Two things I like: the Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird and the Big Love episode “Come, Ye Saints.” And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve pretty much liked every single bit of entertainment I’ve consumed where a bunch of people all go on the same trip in different cars on some level. Even the shitty ones appeal to me by the idea of introducing a bunch of contained drama vehicles, from which lots of crazy stuff happens. So on some level, I was absolutely poised to at least like this episode of Parenthood, as it did just that, and it didn’t mess up the basic idea of “splitting a larger group into several smaller groups in cars.”
But I absolutely loved this episode. It was my favorite since last February, and it proves, I think, that Parenthood is always best when it gets a little time to get all of its plot points boiling along. And yet even as I say that, I realize this was an episode where pretty much none of the plot points that were built up over the past few weeks—from Mark talking with Sarah about having a baby to Jasmine and Crosby hooking up to Julia and Joel’s attempts to get that baby—had much—if any—bearing on tonight’s episode. Yes, we can read some of the prior conflicts of the season into, say, Adam and Hattie struggling to talk while both riding together in his car, but at the same time, the storyline is so basic—father wants to talk to his college-bound daughter and fails—that it doesn’t need any of that background stuff. (Indeed, the Big Love episode listed above had basically the same plot point, only on that show, the daughter was pregnant and didn’t want to tell her dad.)
So this was almost a standalone episode, an episode that sat outside of the rest of the season and just reminded us of how much we like spending time with these people, especially when they all get together in a big group. Hell, we even got a bunch of back-story we hadn’t really been clamoring for but were probably happy to get all the same. We met Zeek’s mother, a taciturn woman withholding in her love. (And I loved how the show very quietly built this without having Zeek do some big, chest-thumping speech about how much his mother hurt him as a child. Instead, it let us fill in the blanks around his odd behavior for ourselves and let the kids drop just enough hints to let us know grandma was a real piece of work.) We found out that Kristina’s family wasn’t exactly “the best.” We learned a bit more about how Zeek’s wandered the Earth, searching for his purpose. We got plenty of seemingly improvised gags from the cast. There was such a loose, relaxed feel to this episode that it was easy to miss just how much ground was covered.
Now, if you think about it, there’s no way this long of a road trip would come about by going from Berkeley to Bakersfield. (To get into two-day road trips from the Bay Area, you have to start looking at Denver and further, but I digress.) And the “Drew saw his mom and Mark having sex” plot wasn’t as developed as, say, Kristina not going along because Max called her a bitch, and he needed to be punished. But other than that, I’m hard-pressed to think of flaws with this episode. Even the omnipresent, irritating soundtrack from this season was largely toned down, replaced by diegetic music coming from car stereos or with the show’s nice, natural score whenever possible. Season three of Parenthood hasn’t been perfect, but it was as if leaving behind Berkeley let the whole show leave behind some of its problematic plot developments.
Heck, even the plots introduced to this episode are confined to this episode. The Kristina and Max fight happens in the opening moments of the episode and reverberates throughout, as Zeek asks Adam why he didn’t put his foot down when Kristina said she wasn’t coming along. So, for that matter, does the idea of Crosby having to keep an eye on the chair Zeek bought for his mom or the idea of Drew stumbling upon his mom’s fun sexy times. And the idea of Zeek’s mom gets a surprisingly adept payoff in around 10 minutes of screentime. She shows up. She seeds her disappointment and makes her son’s face fall. And then she tells him that, yeah, she loves him, even if she’s not always good at showing it. It’s the single most elemental story Parenthood can tell—it’s a story the show has told over and over and over, in fact—but it’s a story the show keeps finding new ways to express. What a beautiful little moment when Zeek gave his mom a hug and Camille looked on!
(Sidebar: I guess I do have one big complaint with this episode, and that’s the treatment of Camille, who continues to be the character the show doesn’t know what to do with. Here, she once again mostly exists to validate Zeek, which is all she ever does. Has American television just forgotten how to write women of a certain age? It was able to write compelling, interesting plots for women over 60 back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but now, it’s like it can’t figure out how to tell a story about an older woman without tossing her into the middle of a police procedural. Since we’re already running out of time on season three, I’d hope the writers would make giving Camille a real, meaty storyline a high priority for season four.)
All right, back to the gushing. Sometimes, all a TV show has to do to be good is let us hang out with people we like in an interesting and amusing situation. The more I try to explain to you why this virtually plotless, free-and-easy episode of Parenthood worked so well for me, the more I keep coming back to that idea of letting the family just hang out and bounce off of each other. Whether it was Joel asking Zeek if his map was some sort of paper GPS or the interplay between Sarah and Amber, it felt like this was a respite from some of the more forced conflicts of this season, an episode designed just to remind us that, at the bottom of everything, these people really love each other, and we really love spending time with them. There will probably be more dramatic or better-written or better-acted episodes of this show. Heck, there already have been. But years from now, when I’m going to watch one episode of Parenthood to remember why I liked it so much, it’s going to be “Road Trip,” a perfect love letter both to the series and the idea of being a family.
- Braverman of the week: Can we pick anyone other than Zeek? I loved the way he slowly realized what a jerk he’d been to his kids and how he’d taken out his anger on the wrong people. And I loved the moment when Adam—the closest thing we have to a mini-Zeek—realized that he couldn’t just abandon his dad like that and turned the car around. As I said, that moment with Zeek and his mom was borderline perfect, and I hope the show is able to mine more from that relationship as time goes on.
- That moment when Kristina wandered up with Nora and Max in tow—after cutting to her gradually weakening stance on not letting Max go on the trip—was really nice, even if it cut a bit into Kristina’s spine, which I usually like seeing displayed.
- Seriously, show. It’s just Bakersfield. I guess if you allow for spending lots of time making a police report about the chair, you could work out a way to have the trip take that long. But I sincerely doubt Zeek wouldn’t just push ahead. It’s not that far!