It’s been such an excellent season for Parenthood that there was inevitably going to be an episode that hit a bit of a lull, and this one is it. It’s not that the episode is bad or anything—okay, maybe the thing with Crosby and Pamela Adlon (playing a Luncheonette neighbor named “Marleeze,” of all things) is bad—but it does feel like sort of a standalone hour of whatever-ness in the midst of this season. There’s nothing wrong with this. One of the best episodes of Parenthood ever is almost completely standalone. And it’s necessary to have these tiny pauses that take us back from the epic drama of everything else that’s going on. That doesn’t make these episodes feel any less small, though, or any less like they’re just there, a little bump that happens between bigger events.
The only storyline I outright disliked was the Crosby one. At first, it just seems like a weird little thing that the episode keeps cutting to to give the guy something to do, but as it goes on and deepens, it becomes obvious that it’s all about how Crosby needs Adam around or something similar. It all builds to that moment when Julia tells Crosby that his business could be shut down because of Marleeze, but that’s a moment weirdly without drama. It’s possible this really all will build to something where the Luncheonette is taken from Crosby and Adam, and Adam explodes in righteous anger at his brother, and the family splinters apart. (Or something like that!) But for right now, this just feels like a weird story that’s there to kill time, with Pamela Adlon throwing around CDs and Crosby finding himself barely able to restrain his sarcastic side when having to deal with her. (It also features a cameo from musicians that I’m afraid I am just not hip enough to identify.)
Better is the story of Joel and Julia. Lots of us were worried that once Julia left work, she was going to discover that being a stay-at-home mom was just great, because Hollywood has never met a traditional gender role it didn’t mind conforming to. Instead, she’s found that while she likes spending the extra time with her kids, she’s just not fulfilled by being a stay-at-home mom. Spending time with the other moms getting coffee or making homemade pasta or sitting around aren’t enough. This is a pretty big step for the show. As you might recall, when the series began, one of the biggest criticisms against it was that it settled for the too-easy storyline for a character in Julia’s position: She was torn between work life and home life. It’s bad enough that people keep going to this well, since it’s so overdone, but it’s even worse that it’s a storyline that seems to apply almost exclusively to women. Julia was supposed to feel subtly shamed for putting her career ahead of her kid, for letting her husband do the majority of the child-rearing while she was a big success.
Now, the show is tacitly acknowledging that Julia could be a stay-at-home mom, but only for a little while. Having to put her career on hold might have been rewarding on some levels, and it’s certainly helped Julia get closer to Victor. But it’s also given her this big lump of time she calls “her day,” a lump of time she’s increasingly uncertain how to fill. When Joel takes a job as a foreman on a new construction job, she leaps down his throat for not putting Victor first, as they’d agreed to do. In reality, only she had agreed to do that, and as she reflects on why she feels this way, she realizes that it’s because on some level, she’s terrified this will become the new status quo. She’s not satisfied, and she’s never going to be satisfied by this. I suppose there’s a chance that Joel telling her to enjoy the first free time she’s ever had in her life turns into a storyline where she realizes just how much she loves this, but I somehow doubt that. The old Julia isn’t gone, magically replaced by a happy homemaker. She’s just been put in a box for a little bit, while this version of Julia deals with some stuff. (It is worth pointing out here just how much I’m enjoying the performance of Erika Christensen this season. She’s making Julia’s naturally high-strung nature weirdly endearing.)
There’s also an Adam and Kristina storyline, though the two of them move to the back-burner a bit. Unlike the last few weeks of heavy cancer drama, we get a storyline that’s only tangentially related to said drama, as the couple first gets Max to relent and let his student council put on a dance, via some fancy talk about democracy. This isn’t the main conflict, however, as what we’re really here for is seeing if Kristina can persuade Max to go to the dance, in one of the fancy new shirts she bought him. (Collared shirts are uncomfortable, he protests. These are really soft, she replies.) As in the Julia storyline, we discover that what Kristina is really upset about is that she doesn’t know if there will be more school dances in her future. If she dies, she won’t get this chance to see Max all dressed up. So Adam talks Max into going for a half hour, and Kristina shows him how to dance. It’s a sweet scene, and the cancer storyline is doing a solid job of keeping everything in this particular branch of the show in check. It’s always there, sucking everything toward it with its gravitational pull, just as a real, life-threatening disease would.
The final storyline is the one I reserve the most ire for, though I think it’s more or less well done for what it is (unlike the Crosby story). Mark wants Sarah to go with him to a wedding they’ve been planning on attending for weeks. Hank wants her to accompany him down to Los Angeles while he tries to persuade his wife not to take his daughter to Minnesota. Can you guess which she wants to do? Yes, we appear to have begun the death spiral of the Mark-and-Sarah relationship, and it’s not entirely clear why anyone’s doing anything, other than Jason Katims wanting Jason Ritter to stop stealing from craft services once and for all. Yes, there’s a certain amount of chemistry between Hank and Sarah, and yes, it makes sense why she’d be so drawn to his plight with his daughter (particularly as a proxy for her feelings about her own kids and their dad). But it’s also not immediately clear why things with Mark have soured, since the few times we’ve seen him, he’s been doing his best to be the best fiancé he can be. The best we have to go on is the fact that last season, the age difference between the two was so significant and examined so much. I’m holding out hope there will be some sort of miraculous reversal next week, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable scene when Sarah realizes her true feelings for Hank. Not one bit.
- Oh, there is an Amber storyline, too, as she realizes just how little she understands what Ryan has been through and turns to her grandpa to get a better idea. There’s a very nice scene between Zeek and Amber that might be the highlight of the episode, but this also feels like a stopgap between last week’s dramatics and whatever is coming.
- Drew continues to be TV’s most amusingly sulky teenager, this week upset that he can’t turn the Cyr apartment into a love shack with Amy while Sarah and Mark are gone to the wedding.
- Braverman of the week: Max, who sets aside his clear discomfort with going to the dance for the benefit of his mom. I hope we find out next week that he got at least one girl to dance with him. Middle school girls can be cruel, Max! Stay strong! (Just how old is he supposed to be anyway?)
- The delivery Peter Krause brings to this line makes it. There’s no way I could replicate it in print: “I have a book for you about World War II fighter pilots you have not read.” Just listen to the way he uses pauses to make this weirdly hilarious.
- How long has it been since we got a nice, big fight between Julia and Joel? That one felt like the first one in a long time.