After I watched the pilot of Parenthood and liked it a lot, being a 24-year-old guy, I went to the only other person I knew who I thought would be a fan of the show -- my mom. "Wasn't it great?" I asked. "Eh, it felt a little manufactured to me," she said.
13 episodes later, I think Parenthood, along with CBS's The Good Wife, is showing that there's still some life left in the mainstream network drama, but I still get what she meant. From the start it felt like NBC decided one way to regain credibility would be to hire a bunch of recognizable actors for a big family show, then slap Ron Howard's name on it, because he made that movie twenty years ago, right? If it worked for ABC with Brothers and Sisters, why couldn't it work for them?
It's almost a miracle that Parenthood has succeeded considering the crushing weight of its pedigree, which seemed almost like a jinx at first. But Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Erika Christensen and Dax Shepherd are a surprisingly plausible, cohesive family unit. The overlapping dialog doesn't feel forced. Craig T. Nelson, whose casting seemed the laziest of all (he's a crotchety grandpa!) has actually been given some real dramatic heavy lifting. Even more incredibly, none of the teenagers grate in the slightest. Mae Whitman, aka Ann Veal from Arrested Development who's been in movies since I was a kid, has been an absolute standout.
Jason Katims, who developed the show and appears to NBC's go-to "talent" guy these days, has done well to keep the show grounded in natural drama instead of soapy stuff. When something scandalous happens - like Whitman's character Amber sleeping with her cousin Haddie's ex-boyfriend - it's preceded by plenty of earnest, but real character development so it doesn't feel like a pointless twist. Mostly, the drama comes from fairly ordinary places: Adam (Krause) is raising an autistic-spectrum kid; Sarah (Graham) is trying to find her feet after wasting years with the deadbeat father of her kids; Crosby (Shepherd) discovers he has a son of his own.
The words "Dax Shepherd has been a dramatic revelation this year" are ones me and (I'm sure) many other critics didn't think they'd be typing, but incredibly enough, it's true. To me, he was always that weird-looking guy from Punk'd who unreasonably dated Kristen Bell for a while. Who knew he had it in him, but Shepherd has taken what could be a very, very tired character - he used to sleep around, now he's settling down! - and amazingly makes you feel it when he gets scared, or excited, by something his five-year-old is doing.
Monica Potter, too, was another actress I'd always dismissed offhand who's surprisingly good in a weak-sounding role: the harried stay-at-home mom. Erika Christensen, who I've always found abrasive, was tougher to love as intense working mom Julia, but I find I'm on her side most weeks now. Graham, of course, knocks even the weakest material right out of the park. She can do a lot with just the slightest tremble of her face.
I'm spending so much time on the actors because they are really what makes this show - the writing is fine but you know that this dialog would fall completely flat with the wrong actors. The stories are engaging but they're rarely gripping, with exceptions: Katims' methodical, in-depth examination of raising a son with an Asperger's diagnosis (based, I believe, on his own experiences?) handles the topic better than I've seen any other TV show do. But I don't think that you'd care too much about the exploits of a largely rich, largely ordinary-functioning family in Berkeley if there were even a couple weak links in the cast.
The show's season finale concentrated largely on Amber running away from home out of shame - a storyline that started strong but has gotten weaker once silly only-on-TV misunderstandings started getting mixed into it. Zeek (Nelson) and Camille's (Bonnie Bedelia) deteriorating marriage was the other A-plot. I was impressed the show moved to split up its matriarch and patriarch so quickly in its first season but it was the right move to make, as there's nothing new to be found in having Nelson and Bedelia simply be wise, knowing grandparents who dispense homely wisdom.
Having them get back together (or so it seemed, after a ukelele solo from Zeek) just as quickly might turn out to be a mistake as well, but if the show sticks to the dramatic rhythms it's been following so far, it won't sweep anything under the rug just yet. But that's the only real worry I have about Parenthood, which is coming back for a second season. Brothers and Sisters, which was always several soap notches higher than this show, should still serve as a cautionary tale in that it ran out of normal family plotlines quickly and started getting more and more absurd. Having big developments like Crosby moving to New York to stay with his kid absolutely make sense, but I just hope Parenthood doesn't start to scramble for realistic storylines as it continues.
Didn't say much about the finale itself, which I enjoyed, but it had some choice scenes, especially Zeek getting drunk and whaling on the piano with Crosby, telling him about a girl in Vietnam who "had the tightest little--"
I also liked Lauren Graham's airplane noises as she tried to practice playing baseball with her son.
It's still hard to not think of this show as "the show Maura Tierney had to quit cause she got cancer" but I think Graham has pretty effectively laid claim to the role, right?