Parenthood debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.
I really would like to dislike Parenthood. You're not supposed to say that as a critic. You're supposed to be as impartial as possible. But Parenthood has no discernible reason to exist (at least not as an extension of the Ron Howard film). It arrives after an original pilot that was surprisingly dour and didn't give any good reason to keep watching. It's way, way too overstuffed. Almost everything about it is something you've seen elsewhere, often done better. And it's debuting after a Winter Olympics where NBC lost no chance at promoting the hell out of it at every turn. If you feel like you've seen the pilot already, I don't blame you.
However, Parenthood, at least in its first two episodes, has somehow navigated all of the pitfalls that took down the original pilot and found a tone that doesn't perhaps point to essential viewing but does something that not a lot of shows on the air are doing right now. At its best, it's a funny and sad look at big family dynamics that has a keen ear for the way these things often go. It's a pretty great example of how a little extra time in television can often be all that you need, as the series has gone from a pilot that didn't at all suggest a show that would be worth watching to one that feels like it's going to join the list of programs I watch weekly. And, weirdly, when V returns, it's going to make 10 p.m. on Tuesdays the best hour for watching TV every week. (V still hasn't made the leap up to "good," but the new showrunner is solid, and he may perk up a series that already has a very good cast. And The Good Wife over on CBS has turned into maybe the best procedural on the air right now.)
Parenthood follows the Braverman clan of the San Francisco area. Patriarch Zeke (a nicely on-edge Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) gave birth to four children perfectly spaced enough to examine all of the various permutations of parenthood, and now, with the return of eldest daughter Sarah (Lauren Graham, taking over for Maura Tierney), all four of those children are back in the same city, able to get together and hash out the old days. It's a nice, loose setup for a series, and unlike the original pilot, the series finds a loose tone that fits the show perfectly. Where the original pilot felt like a too-serious attempt to say, "THIS IS WHAT PARENTHOOD IS LIKE TODAY," the new pilot finds the laughs amid the sadder storylines and the poignancy amid the funnier ones. It's not a perfect show, yet, but in a TV landscape mostly full of forced melodrama, it's nice to see a show about little people with relatable problems.
Parenthood's main creative force is Jason Katims, who's guided Friday Night Lights since its pilot. While Lights has taken similar aim to Parenthood (with regular people facing regular problems), it, too, has been guilty of forcing the melodrama to make Important Points from time to time. Now, the episodes where this has happened have often ranked among the best of the series (look at some of the things the series did with teenager Becky in the fourth season or how the show dramatized Jason Street's attempts to balance having a child with trying to live his life in season three), but it's not like the series always maintains its relatable quotient.
Parenthood, for better or worse, is definitely interested in always playing up the universality of its concept. The Bravermans fit almost exactly into four little niches of what it means to be a parent. Eldest son Adam (Peter Krause) and wife Kristina (Monica Potter) are dealing with the fact that their youngest son is having problems, problems that might point to a diagnosis of a serious mental health issue. Sarah's wondering how she'll bounce back from a failed marriage and trying to keep her two kids from bolting to their drug addict father. Younger daughter Julia (Erika Christensen) is a working mom, trying to keep both sides of that phrase perfectly balanced and trying to keep her daughter from being more attached to her father than her mother. And younger son Crosby (Dax Shepherd, somehow not being completely irritating) has some serious commitment issues, even though he's just promised his long-term girlfriend they'll have a kid within the next three years.
Yeah, you've seen all of that before. And the storylines get less interesting the younger the kids get (well, actually, the Crosby storyline is marginally more interesting than the Julia one). There's no way you'll ever buy Christensen, who gives it her all, as a powerful businesswoman, and I'm so, so tired of storylines where a mother (or a father, for that matter) can't somehow be both a career woman and a good parent. Millions of parents in this nation do it every day, and that TV writers seem to think it's impossible to pull off suggests a failure of imagination and a reliance on cliche. The Crosby storyline is similarly been-there, done-that, but it takes a very interesting turn in the last 15 minutes and picks up in episode two.
The Sarah and Adam storylines are far better. Sure, a woman moving on after a divorce is, again, something you've seen before, but Graham sells the giddy rush of realizing she's free to start over coupled with the complete, crippling self-doubt that comes from making such a call. (This is no slight to Tierney, who was probably the best thing in the original pilot, but Graham approaches the role from a different place, which better fits the comedy-drama blend of the new pilot.) And Krause and Potter are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as a couple figuring out how to help a kid they can barely reach. Sure, the show forces a "win" in this storyline, but it's a small enough win that the series indicates that it won't believe it can cure their son, just that there will be good times and hard times. (It should also be pointed out that while Potter can be a grating screen presence, she does some of her best work as a foil for Krause.)
The best thing here, though, is every scene that features all of the siblings together in their various permutations. Katims absolutely nails the way big families talk to each other, the way voices shout over each other and the way everybody treats the youngest kid like a baby, even if he's thinking about having kids of his own. The scenes like this provide enough fuel for the rest of the show to coast when it needs to. If the story development isn't what it could be, there's more than enough material here to provide a firm sense of family dynamics, of the way inside jokes can collapse into bitter recriminations.
Parenthood has a bad case of forcing the drama at several given moments, but it gives a rich sense that it's building a world here, a family that will be worth following from episode to episode. It's not a perfect series, by any means, but it gives off a sense that very few other series give, a sense of being lived-in.
- The grade's for the pilot alone. Though the second episode would probably get the same grade.
- And if you like this show and want to see weekly coverage, speak up! We might add it.