napkins. This show is masterful at creating an emotional mixtape, at making sure that things never get too intense, or too light. There’s always ballast, but there’s also always helium, and that allows the series to hit just the right heights, gradually building as it goes along. That’s never been more evident to me than it has been in this fourth season.
When I say “modulation,” I don’t necessarily mean between comedy and drama. Though there are funny moments in this episode, I don’t know that they really come from outright funny storylines. The show is capable of that, but it learned somewhere early in its run that light comedic stuff wasn’t its strongest suit. Instead, it excels at the melodrama of everyday life, the kinds of arguments we have over laundry baskets and kitchen sinks, hushed because it’s 9 p.m., and we don’t want to wake up the kids. It’s when the show dips into that storytelling vein—even if it’s about two people arguing about whose fault it is that one of them doesn’t get to have a weekend, which is about as low-stakes a story as you can think of—that it truly works, and its third and fourth seasons have turned there again and again. (In this fashion, the show’s shorter episode orders for those seasons have helped it immensely.)
No, what I mean by “modulation” is that the show is expert at switching between low-stakes stories and high-stakes stories. Kristina’s battle with cancer is a story with enormous, life-and-death stakes. Crosby and Jasmine arguing over the party they’re throwing has practically non-existent stakes, outside of the fact that this issue matters to both of them (and, thus, matters to us by extension). Throughout the rest of the episode, there are other stories that fall between these two poles, and that happens in every episode, to be honest. You’ve got the relatively high stakes story of Amber helping Ryan through the death of a friend, and then you’ve got the lower stakes story of Mark trying to figure out what to do once he walks in on Drew and Amy having sex. And right in the middle, you’ve got Joel and Julia trying to figure out what to do to help their daughter understand she has a brother now, who’s going to take a little bit more of their time for the foreseeable future.
The show perfectly cuts between these storylines, too, so things never get too hard to bear. The Kristina storyline continues to be emotionally harrowing, particularly when she’s in unbearable pain. So, of course, the episode sends Adam—complete with Max, his friend Micah, Otis the dog, and Nora—into the middle of Crosby and Jasmine’s dinner party, because the sight of them there is going to provide an instant tension buster. It follows this up with Adam asking Crosby to give him some weed to help alleviate Kristina’s pain, then follows that up with Adam digging around in Jasmine’s underwear drawer and Jasmine walking in on the two of them, Adam holding one of her thongs aloft as Crosby turns around with a Ziploc baggie of pot. The show’s successfully taken us back a bit from where it was, and now, it can head back into Kristina’s struggles or Amber caring for Ryan. It’s all so wonderfully balanced, and the way the series uses overlapping sound to transition between scenes creates a kind of continuity that ties it all together. This is all part of being in a family, all these good and bad things.
It’d be easy for all of this to collapse into an overwrought mess. Many, many cancer storylines have over the years. But even though the series is intent on portraying the pain and misery Kristina is going through, it doesn’t rub our noses in it. We get glancing looks at it, just enough to let us know how much pain she’s in, but we always head off for something else. And I like how the series is portraying the way this ripples throughout the Braverman family, with Drew hooking up with his girlfriend again thanks to Kristina’s cancer, or Adam having to show up at Crosby’s because he’s not sure what else to do. It might be hard to manage an ensemble this huge, but the series is doing a terrific job this season of using this and Victor as through lines, as the things that tie everything together.
This episode also finally gets to something many of us have been wondering for a while now: When is the show going to acknowledge that Sydney now has a big brother and she might be having some feelings about that? Savannah Paige Rae has always been good as Sydney, but she’s also playing the least-developed character on the show—for obvious reasons. Even Jabbar, who’s slightly younger than her, has gotten more storylines and plots devoted to him. Sydney, with her perfect parents and perfect childhood, hasn’t exactly been a source of drama to this point. But now that she is, Rae is doing a great job of showing just how discombobulated Sydney is and how angry she is that this has all had to play out in the background of her other dramas. She’s got that little-kid cry thing down pat, and when she whines about how nothing is fair, it’s not hard to sympathize. Joel and Julia have been so focused on Victor—for good reason—that they’ve let this slide. She was there first, she says, and it’s not very gracious, and it’s not very kind, but it’s also true. Every kid’s felt that way at one time or another, and I’m glad we got this storyline. I’m also glad it’s not wrapped up so easily; even if Sydney can be reasoned with intellectually, she’s still got her emotions bottling her up.
It’s nice to have an episode as perfectly pitched and paced as this one on a holiday week. I’m sure that I could pick it apart and find some flaws in it if I really wanted to—is this show just going to keep wasting Jason Ritter, and on a week when Hostess cakes, which can really feed a man who’s looking for work, Katims, appeared to go out of business? (Ritter is really counting on that deal going through)—but for the most part, I just want to sit back and bask in how good this show is this season. Even when it’s doing stuff that irritates me, I understand perfectly why it’s pursuing that storyline, and even when I might be rolling my eyes, it’s because the characters are behaving perfectly in character. Thanks, Parenthood. Thanks for being an oasis unlike anything else on TV. Here’s hoping you close out this season as well as you’ve started it.
- What game was Max playing there toward the beginning? It looked like that old Out Of This World game, though I know it wasn’t.
- Otis is just peeing everywhere, isn’t he? I’m not thankful for you, Otis. NOT ONE BIT.
- Braverman of the week: Crosby, for always coming through in the clutch. He did, like, five of those napkin things and he ran to the store and he made that playlist. Crosby’s awesome, says the random party guest, and it’s not hard to agree! Also, he’s totally okay with passing on his genetically modified ganja!
- One of the things I love about this show is how it’s a portrayal of four very different marriages and a tentative engagement, cutting between them freely. One of the best things about that is how we get to look at Jasmine and Crosby screaming at each other about nothing, followed by Mark’s conflict avoidance strategies, followed by Joel and Julia having a polite discussion about child-rearing over soft piano music and (I can only assume) scones.
- Please note: Sarah is not running a brothel.
- I can’t quite decide how I felt about the Ryan and Amber storyline. I really liked its resolution, and I really liked how it shows us the quiet pain Ryan is going through. But the other guy was just such an obvious story plant, there to provoke an emotional reaction. Ah, well. It’s Thanksgiving. I’m sticking with the A. (Plus, that final shot of Ryan and Amber kissing in the ocean, framed against the sunset and a wave about to crash over them, is both gorgeous and good visual foreshadowing.)
- Hank turns up for the first time in a few weeks to give Sarah some half-assed advice she’ll probably see as evidence of their growing love connection or something.