Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Parenthood: “Family Portrait”

Illustration for article titled Parenthood: “Family Portrait”

Hey, Parenthood! I know how foreshadowing works. Thanks.

“Family Portrait,” the fourth season première of the series, is a neat piece of business. After a third season finale that occasionally seemed like it was working as hard as possible to close off every storyline it could think of, “Family Portrait” is nicely small-scale. It’s about the idea of belonging, the idea of when you can really know that you’re part of a family. It bookends this idea with Haddie, who’s spending her last few days at home with her parents before heading off to college, and Victor, who was adopted by Joel and Julia five months ago but still doesn’t seem like he fits in. The episode doesn’t overtly comment on this, mostly trusting us to understand it on our own, but it still makes room for a lovely, unexpected scene between Haddie and Victor, two people crossing paths for a little while before life yanks them in different directions.

The première also asks just when Mark will belong in the Braverman family. Sure, he and Sarah are engaged—despite a lack of ring and wedding date—but the Bravermans have had bad luck letting people who aren’t officially married into the family into those family portraits of theirs. The episode opens with Camille looking over an old picture featuring Crosby with some girl he was sure was the one, though the two broke up shortly thereafter. Mark cajoles his way into the portrait by sweet-talking Camille and Zeek, and this is when everybody’s foreshadowing alarms should start going off. Someone who’s not a family member yet crashing a Braverman family portrait? Even though this has just been established as something the Bravermans care about, I think it’s pretty obvious what the dramatic irony is pointing at here. And like everything else on this show, I simultaneously can’t wait to see it play out and hope it doesn’t happen.

“Family Portrait” is fairly story-light, all things considered. There’s stuff going on, but it’s all very tiny when you think about it. Haddie heading off to school is a pretty big deal, but everything else is fairly small. Joel and Julia struggle with how to approach Victor being their son. Sarah gets a new job and has some heart-to-heart talks with Mark. Amber sleeps with a guy, then finds out he has a girlfriend. Adam tries to play the over-protective dad (and/or uncle). Crosby and Jasmine deal with the fact that Jasmine’s mother is teaching Jabbar about her religion, something they’re not sure they want his grandma to be doing. (Both are secular, rather than Christian like grandma.) There are storylines here that would have been played for major drama in seasons past—like that Amber story—but in this episode, they’re mostly dealt with gently and with good humor. These people are all older and wiser than they were when the show began.

That’s a good thing, of course. Parenthood always makes the case that these people are learning from their mistakes and becoming better people, particularly the teenagers. Scenes such as Haddie’s quiet patience with her brother as she says her goodbye to him or Amber telling Adam why it was inappropriate for him to tell the band they could no longer record at the studio, show how these kids—who really did start out as kids—are now becoming competent and worldly young adults. In earlier seasons, Amber sleeping with a guy who had a girlfriend would have caused her to go into a tailspin. Here, she gets angry briefly, handles it, then is the one telling Adam that he’s in the wrong. In some ways, the grandchildren of Camille and Zeek Braverman seem better suited to dealing with the world than their children do.

Of the most interest to me in this episode was how Joel and Julia would be getting along with Victor. The answer to this question is that the boy is still something of a glorified houseguest in the Graham home. He watches whatever he wants on TV, squirts Easy Cheese into his mouth while doing so, and steals Max’s lizard because Max isn’t very nice to him. As the episode ends, Joel points out to Julia that if Victor is their son, then they’re going to have to treat him as such, not like somebody who’s just crashing at their place for a few months. He’s a troubled kid, with a family history we don’t even know about yet, and if Julia and Joel are going to help him, they’ll need to be his parents first, and then his friends later. Julia saying that she worries she’s still waiting to fall in love with her son is a killer of a tear-jerking moment, ending a quiet storyline in powerful fashion. There’s lots of ways for this story—about two affluent white people adopting a troubled Latino boy—to step wrong and inadvertently create the sense that white folks always know best, but this is a promising start that suggests Jason Katims and his writers are aware of the pitfalls and ready to navigate this minefield.


Sarah, meanwhile, gets a new job with photographer Hank Rizzoli, played by Ray Romano. While the character may be named Hank, the show isn’t fooling anyone: This is obviously Romano’s character from the late, lamented TNT series Men Of A Certain Age, ported in wholesale to make things difficult for the Bravermans. It seems obvious that the show is heading for some sort of romantic triangle where Hank becomes a rival for Sarah’s affections, thus gradually forcing Mark out of that family portrait, but I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. Despite all of that, I liked Hank quite a bit. Romano’s turned into a wonderfully naturalistic actor, and the moments where his gruff manner turned off his clients or where he and Max seemed to quickly bond were nicely textured. You don’t bring in an actor of Romano’s stature and caliber unless you’re going to do a love triangle storyline, but I almost hope that this is just a story about Sarah entering into an unlikely partnership with a new boss she doesn’t see eye to eye with. I’ve just seen enough other television shows to be wary.

Even when the show is worrying me with all of this foreshadowing, though, I love the way this episode always comes back to the fluidity and ever-shifting nature of a family. Families grow. They gain members and lose them. Kids go off all the way across the country, then come back home. Spouses enter, then leave. (How many of those family portraits feature Seth?) Children are born or are adopted. Older family members—like the father in the family portrait Sarah helps Hank photograph—pass away. It’s that fluidity, that way that things always keep changing, that keeps this episode grounded. Occasionally, episodes this small scale can feel forced, but “Family Portrait” snapped into place for me in the moment where Haddie stared at that timeline of old photos of herself, a past drifting just out of her line of sight until she stopped to focus on it. And that’s all a camera lens is, really. It’s something that zeroes in on a particular moment and freezes it just long enough for future generations to appreciate it. The Braverman family portraits aren’t just a tradition. They’re pictures of an organism in transition, ever evolving toward something more perfect.


Stray observations:

  • How Parenthood would solve the unemployment crisis: Help Wanted signs. Lots and lots of them. And if somebody asks about them, you offer them a tryout on the job on the spot. (Offer only good for Lauren Graham.)
  • It’s rare to see a story about religious conflicts in raising children that doesn’t come down on the side of teaching the kid to believe in something, but this episode opts for Crosby’s gentle secular humanism as what he wants to leave Jabbar with. It’s implied that if Grandma wants to teach Jabbar about her religion, that’s okay, but Crosby and Jasmine are going to teach him there are other ways of living, too. It’s unabashedly pro-secularism, but in that really sweet, Parenthood-y way.
  • The final scene with Haddie leaving her parents for once and for all is another tear-jerker, and it marks Sarah Ramos’ transition from regular cast member to recurring player. Haddie will be back throughout the season, but she’s no longer going to be a series regular. That’s too bad. I always liked her, particularly when she was dealing with Max. And for that, let’s make Haddie our Braverman Of The Week.
  • Doesn’t it feel like we’re missing a scene between when Adam and Kristina have that mini-tiff with Haddie (after which she heads off to spend more time with her friends before leaving for college) and when Haddie shows up at the party? It feels like there’s a conflict there that gets resolved suddenly and abruptly.
  • Drew gets a storyline, something I never thought would happen in a season première. Granted, it’s just him welcoming his girlfriend back after an extended time away, but it’s also clear she’s no longer keen on him, so we can expect lots of red-hot Drew angst in the weeks to come.
  • I realize that children grow up, but doesn’t it seem like Savannah Paige Rae has aged four years between last season and this one? She was clearly seven or eight last season, and now she seems like she’s 11.
  • Something I found on the “List Of Parenthood Characters” Wikipedia page that I found amusing: The page describes Nora, a baby, thusly: “It is yet to be determined what gifts or challenges she will obtain.” Indeed, Wikipedia. Indeed.