Look, the Parenthood Christmas episode is ridiculous. There’s a major plot point that resolves with the appearance of a guy who just might be the real Santa Claus, and the show plays it with only the slightest of winks. I mean, yeah, he’s not the real Santa, just some guy dressed up like him to visit sick children in a hospital, but c’mon, Katims! You got your start writing for Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, and those guys pretty much undermined the “real Santa appears” trope for all time back in the thirtysomething episode “The Mike Van Dyke Show.” You really think we’re going to buy this now, in an otherwise straight-faced episode about Kristina having a serious health scare?
As it turns out, sure. I’ll go with it. There’s no better time of year for an ooey, gooey lovefest, complete with hints of supernatural intervention from a benevolent man in a red suit than Christmastime, and while this one leaned a little hard on the treacle button for even me, a renowned Christmas enthusiast, it was still packed with some great, necessary moments. NBC is billing this as the “fall finale,” which is just silly, since it’ll be back fairly quickly, and there are only four episodes left in the whole season, but if you look at the episode that way, then it accomplished its goal. Nearly every storyline that was at a crossroads has come to a kind of closure, and Victor believes in Santa Claus again, which was something we were all very concerned about, I know.
Okay, not every story has come to a kind of closure. Kristina’s still sick, but she’s moved out of the septic shock that put her in the hospital when the episode began. The show had moved her cancer to the back burner for a couple of episodes, the better to deal with some of the other storylines, and that was the right call, if only to not make the season too maudlin. And, yes, dovetailing a resurgence in her illness (which is, strictly speaking, only related to her cancer because her white blood cell count is so low, thanks to the chemo) with a Christmas episode allows for lots and lots of sap, but Katims is cunning and clever. Katims knows that we’ll accept more sap in a Christmas episode than we would in a January episode, and he knows that this may be the only time of year when having Adam tear up at the video Kristina made saying goodbye to all of her kids won’t set off our alarms, make us roll our eyes, and say, “Oh, c’mon, Katims!” Jason Katims is nothing if not a fine student of when and how to use TV sap, and that’s why he gets away with it so often. Hell, I’ll even go with Adam leaning forward into an impromptu prayer because it doesn’t violate any established character traits (like I suspected would happen when Jasmine went out to the back porch alone—to pray! I feared, since that would violate who she’s been established as). Yeah, it’s a little It’s A Wonderful Life, but it was also a quietly beautiful moment of desperation for a man who had nowhere else to turn.
Meanwhile, Amber is dealing with the fallout from Ryan skipping out on the construction job she got him. Or, rather, not dealing with it, because Ryan didn’t bother telling her that he walked off the job site. Now, I’m not entirely sure just what he did tell her. That he got fired? Did he pretend to go to work every day and actually just hide in his apartment? Did he just hope she’d never talk to Joel again and mostly talk around the issue? Practical concerns aside, once Amber finds out he didn’t ever go back to work, from Julia, no less, she goes and asks him, tearfully, to talk to Joel. Instead, he takes her car out at all hours, gets drunk, and scratches it up, leaving her worried and minus one rear-view mirror. They have a fight. She cries. If there’s one rule this show knows it can always lean on, it’s the “Nobody better make Mae Whitman cry!” rule. That the show never overuses the always reliable tears of Ms. Whitman makes them that much more powerful when they arrive, and when she breaks into tears, out of fear and frustration and anguish, it’s hard not to join her.
The “Amber dates Ryan” storyline has been playing backup to the Kristina’s cancer arc as the designated “serious” arc this season, so it’s fitting that it would also reach a crisis point in this episode. What’s great about it, though, is that it subtly also informs whatever Sarah’s doing over in her storyline (about which more in a second). Amber’s learned from watching her mother that you can’t just prop someone up your whole life. You can’t hope that someone you love will turn into a better person out of nowhere. You have to give them the chance to grow on their own, and if it’s all really worth it, you’ll find your way back to each other, perhaps. But you need to protect yourself, no matter how much you love someone. The show’s gotten so much mileage out of the relationship between Sarah and Amber over the years—it was one of the few things that worked in some of season one’s worst episodes, for instance—but it’s rarely put them in the same scene this season. This is a nice, subtle reminder of the bond they share; that it also reinforces Sarah’s storyline is an added perk.
Because I don’t know what the hell Sarah’s up to! I mean, technically, I do: She and Mark broke up, so she’s evidently just moved on to Hank right away for whatever reason. Rebound guy? She’s really been in love with him this whole time? Katims wants to ward Jason Ritter away from craft services, and the only way he knows how is to have Lauren Graham kiss Ray Romano, and thus remind Ritter of everything he’s lost? I don’t really know, honestly. I get that Sarah makes impulsive, spur of the moment decisions and that that’s gotten her into the place she’s in today. I also get that she and Hank are full of the Christmas spirit. But I do think it’s a little jarring for the show to have her engagement break up, then have her immediately sleep with Hank in the next episode. True to character? Sure. Not as jarring as cutting to commercial with Adam weeping to God not to take Kristina from him, then returning with the family happily opening presents? Definitely. (And if you watched that transition on DVR like I did, it was super weird.) But I do think that the audience itself needs a little time to process the death of Sarah and Mark’s relationship, and that’s why it feels so strange to have Sarah and Hank immediately hooking up. I get there are only 15 episodes this season, and we probably need to come up with a whole “Sarah and Hank break up” arc now (unless Romano is sticking around), but it’s still jarring.
The other two stories are mostly there to fill in the gaps. Crosby and Jasmine take care of Max and Nora while Adam and Kristina are in the hospital, and this leads them to want to have another baby. (Crosby being so flummoxed by Nora not having pants on was a highlight for me, at least.) Meanwhile, Victor tells Sydney there is no Santa Claus, so Zeek has to run some interference and tell the kids a story about when he was younger and saw Santa while he was riding a bus to his grandparents’ house. It’s all very sweet and nice, but it’s also a little holiday syrupy, which throws off the tone of an episode that’s been holiday sappy, but not too much, you know? Once Zeek is insisting that Santa’s really real, and then the real frickin’ Santa Claus is showing up at the hospital, all restraint goes out the window. Still, it’s Christmas, and I like Christmas, and this is the sort of thing a show can only get away with at Christmas. So I wasn’t too worried. Let’s just not have Victor and Sydney meet any man-sized rabbits come Easter, Katims. I’m watching you.
- Okay, it’s not the real Santa Claus. It’s some guy in a suit. But I want to believe.
- With how earnestly Zeek speaks about Santa and with how nonreligious the Bravermans have been shown to be in the past, did anybody sort of sneakily hope that Adam would be revealed to be praying to Santa Claus, and then we’d just gradually learn the Bravermans are part of a Santa-worshipping cult? So just me then? Great.
- I’m not one of those people who cries at every episode, but the scene where Adam asked Zeek if he could stay just a little while longer definitely got to me. Just the right amount of restraint there and some lovely acting from Peter Krause and Craig T. Nelson.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Parenthood: Do I even need to tell you what this section is here for? You know why. Yeah. You do.
- Man, the show sure wasted one of Sarah Ramos’ appearances, didn’t it? I thought for sure when Adam woke up in the chair, he was going to see Hattie standing there, bringing the magic of Christmas with her, but she just shows up to hugs over that musical montage, after nearly getting stranded in unspecified city east of San Francisco.
- Speaking of the music, Katims and his music supervisor did a nice job of grabbing many of the songs on my Christmas playlist, though they overloaded on the schmaltz toward the end.
- Braverman of the week: Santa Claus. We’ll see you in 2013!