Though I watch a lot of TV, there’s very little overlap between what I watch and the things my family watches. Like most of America, my parents watch a fair amount of CBS, and I can never precisely figure out just what my sister’s taste in television is. Yet Parenthood is something we all watch, something I can more or less count on them reading my reviews for. (It’s why I swear so much less here.) But as I watched the show tonight with another family member—my grandmother, who was seeing it for the first time—it struck me just how hard it is to pin the show down if you’ve never seen it. All of us are reasonably invested in the Bravermans adventures because we’ve been following them for three-plus seasons now. But if you’ve never seen the show before, it doesn’t have an obvious drive behind it. It’s a cheesy sports movie at one moment, a cutting legal drama at another, and an awkward comedy at still another.
Obviously, this is one of the things I love about the show, but it may be why it’s also perpetually ratings-starved. The TV shows that succeed tend to be the ones that are instantly boiled down to just a few words, with conflict, characters, and suggested plots all implied by those words. Parenthood, on the other hand, can pretty much be boiled down to, “There’s this family, I guess?” and while that low-stakes, small-scale approach to storytelling is what has helped the show become the terrific series it is today, it’s also somewhat impenetrable to the newly initiated. My grandmother kept dozing off in the middle of the episode—as those who’ve lived long lives are wont to do—and when she woke up, it almost seemed as if she was worried she’d slept through the show we’d been watching and woken up to something entirely different, particularly when cutting between, say, the Kristina cancer storyline and the much less serious “Zeek tries to hook up a veteran with his granddaughter” storyline.
“There’s Something I Need To Tell You” is scripted by series developer and executive producer Jason Katims, which indicates it’s meant to be an important episode in the season. (Head writers usually grab the episodes that are most important to the season’s arc or the ones they’ve got the most personal passion for.) And to be sure, “Tell You” tosses a lot of balls up in the air, then mostly catches them by the end. I like that the season’s big conflicts—Kristina’s cancer, Victor’s impact on the Braverman-Grahams—are present in the episode, but Katims also sets up some new storylines to boot. Amber and Ryan seem to hit it off at Victor’s baseball game. Hank kisses Sarah. And—in the only storyline confined entirely to this episode—Crosby asks to be paid more for his work at the Luncheonette. (This storyline barely deserves to be called one, as Adam is at first grumpy about it, as you’d expect, and then he acquiesces to Crosby’s request, as you’d expect.)
If the episode has a central theme, it has to do with the series’ women, who are among the most capable, fully realized female characters on TV, but haven’t gotten as much to do in the first three seasons of the show as the male characters. (Well, Sarah and Amber were incredibly important to the arc of season one, I guess, but then the show fell into a repetitive rhythm with them.) For as much as the show treats the Zeek plots as goofy throwaways, at least he gets plots. Camille is usually forced to back him up or stand off to the side and rant about stuff. The other women too often fall into the role of “wives” or “daughters,” and the show has always struggled to know what to do with Julia. That’s all shifting in season four.
Tonight’s episode links together the two Braverman daughters facing entirely separate workplace problems that seem to be based on inaccurate perceptions driven by their femininity. Sarah receives a kiss from Hank in the darkroom, and while the whole thing is played as a will-they/won’t-they storyline, it also touches on some intriguing hints of sexual harassment. The scene where she tells him that she feels uncomfortable around him because she doesn’t know if that is going to happen again is well-written. Even if there’s a spark between the two—and there clearly is—the workplace isn’t the place to cultivate it under such parameters, particularly when Sarah has a fiancé she obviously loves. She can’t be worried about getting randomly kissed at work, because she needs to be able to do her job. It’s as good a summation of why sexual harassment is A Problem as I’ve seen, but it’s done in such a way that the show leaves itself space for a future will-they/won’t-they and to be rather non-confrontational about the whole thing, all things considered. (That said, I continue to hope the show won’t make Sarah and Hank a thing. The interest is obviously much more from him, and Jason Ritter needs his Little Debbie snack cakes, Katims.)
Meanwhile, Julia is in trouble at work. She failed to file a something or other (I hate legal terms), and it means that the firm could not only lose a significant portion of its business, but also be sued for legal malpractice. She would probably lose her job in either event, and it’s all because she’s been so focused on the Victor situation. What I like about this is that it isn’t entirely clear-cut. Julia deserves a second chance, if anybody does, but she also seriously, seriously fucked up. Still, the ultimatum her bosses make to her is an overly harsh one: If she ever wants to be partner (or, it’s implied, keep her job), then she needs to make work her number one priority and push family out of the center of her life. Obviously, Julia’s superiors are right to punish her for what she did, but it’s also hard for me to imagine such a thing happening to a man. Would he be asked to choose between work and family? It strikes me as unlikely, at least not unless he’d been making serious fuck-ups for a very long time. And in that situation, he’d probably just be fired. The way her superiors speak to Julia is condescending and unnecessary. If they want to reprimand her, they’re going about it in a seemingly sexist way.
I’m not trying to suggest that Parenthood is striking a great blow for feminism or anything with this storyline. It’s very clear that what we’re doing is belatedly dealing with the consequences of Julia and Joel’s decision to adopt a 10-year-old boy who’s always known another life, and even if we never get to see those six months when she was checked out of work because of the Victor situation, a choice I think is hurting the season somewhat, it’s nice to know the show hasn’t tried to send them down some memory hole. Julia hasn’t been herself, and it’s not as simple as some “women who have to work and have children can never have it all!” storyline, as the show often used in season one. This is a more complicated situation on all sides, and while it’s obvious that we’re headed to some sort of “Julia reprioritizes her family” storyline, it’s also nice that the show at least considers how saying something like this would sound to a woman.
The final major storyline is also very female-friendly. Kristina has slowly begun to tell people about her breast cancer, and the person she and Adam tell first is Haddie, who, with good reason, takes the news poorly. This storyline also hinges on ideas of communication between men and women, but it’s much less about sexism or workplace relations than it is about how hard it is for parents to finally start relating to their children as adults. When Haddie finally just asks her father point-blank to tell her about her mother’s cancer like he would a fellow adult, it’s a moving moment, particularly because of the way Peter Krause immediately snaps into a very clinical description of what’s going on, even as he’s got tears glistening in his eyes. This is hard for him, not just on the level of it being his wife he’s talking about, but on the level of it being his daughter he’s talking to. And when Kristina finally tells everybody else, after telling her children, at the post-baseball game dinner, it’s another perfectly realized moment, even if there’s slow-mo for some reason. The looks on the characters’ faces as they take in this news are great, and the episode focuses, again, on what seems to be the season’s major theme: How do you tell someone news they desperately don’t want to hear, even as you know you must tell them?
- Braverman of the week: Julia, for first going a little manic and then for getting all professional as she’s telling her bosses that, no, she’s not going to say she’ll focus on work to the exclusion of her family, because are they insane?
- Max seems relatively unaffected by the news of his mother’s cancer, but there’s a moment when he asks Amber about it, and it’s the perfect acknowledgement of how deeply this news has shaken him.
- Look, I like Matt Lauria as much as anybody, but I’m not immediately sure why Zeek is so fascinated with him, unless he’s a stealth Friday Night Lights fan.
- I’m guessing Ryan and Mark are around the same age, so if Sarah and Amber both were engaged, they could totally have the world’s weirdest double wedding.
- I’m taking points off for the baseball game montage, which was very odd and kind of out of nowhere.