In my other life here as a book critic, I review a lot of short story collections. Short stories are such a weird, unique little art form. To be sure, there have been great adaptations of short stories over the years, but the vast majority of them are resolutely interior, based around characters having an emotional epiphany, having their lives come to a head in one tiny moment that probably doesn’t even register for the others around them. The problem with this is that there’s no good way to dramatize it. You could have voiceover talking about how the main character has suddenly realized how unhappy he is or how much he loves his wife or something. You could bring it up clumsily in dialogue. Or you could come up with some sort of visual metaphor (usually the best approach). But taking something so inherently interior and making it exterior is often a fool’s errand.
One of the things I like about Parenthood – even when it kind of sucks – is that it bases nearly every one of its storylines around some small, tiny moment like this. At the same time, it couches those tiny moments in some larger conflict, so it feels more like a TV show. I realize that this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the show can be interpreted both as a glossy family soap-edy and as a tiny little show about the inner lives of a bunch of people in a big, messed-up family. Tonight’s episode, I thought, was the best of season one so far because it did a much better job of balancing the small with the big than the other episodes we’ve seen. So let’s take a look at what each of the kids was up to tonight.
Adam and Kristina: I complain about Monica Potter and Kristina a lot here, but the plot tonight, where she starts going to a support group for other parents with kids with Asperger’s (and Adam refuses to go), was the episode’s highlight. Just one look at Potter’s tear-streaked face as she listened to somebody else describe what they’re going through and realized she was going through the same thing, and I was sold. The big, exterior conflict here was whether Adam would eventually attend the group with Kristina, even though he thought the whole thing was unnecessary (Adam can be a real jackass, right?). But the interior conflict was, again, how these two are going to deal with the fact that their son has Asperger’s and that he’s always going to have it. The reason the show is able to get away with playing this interior conflict over and over is because a.) it’s the sort of thing people take a long time to adjust to and b.) Jason Katims is damn good at writing these kinds of scenes. When Adam confessed to the group that he dreads the day he has to tell Max just why he’s different, it was one of the show’s finest moments, and it was so, so quiet. Well done.
Sarah: Sadly, Lauren Graham got stuck with my least favorite plot of the episode, something about being enticed by her boss – William Baldwin, still playing a leftover character from the days of Petticoat Junction – and going to a big, fancy-schmancy convention and preparing for it using the wiles of Amber and a little help from Facebook. The big, exterior conflict here was whether Sarah would succeed at being her boss’ right-hand gal at the convention (and of course she did). The interior conflict was about whether she’d be able to resist his charms and whether she’d be OK with her small, relatively poverty-ridden life (and burgeoning relationship) after hanging out with Billy B. It seems like this is going to play out over a few episodes, but here, it left quite a bit to be desired.
Amber: Amber got her own mini-plotline that doesn’t deserve more than a few sentences. The big, exterior conflict was whether she’d stand up to Kelsie about buying drugs with the money she borrowed from her mom. The interior conflict was whether she’d realize that taking the money and using it to buy drugs was kind of a bad thing to pull on her mother. I liked the way this storyline and Sarah’s storyline subtly commented on each other (the two are at their best when their storylines roughly parallel each other), but there really wasn’t a lot TO this storyline, and the exterior and interior conflicts were resolved clumsily in a big, showy speech.
Crosby and Jasmine: Somehow, Crosby and Jasmine have enough money to send Jabbar to the same private school as Sydney. My issues with the plausibility of this aside (wasn’t Crosby supposed to be the guy who was pleased with low-stress, low-income life last season?), I liked the way this just burbled along in the background. The big, exterior conflict was whether Jabbar would get into the school and just what Crosby and Jasmine would have to do to get him into that private school. The small, interior conflict was about just how much these two are ready to deepen their commitment. Setting aside the fact that pretending to be a married couple to get your kid into school is a stupid idea – since you will surely be found out, and you should know that if you’ve ever seen any other TV show that used this plot device – I liked this almost wholly because of one moment, when Crosby is babbling on to the school official about how he’d love to take the kids to see his studio, and Jasmine smiles and looks down at her fake wedding ring. A lovely, small moment that used the big, exterior conflict (the two are lying about their marital status) to comment on the interior one (they’re rapidly approaching the point where they probably should be married). Again, well done.
Julia and Joel: I feel like I’ve seen the plot where a small child keeps sleeping with her parents because she’s scared on other shows, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. That’s not to say this has never been used before (because it surely has), but it’s fair game, since it seems it’s been at least a while since it turned up. Anyway, the exterior here involved whether the two would figure out a way to get Sydney to sleep on her own again, while the interior was all about how Julia and Joel just need a little time to themselves, about how having a kid completely removes the version of you that’s not a parent from the equation for at least a few years. Julia and Joel were my least favorite part of the show last season, but I like the way the show is using them to tell really small-scale stories this season, and this was another good one for them, particularly Julia’s final speech about the “love bubble,” which balanced humor and heart really well (precisely because it was kind of stupid).
Zeek and Camille: Here’s the most blatantly comedic storyline of the episode, but it’s just nice to see these two getting a storyline of any kind. The exterior? Zeek and Camille decide to take ballroom dancing lessons as part of their marriage repair work, but they end up dancing with other people – Zeek with a guy named Gay Tony – and that makes Camille a bit disgruntled. The interior? That was all about how these two, who came so close to calling it quits, have begun to realize that there’s still something alive of the love they held for each other. It’s hard to write a scene where one character tells another that he loves her, but the show made Zeek’s confession of that to Camille very sweet indeed.
- I’ve been looking at the promotional photos for next week’s Halloween episode on the NBC press site for a few weeks now, and for some reason, all I can think of when seeing them is “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.”
- Hattie ends up in the background, for the most part, in this episode, but I’m glad to see her nonetheless (I don’t think we saw Sarah’s other kid – that nameless boy that sometimes wanders through – at all). Hattie’s so enjoyable in her utter ordinariness.
- Kelsie’s boy-crush-thing is kind of disturbing looking.
- "Can I talk to you about something that's probably going to annoy you?"
- "The only thing I'm doing different is I'm dancing with gay Tony."