I don't actually have kids - feel free to comment on the irony of me writing about a show named Parenthood, please - but I have to assume there's a moment when any kid is really small when its parents realize that, crap, that kid is not just going to be a little, walking extension of them. At some point, the kid starts to become their own person, assert their own interests, want their own things. Before that, the kid is just a little human being who's cuter than you and is also completely dependent on you, and that has to be kind of nice. (Again, I'm just assuming here.) But then, at some point, the kid starts to come into her own, and you're pretty much screwed. Parents can spend their whole lives trying to recapture that moment when their kid seemed like a good way to correct their own mistakes, usually with some degree of therapy resulting.
All of this is preamble to say that this episode of Parenthood, probably the strongest of the season so far, shows a series hitting its stride and suggests that this season is going to be about all of the ways parents can't control their kids. Certainly they can't do so when those kids are adults, but they can't even when they're toddlers. They have some degree of influence throughout their children's lives, certainly, but the second a kid learns how to talk and walk, they're already on their way out the door, in some regards. Parenthood is often about the weird space between having a little baby and sending your child off to college (and, similarly, about the ways that these ties don't fully go away, ever), and in tonight's episode everyone was dealing with the ways their kids didn't really match up to their hopes but still pushing past that.
Before we dive into the meat of the episode, I think it's worth noticing why this episode was better than the others that have aired so far this season. Parenthood is often helped when it has a strong, central idea to unify its episodes, and the show had one this year in Halloween. Halloween is an occasion that often allows for TV series to crank out strong episodes, perhaps because the temptation to indulge in sentimentality isn't as strong as it is with Christmas or Thanksgiving episodes (though I love a well-executed version of either of the latter two as well). Halloween episodes are usually just an excuse to throw the whole cast in costume and then have someone wax rhapsodic about candy. When Zeek tells Max all about how great a Braverman Halloween is, it might have felt a little stupid if he were talking about any other holiday, but Halloween is pointless enough on its face that the show mostly gets away with it. Halloween, as a holiday, is only secondarily about family togetherness, and that means messages of family togetherness feel less obligatory than they do in other holiday episodes.
The other thing that made this episode work was the fact that the humor didn't feel as forced. The series has been running away from the melodramatic place it reached by the end of last season a little too quickly this season, and while the episodes haven't been bad, they've misplaced some of the heart that made the latter half of last season so good. I'd agree that the show works better when the kids aren't running away from home and stuff, but the show seemed to forget that many of the best moments last season were essentially dramatic. Scenes like Crosby seeing the birth of his son for the first time or Kristina at the support group meeting (from this season) are dramatic, yes, but they're also refreshingly small-scale. The attempts to force wacky hijinks this season have felt just that: forced. In this episode, the laughs rise reliably out of the situations and the characters behaving exactly as they would normally behave, so when Max yells that he wants to be a cockroach and Adam adds, matter-of-factly, "Or a cockroach" to his costume suggestions, it doesn't feel like a laugh line so much as a nice observation of how these people would really act in that situation.
But enough about what made this episode work more than some of the others this year. Let's talk about the storylines, ever so briefly. The biggest example of a child asserting their independence came when Sydney insisted that she dress up as a beauty queen for Halloween, where her mother had hoped to get her to shrug off such sexist notions. (Notice how mom and dad go as Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.) Julia's disappointment at Sydney going in for stereotypical "girl" pursuits has been one of the most consistent threads in the portrayal of that family, and I liked it resurfacing again, here, where it probably would in reality. Sure, it all ended in some pretty boilerplate, "Gee, I wish I could slow time down and have my child be little forever!" dialogue, but that's the sort of thing this show does, and Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger continue to play these moments a little less emphatically than they did last season.
Crosby and Jasmine were mostly just dancing around the question of marriage (before Crosby finally asked her to marry him at episode's end), so they didn't get much to do. Adam and Kristina got their second strong storyline in a row, as they attempted to get Max ready for the perils of Halloween, complete with Zeek's monologue and Hattie playing the role of an old woman. (Hattie, TV's most exceptionally unexceptional teenager, is turning into one of the show's stealth strengths.) The scene where Max runs up to the scary house with the "little kids" and gets candy is played as a monumental moment, and the show has earned the right to play it that way.
The only storyline I continue to have no interest in is Sarah's dalliance with William Baldwin. Baldwin's always more charming than I remember him being, but the character continues to be a fairly standard spin on a corporate sleazeball with a heart of gold, and that's a type that has long since reached its sell-by date. Sarah swooping in to rescue Amber, similarly, feels like something that's overdone, and I'm disappointed Kelsie is just turning into a generic "troubled friend" instead of something more interesting. On the other hand, the show gets props for what I assume to be an Arrested Development shout-out by putting Amber in a giant banana costume.
I wasn't sure how Halloween and Parenthood would fit together, but now that I've seen "Orange Alert," I'm hopeful the show will have its lightly dramatic way with all of the other major holidays on the calendar. The trick to pulling off a good holiday episode is usually to keep things light but allow for just a sense of the brotherhood and camaraderie that animates all of the best family gatherings around the edges. For the most part, this episode did that, and it re-affirms my belief that the show is at its best when it doesn't try to force the comedy and, instead, shows us the little moments that make life as a parent (or a child) so confusing and rewarding.
- My wife remarks that it's not every day you see William Baldwin and David Mamet's daughter in a pool together, and at least we have this show to thank for that.
- As cliffhangers go, Crosby asking Jasmine to marry him leaves just a bit to be desired, particularly since it was in all of the promos for this episode. That said, I liked Adam pointing out how bizarre it is that Jasmine seems this into his shiftless younger brother.
- I like the idea that Halloween is so important to this family because I imagine ALL holidays are this important to this family. The show's at its best when it examines how having an ultra-close family can be both benefit and curse, and I can't wait for the very special Arbor Day episode.