“Speaking Of Baggage” hits the Parenthood sweet spot of realistic, small-scale stories, told in such a way that the drama the participants in those stories feel translates to the audience. It’s a nice indicator that what ails the show this season isn’t irreparable. Indeed, it’s mostly confined to one or two storylines, one of which sits out tonight entirely and the other of which is scaled back to something more realistic. (Okay, the “Luncheonette becomes a music label” thing is still preposterous, but I am giving that a pass tonight because the rock star’s name is Oliver Rome, and how ridiculous is that?) The show’s ratings have been slumping this season, both because NBC moved it to a lower-rated night (though it obviously thought The Michael J. Fox Show was going to be bigger than it has been) and because it kept the show off the air for so long, and I wish I could take this episode of the show and give out screeners of it to all the viewers who wandered off. This! This is the show I still love! It’s still present in the midst of Kristina Braverman’s unquenchable thirst for power!
As with the season’s other highlight, “Let’s Be Mad Together,” “Speaking Of Baggage” puts the mayoral campaign almost entirely on hold. We see some yard signs outside of the rambling Braverman manse, and Kristina gets a text from Heather, but for the most part, this is a politics-free zone. Instead, Julia unexpectedly becomes the lead of the episode. It’s an interesting choice, since the Julia and Joel marital woes have been the season’s other dud storyline (though this is one of those storylines Parenthood should have knocked out of the park), but steering into the skid ends up improving the story. Julia is feeling trapped and lonely at home, but Joel can’t really connect with her because he’s off at work. She’s sympathizing with a mother who gave her whole life to caring for other people and now is second in the thoughts of even her other children. And she keeps listening to a voicemail she got from Ed, on speakerphone, in the middle of her house. (Julia is going to be so bad at having an affair.)
My foremost problem with this storyline has always been that Ed and Pete were introduced seemingly specifically to cause problems for this marriage. (I will bet you $10 that what happens is Julia reluctantly breaks contact with Ed, only for Joel to find something incriminating, so he ends up sleeping with Pete. Ten. Whole. Dollars.) Affairs rarely work like that, and “Speaking Of Baggage” does a good job of doing some backpedaling in this regard. Julia’s frustration with her situation is much more evident in this episode than any other this season, because she’s not just telling others about it; she’s showing the audience just how sick she is of picking up after her damn kids. And that’s why things like a voicemail from Ed can become a lifeline. She doesn’t intend for them to be, but there’s someone warm and human on the other side of that line, and Joel is off in another place so often, and does it hurt if they’re just friends? Ed telling Julia that his day got brighter when his phone rang should be a warning sign to anyone, but we’re on the outside, looking in. Julia needs some day brighteners right now, and the episode’s greatest strength is that it makes Ed seem plausible as more than just a guy she sometimes pals around with when dropping the kids off at school. Other episodes really tried to force this issue; this one lets it breathe and is the stronger for it.
Of course, infidelity isn’t only on the mind of Julia. It’s also on the mind of Ryan when he sees his fiancée flirting around with one of the members of Ashes Of Rome. It’s pretty clearly innocent—Amber never once seems guilty because she’s just young enough to not realize how it might make Ryan feel—but the look on his face is pained enough that I spent the whole episode waiting for the two to have a big fight. Instead, Parenthood skids around this ably, by having Ryan spend all of his combat pay on an engagement ring that Amber can wear to offer a constant reminder that she’s in a committed relationship. Amber’s been kind of enervating this season, so I wasn’t looking forward to another storyline where she had a huge fight with someone who loves her unconditionally. This is a better way for Ryan to accomplish his goals, and it offers a nicely teary little moment that neatly mirrors Zeek and Camille’s parting at episode’s end, what with Amber greeting Ryan asking her if this makes it official with a weird death stare, the Jason Katims equivalent of a Twilight Zone character realizing all is not as it seems. (Also a great scene in this storyline: Kristina telling Amber about the time she and Adam got engaged, which plants the seed of this scene and also reminds us that we can like Kristina when she’s not running for Grand Vizier of Agrabah.)
Meanwhile, Amber’s brother is dealing with his own romantic travails after a drunk Natalie shows up at his dorm room and hooks up with him, despite his initial protestations that she’s too drunk. (Once again, Drew is the very model of a modern major college guy, but c’mon, he’s not made of stone, and when she kisses him again, of course he’s going to sleep with her.) This is a bit of a minor storyline in the grand scheme of things, though it intersects with the “Amber saves the Luncheonette!” bit. But I like when the show gives Drew something to do, and charmingly flummoxed Drew is the very best kind of Drew there can ever be. I should have bumped this down to a stray observation, but Drew!
Man, this episode was jam-packed with good stuff, wasn’t it? I generally know an episode of Parenthood is going to be worth it when there’s a scene with the whole family eating together and/or a scene where the four siblings hang out and talk shop, and this episode had both of those things, to say nothing of a strong storyline for Zeek and Camille. So much about season five is pointing in the right direction that it’s made the frustrating things that much harder to take. Like, how much better is any given episode when Max and Hank get a chance to hang out? The two of them are such a great team that I didn’t even mind the reintroduction of the Sarah and Hank romantic yearning this evening, when I really thought that would drag down these bits. Hell, Max even asked Hank if he was a serial killer, then told everybody at dinner that Hank keeps a picture of Sarah in one of his drawers. (To be fair, it’s a really good picture.) I was almost to the point where I was ready to start rooting for these crazy kids, but Us And Them has been all but canceled, and Jason Ritter gotta eat.
Finally, there was the sad tale of Zeek and Camille. Zeek’s long been a genial asshole, the kind where you can’t help but kind of like him even when he’s being a dickwad, and here’s another good example of that, as first Julia convinces her brothers and sister that their dad doesn’t take their mom seriously enough, and then Adam goes to talk to Zeek about just why he’s not going to Italy with Camille, only to discover that his parents’ marriage is in worse shape than he thought. That last scene of Zeek wandering around the house, trying to turn off the alarm, and not even being able to remember his anniversary date was some pretty heartbreaking stuff, even if he sort of brought all of it onto himself. At its best, Parenthood can do that, can make you sympathize with someone who’s bringing so much of what’s happening to them down onto their own heads, because we’ve all been there. “Speaking Of Baggage” offers a moment like that in nearly every storyline, and that’s why it works so very well.
- Okay, I can’t give this the best possible score because the Lunchonette plotline is still nuts. The solution to getting Ashes Of Rome to perform better is to close them in a room with a bunch of spectators? I realize that The Luncheonette is located in a fantasyland where none of these people will have even their sneezes turn up on the master recordings and even if they did, Crosby’s sentient ProTools would edit them out, but this all seems a little strange to me nonetheless. Also: How will poor Marleze feel about all of those people parking in her neighborhood? Won’t someone think of Marleze?!
- Braverman of the week: Camille, who pretty much just said, “See you, suckers!” and took off for Italy, but also took the time to make sure we all remembered about Zeek’s heart medication, just in time for foreshadowing.
- Go rewatch the family dinner scene again where Camille announces her trip and Zeek announces he’s not going and pay close attention to Savannah Paige Rae, who smiles uncomfortably throughout. It’s a little unnerving, but it also sort of perfectly captures being a kid that age and having no idea how to emotionally respond to something. (Also, someone should obviously turn that into a GIF that gets pasted over various historic disasters. I’ll wait.)
- Did anyone mention Haddie Braverman, even tangentially?: No.
- Guys, I just checked Nora Braverman’s biography at Wikipedia, and all of the important facts about her life have been edited out. How will future readers be aware of her enjoyment of playing with rings, banging on pots, and hanging out with her mother? (Also, Nora briefly appeared in one of the shots at the family gathering tonight, and I thought, for a second, “WHO THE HELL IS THAT?! WHO HAD A TODDLER?!” before realizing what I was looking at.)
- Crosby’s main concern about his mother leaving for Italy without his father: who will babysit his three-month old. Classy, Crosby.
- Natalie shows up again at the end of the episode to hook up with Drew again, and his objections are steamrollered by a pretty girl kissing him. Go with it, Drew! Have fun! You’re 18!
- My wife’s interest in this episode perked way up when she thought Natalie said she was going to a party at “Piecat,” but, alas, we’re pretty sure she was saying “Pi Kap,” as in a fraternity or sorority house. Just off-camera, a single tear trickles down Piecat’s cheek. Almost his big break. Almost. A passing Jason Ritter, loaded down with bagels, gives Piecat a good pet on the head. “He’ll see you soon, buddy,” says Jason Ritter. “No, I won’t,” says a passing Jason Katims.
- Did anyone mention Piecat, even tangentially?: You’d think so, but no.