The balance on this season of Parenthood is all off, right? The depressing stuff is still so good. I’m still completely on board with the slow dissolution of Joel and Julia’s marriage (but mostly because I’m pretty sure that Jason Katims trained at the hand of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick and will pull out of this marital tailspin soon enough), which has been rendered in heartbreaking, intimate detail. But then you go over to one of the show’s heartwarming stories, and you’ve got… Kristina deciding to start a school for special needs kids like her own son? Preceded by Adam and Kristina talking about all of the crazy-ass schemes that shouldn’t have worked that they got involved in, like that would somehow excuse the fact that this one is somehow even crazier? What does Kristina know about starting a school? Where’s she going to get the money to do this? Didn’t Adam just decide to randomly launch a record label? Most importantly: What would Haddie say about all of this?
What I’m saying is that the stories that are seriously bumming me out are working so much better than the ones designed to make me feel slightly more optimistic about the world around me, and the imbalance has somehow gotten even more pronounced in the wake of Kristina’s loss in the mayoral election. I didn’t get to write about last week’s episode, but Drew and Amy collapsing ever deeper into a young couple’s garden of sex and co-dependence was some heavy shit, man, and unlike anything else I’d ever seen portrayed on TV. And, yeah, the return of Camille has once again become a story about Zeek, but good Lord, there’s something so magnificent about the way that the two of them seem to be drifting apart. Amber falling apart last week was a little forced, but I’m fine with that if it gives us a little time with Seth Holt. (SETH HOLT!) And so on.
But then you go over to happy land, and… have any of the happy stories worked this season? I guess occasionally there’s a Crosby one off that sorta makes me smile, but I’m getting a little tired of the way that all of his storylines are, “Oh, hey, our house has mold now.” Dax Shepherd and Joy Bryant are really fun to watch bounce off of each other, and I get that the show made them the center of a lot of its drama for a long time, so it’s probably a relief to play relatively light. But it’s like Crosby has suddenly become Ward Cleaver, while he’s surrounded by a bunch of characters in an Ingmar Bergman film, and it’s made all the more disconcerting by the fact that he hangs out with the lead of the new NBC comedy About A Boy (coming after the Olympics!) at his poker games. Similarly, Sarah is great when she intersects with one of the more serious storylines, but she seems to spend most of her time worrying over guys, and one of those guys is so uninteresting that the show basically made him a virtuous doctor who works at a non-profit because they needed her to be instantly interested in him.
But then you go over to Hank trying to deal with the revelation that he, too, might have Asperger’s, and it’s just riveting stuff, beautifully detailed and utterly unlike anything else on TV. What makes this season all the more frustrating is that Parenthood was so recently among the very best shows on TV, and it still has all of the right ingredients, but it’s like it’s forgotten what proportions they’re supposed to go in. Scenes like Hank and Max talking in the darkroom and Max teaching Hank what “perservation” means are so perfectly done that it feels all the weirder when we head over to Crosby and the Legion of Knucklehead Fart-knockers that is his every storyline. It’s like the show remembered to add the teaspoon of salt, but then figured that what the recipe actually called for was a whole cup of sugar.
Let’s go back to Joel and Julia, though, because, you guys, I am still so on board with all of this. I read Gwen’s excellent thoughts a couple of weeks ago about how this storyline was slightly off because of the way that Joel had the exact same thing happen to him back in season one (well, he wasn’t kissed by David Denman, but you know what I mean), and I can sort of superficially see it. But at the same time, I’m buying all of this hook, line, and sinker. Maybe that’s because of my own history with this topic, but the whole thing is starting to feel like a game of chicken the writers are playing with themselves, almost as surely as any marriage in freefall feels like a game to see who will blink first until you realize one partner was wholly intent on not blinking. Joel and Julia telling their kids was heartbreaking. Julia reaching over to close the door after Joel moved out was heartwrenching. The crack in Joel’s voice early in the episode when he decided they’d tell the kids “tomorrow” because they were getting along so well was expertly placed to make you think maybe… maybe he’d change his mind, but, no. Just more heart-rending sadness.
If I have a complaint here, it’s that Joel remains a little opaque in the midst of all of this. I think I understand what he’s going through, but that’s probably just me projecting my own emotions onto him. Because he’s a character who doesn’t emote all that readily, we mostly get to hear him talk about how betrayed he feels because Julia held that kiss with Ed for a half-second too long. Which is total bullshit, given his personal history! But then if you think about it, the couple has had a pretty tough time of it ever since they decided they wanted to have a second kid and couldn’t conceive. It’s been one damn thing after another, and that kiss was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. But because Joel won’t open up to Julia, we’re left wondering just what’s going on in his head as he leaves behind his wife, potentially forever. Even when he’s directly asked if he wants this to be a predecessor to a divorce, he can’t answer, because he doesn’t know yet. This is a totally sensible question to not know the answer to, but it rather feels like he’s a mystery even to himself.
Meanwhile, you have Zeek and Camille, who are another leg of Parenthood’s season of seriously testing long-running relationships. With Camille back and indulging in her hobby, Zeek is stomping around and feeling morose, because he was lonely while she was gone. For once, however, he doesn’t try to make everything about him, and he realizes that if she leaves him forever, then he’ll be really lonely. This is all pretty basic stuff, but seeing these two reconcile after Zeek agrees to sell the house was a lovely moment in an episode full of sadness. And Lord knows these two need to be together for all the stupid shit their kids are getting up to.
Look: I was on board with Adam and Kristina’s frustrations over how the school system treats Max. It’s completely unfair that they expect the school to drop everything to help their son at every turn, but it’s such an Adam and Kristina thing to want from the world. And the scene where they met with the teacher and principal so nicely underscored just how obvious it was that there was never going to be a perfect solution to this conundrum that benefited everybody. Move Max to a special-needs classroom, and he would be stuck with a bunch of low-functioning kids who wouldn’t challenge him. Keep him in the regular classroom, and you run the risk of all of the other kids having their learning interrupted by Max’s random history facts. If Adam and Kristina are going to get their son to the place where he’s Hank, then they’re going to need to find a way to get him through a high school system that doesn’t seem to much care about the needs of kids on the spectrum.
So enter Kristina’s brilliant idea to do an Internet search (on what appeared to be generic Bing, which is just the weirdest way to design your TV search engine) about starting her own school. The problem with a storyline like this, just like the problem with a storyline about Kristina running for mayor, is that Parenthood is not really a show that cares about process. It’s a show that cares about big, swelling waves of emotion that carry you along from episode to episode, not about the slow, meticulous work of building something lasting. The show does a lot of hand-waving when it comes to questions of how these people make money or how Adam and Crosby run a recording studio or… most anything, but that’s usually okay because the emotions save the day. Yet starting up a school is so far outside of any sort of story comfort zone you might arrive at for Kristina that it feels as if it was arrived at utterly at random, even though it kinda, sorta naturally stems from her frustrations over Max’s education if you squint. But it’s also the most privileged kind of reaction to a problem like this. How many people can respond to worries about what’s going on at their kid’s school by starting a rival school? And how on Earth are Adam and Kristina among them?
But we should probably worry about that at a later date, because this episode also contains everything we love about Parenthood, particularly in the final scene. That moment when Julia tells her parents that her marriage might be over, and Camille crosses the space between her and her daughter in what feels like a nanosecond is just a beautiful reminder of how easily this show can tug at the heartstrings when it wants to. And the whole setup of sneakily arriving at a story where Julia goes to her parents’ house, while Crosby and Jasmine are already there, ends up working because it sets up this wondrous final moment. Parenthood isn’t getting everything right this year, but so long as it gets these little things right, I’ll stick with it through any rough patch.
- Sorry this is a little late. I’m overcoming my time at the TCA press tour. Thanks to Gwen and Carrie for taking over these past two weeks. They did fantastic work!
- Sarah’s storyline is nice and all, but it’s also literally a story about whether she’s going to shoot surfboards at the beach or in a studio, then Photoshop them into more generic beach pictures. And, yeah, I get that this is all about her getting her confidence back or something, but it felt like a lot of ridiculous fighting for no reason.
- Braverman of the week: Sydney. At last her hour is at hand. (And more seriously, why would you leave, Joel?! Why would you upset Sydney!?!!?!?!?)
- Did anyone mention Haddie and/or Piecat even tangentially?: No and no. I’m starting to think the show doesn’t believe that having someone say, “Hey, I just got off the phone with Haddie!” is the best use of a couple of seconds of screentime, even though we’re all just worried about her. Also: Can you imagine the conversation she has with her parents when they proudly announce her mother is the proud owner of a new school?
- Dr. Nice Guy just isn’t working as a character, is he? It’s to the point where I can’t remember his name unless he’s on screen, telling me his name.
- At NBC’s executive session at TCA, network president Bob Greenblatt gave us Parenthood fans some dim flickers of slight hope when he said that while the show has struggled at 10 p.m., he’s hopeful a deal can be worked out to bring it back. After all, it’s kept the lights on in a timeslot that NBC has struggled with for years, even after following the molten disaster hole that has been the Sean Saves The World followed by Michael J. Fox Show hour. I’m not holding my breath, but at least a renewal wouldn’t absolutely surprise me at this point. Also: If he brings back the show, the setting for the sixth season has to be the Hell Circus, right?
- That’s all for now! See you all on February 27, when we’ll presumably run out the last eight episodes of the season in a row! Enjoy some ice dancing in the meantime.