Parenthood: “Step Right Up”
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Parenthood: “Step Right Up”

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Parenthood

“Step Right Up”

Season 3, Episode 3

One of the things I’ve noticed while reviewing this show is that Parenthood employs fairly traditional “arc” storytelling, of the sort that TV’s been using over and over again since the days of Hill Street Blues. When it’s at its best, the show’s arcs blend into one another and work together so well that you barely notice when all of the storylines end at the same time. When it’s not at its best, well, the characters are still fun to hang out with, but it does feel a bit like the show has hit a big ol’ reset button. That was the feeling I kind of got from tonight’s episode, where pretty much all of the storylines we’ve had so far this year ended, with a few small ones that will go on into next week, mostly involving romantic relationships beginning (and the Crosby/Adam recording studio plot, which seems to be the spine for the whole season).

There’s nothing wrong with arcs, of course. At their best, they give storylines that would feel hackneyed in one episode a little room to breathe. I’ve noticed often that Parenthood uses a fairly typical “three-episode” arc structure. We’ll get the setup of the arc in one episode, then the middle of the arc in the next, complete with cliffhanger, then close off with a resolution to the story that gives everyone a happy and/or bittersweet moment. Take, for instance, Julia’s coveting of the coffee girl’s baby. First, she finds out that the coffee girl is pregnant and longs to ask her to turn over the baby, so she can raise as her own (beginning). In episode two, she dances around the question and finally just asks the girl if she can have the baby, only to be embarrassingly rebuffed (middle). In this episode, she avoids the coffee girl, only for the two to meet up and have a heart to heart about how she wants a closed adoption (end).

Now, obviously, this storyline could continue. It could spinoff into a story about the coffee girl having a change of heart or asking Julia for advice or whatever. But this episode puts a cap on this particular storyline, with the option of picking it up in a new form somewhere down the road. We also get a cap placed on the story of Alex’s legal troubles, as Adam—in a moment I really quite liked—convinces the parents of the boy Alex hit to drop their charges because Alex could really be something someday, and he doesn’t need this legal cloud hanging over him. It was a nice resolution to the storyline, but coupled with the Julia resolution, it did have the unintended effect of feeling like, well, the show was closing up some storylines in order to make room for new ones.

Among those new storylines is the arrival of all-purpose TV guest star D.B. Woodside as a new doctor paramour for Jasmine and somebody named Skyler Day (who’s apparently big on the Nickelodeon) as a new girl for Drew to take a shine to. (Is this the first Drew-specific storyline that doesn’t have anything to do with his father? I think it might be.) The first is one of those wait-and-see storylines. It’s clear that this is going to prompt Crosby and Jasmine to re-examine their feelings for each other in some way, which is probably something this show has done too many times, but I like Woodside. I’m willing to see where this goes. The Drew storyline, however, is pretty amusing, and I like how it wraps in Zeek, who comes at matchmaking like he comes at just about everything: head-on and attempting to scare said task into submission. (I also liked when Drew came across his mom hiding behind the bushes.)

Parenthood often works better a series of moments than it does as a series of storylines, and this was an episode that made me think that more than once. For as much as the writers seem to be taking a mulligan on the Julia/coffee girl storyline and for as much as the Alex/Haddie storyline seems to be more about raising the issue of how little the girl knows about her boyfriend’s past, the episode doesn’t really accomplish much in the way of narrative momentum. I guess it’s there if you squint hard enough—Adam and Kristina learn that they’re having a girl, and Kristina lets Crosby know if the recording studio fails, he’ll answer to her—but this is more a hang-out episode, designed to let us chill out with the Braverman gang before the shit starts hitting the fan (as it inevitably must).

To be honest, these sorts of episodes are hard to write about. I don’t know what, exactly, I can tell you about Sarah and Amber coming across that rat rooting around in the latter’s apartment, but I can tell you that I found the scene where Sarah and her mom talked about how she has to let Amber go just a little bit very moving. Similarly, I don’t know what there is to say about Haddie being very happy to have Alex’s charges dropped, without really ever knowing just what her dad did to make that happen, but I did find the scene where Adam and Kristina talk through their fears that the baby might, like Max, be autistic nicely done, especially as it put their earlier emotions over learning they were having a girl in a new context. And while I’ve given this adoption storyline a hard time, I did think that final scene where coffee girl talked about how hard it will be to give up her baby was a very well done take on the birth mother’s place in the adoption process. It doesn’t singlehandedly redeem the whole stupid storyline or anything, but it’s a very nice moment.

So if this is just an episode of moments, let’s talk about some that worked really well. I loved Zeek’s plan with the hedge trimmers (which inadvertently made Drew look like the world’s creepiest stalker for a while there) and his triumph when Amy agreed to go on the date with Drew. I liked Crosby’s bafflement over the concept of wheat flour. I liked the whole baby shower sequence, which got all of these talented actors (minus Mae Whitman) in the same room and just let them bounce off of each other—the show is rarely better than when it’s doing that. It’s hard to get too enthusiastic about these episodes without the big, dramatic moments or the complicated throughlines, but at the same time, I’m glad when the show does them and does them well (as it did tonight). Life isn’t about an unending stream of crises. There are also the good moments in between, and Parenthood is careful to let those good moments shine through every once in a while.

Stray observations:

  • Miles Heizer, who plays Drew, is 17. Skyler Day, who plays Amy, is 20. This show and its cradlerobbers! /faux outrage
  • I like that the show brings in Fiona Gubelmann for one scene to let Craig T. Nelson demonstrate his flirtatious powers. It makes everything feel like a more consistent universe, and it reminds us that Crosby has moved on as surely as Jasmine is.
  • Nice acting moment: that pause after the boy’s parents tell Adam why they’re not dropping the charges. Peter Krause gets so much out of that silence.
  • "Do your dishes, so you don't get roaches." My mom used to give me advice just like this.
  • "Simon and Garfunkel aren't dead."
  • "Oh, Land's End. That's really exciting. Thanks." Mae Whitman’s delivery of this line is absolutely perfect.