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

Parenthood: “The M Word”

Illustration for article titled Parenthood: “The M Word”

Toward the end of this episode—specifically in the charming scene where Jasmine goes to pick up Crosby and the band in her minivan of product placement—my wife remarked that a good episode of Parenthood is one where you start out kind of hating everybody in it, then find yourself coming around on a handful of them by the end. We’ve talked often enough here about how I think the show’s strength is its way of making the characters exactly as irritating as your own family but never quite crossing the line to the point where you actively hate them (just like your own family!), so I tend to agree with my wife’s assessment. But I’m going to just admit that this episode was touch and go for a while. I didn’t quite understand why some of the conflicts were happening, and many of the characters behaved like douchebags just to spur those conflicts. But that’s okay, because most of these storylines resolved themselves in the end.

Let’s talk about the storyline that spurred my wife’s realization first. Crosby being an asshole about needing a “cool car” makes sense, I guess, but it also feels like a story we’ve done a million times with these characters before. Crosby is a young, happening dude, and he doesn’t need to be tied down by the fact that he’s a family man now, even if he’s devoted to Jasmine and his children. So he’s occasionally going to throw petty tantrums about how he doesn’t want to get a minivan. This storyline was mostly a bust until the scene outlined above, but I found a kind of amusement out of it by imagining that all of this was the show’s writing staff sighing about having to do a product placement storyline and putting their own indignations into Crosby’s mouth. Without that, he just seems sort of childish for the sake of being childish, and while that’s true to the character, it’s also not his most appealing side. Parenthood works best when we can side with both characters in an argument—see Sarah and Amber in almost every instance—and here, I was rolling my eyes and siding with Jasmine all the way, even though most of her reasons for why her husband should be driving a minivan made next to no sense.

Meanwhile, Kristina’s run for mayor continues to gradually suck every single other character onto the show into its gaping maw. Leaving aside the inherent implausibility of the storyline (and, okay, the fact that the lead headline on the Oakland Tribune wouldn’t just be about the Berkeley mayoral debate but would also declare a winner in that debate), I guess I didn’t mind this visit to Kristina’s inevitable triumph fantasyland as much as I have some of the other stops there this season. My former co-worker and good friend Scott Tobias once said of the “Landry kills a guy” storyline on Friday Night Lights that a storyline might have a bad impetus, but if the viewer can get past that, then there will be the opportunity for some interesting character work in the midst of what’s, fundamentally, kind of stupid.

I don’t know if Parenthood has necessarily told me anything interesting about Kristina in the midst of this story, but the scene where she finally has her moment onstage and interrupts Bob to talk with that woman about special needs children in the Berkeley school system gave me a sense of why she’s running and the skills she’ll need to develop along the way. Plus, having Bob Little talk over her all of the time made him a believable villain in this sort of setting. He’s trying so hard to set the parameters of the debate that he doesn’t realize how he’s coming off, and Kristina is the unexpected benefactor (though I could have done without the riotous applause; it wasn’t that good of an answer). Also: Bob’s campaign style is hilarious, and Max talked about Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. So this was still stupid, and it still feels like the show has inserted an underdog sports movie into the middle of itself in the weirdest possible place, but at least it was agreeably dumb this week.

The season’s other bit of grim fate hopefully died on the vine tonight, though I know I’m not going to be that lucky. Yes, while out canvassing for Kristina, Julia ended up at Ed’s place, and the kids wanted to go in and play, so the parents stood around and talked about how they weren’t sure they were as excited about parenting as they were about working. In and of itself, this conversation was a great little scene, nicely capturing some of the guilt that parents who might rather be at the office can feel, but from there, it transitioned into a scene where Ed cooked her a special dinner (while making fishsticks for the kids), and then his wife came home and seemed so suspicious that Julia freaked out and just made things even worse. (Helpful hint, Julia: If you ever end up in a situation where some guy’s wife might be concerned he’s boning you, don’t make it even more awkward.) Anyway, Julia realized how weird all of this was, and then Joel told her some really nice things about how great she’s been with the kids, and I found myself hoping the show would back off of the intimations of potential cheating, because Jesus Christ, I’m a straight man, and even I wouldn’t cheat on Joel.

So the best stuff in the episode fell, as it has all season, to the Holts and Zeek and Camille. I’m really enjoying Camille’s growing frustration with her situation this season, and I particularly like the way that the show is making Zeek’s well-meaning patriarchy—so comforting and moving when his kids need a dad to talk to—seem isolating and constrictive when it comes to his wife, who’s simply done living the life she’s led for the past several decades. When he can’t stand the condo she takes him on a tour of, he installs a firepit in the backyard, thinking he’s done his husbandly duty. It’s kind of sweet in a weird way, because he obviously thinks that what she wants is a few different things, when she really wants a whole different life. But because he can’t cotton to that, she’s headed off to Italy without him, to tour with the members of her art class, and even though she’ll be back in a month, the look on Craig T. Nelson’s face makes it seem almost as if Bonnie Bedelia is leaving the show (please no). Zeek and Camille have been waiting for a good storyline for a while, and this one has yet to really disappoint. I’m eager to see what happens when she gets back to the States.


Finally, we have Sarah and Amber, in a story that points to some of the futility of trying to be a parent to a child who’s now an adult. If Amber wants to run off and get married at the courthouse, just as her mother did all those years ago, there’s really nothing Sarah can do to stop her, much as she might want to. To be a parent is to have to let go, just as to be a child is to realize at some point that you do bear some responsibility to listen to what your parents have to say, even if they’re completely unaware of the world you live in right now. Parenthood usually works when it approaches questions like this, when the central conflict is that the parent wants to say something to deter the child, but there’s just nothing to say. There’s no way Sarah could keep Amber from marrying Ryan—or even delay the marriage a bit—and even if she’s made her peace with the man, she can’t quite understand why she has to do things so young.

To make a mistake in your early 20s is to do something that will mark a significant portion of the time of life when you feel capable of anything, but the paradox is that your 20s are all about making mistakes. For a child, that’s exhilarating, but for a parent, watching that child bumble headlong into God knows what, it can be cringe-worthy. The reason this storyline has been the season’s best is because it hasn’t forgotten what this show is truly about: the gap that opens up between someone you love with all your heart and the things you wish someone had told you when you were their age. To have advice for your kid is helpful, sure, but it’s also, on some level, advice to a younger version of yourself. Sarah forgot that, almost to her peril, but the scene where she and her daughter make up is sweet enough to make me think this will recede to the background for a while, as these two women remember just how fond they are of each other.


Stray observations:

  • Braverman of the week: Jasmine. Fuck all you guys who hate her. Crosby had a cool car? Who cares! That minivan was a modern marvel. I love the way that she abides her husband’s hissy-fit with gentle good humor, then acts as a mother to the drunken band members. Jasmine is so often painted as a weird harridan on this show that it’s nice to see the woman Crosby fell in love with pop up from time to time. And she managed to keep herself from selling the minivan like someone might in a TV commercial!
  • What’s up with all of the people getting drunk this season? Last week, Joel got soused, and this week, it’s Crosby who has to call his wife to give him a ride home.
  • See, I remember fishsticks being the best thing ever when I was a kid, but my mom got to this point where she couldn’t even look at them anymore, so we stopped having fishsticks. I think I understand her pain a little better now.
  • For a moment, I hoped that Ed and Pete were married and that this couple had launched a scheme to destroy a family that had unknowingly wronged them in some way. I kind of wish that were the case, because then we’d be in, like, a Shirley Jackson short story or something.
  • I like the bit where Crosby tells Adam he wasn’t always like this, and we cut to Peter Krause’s disbelieving face. Even he knows he’s always been at least a little bit like this.
  • Haddie Braverman watch: Nobody said a goddamn thing about Haddie, but the dog showed up. So that’s something, at least.
  • I think I probably know too much about political  campaigns, having worked on a few, to find the show’s portrayal of them as anything other than woefully inept, but I try to overlook it in the interest of still enjoying things. But the stuff with the polling and the response to the debate was just ridiculous (though I liked Max pointing out for his mom to win she’d have to be a statistical anomaly). It’s like Kristina is running for president, not the mayor of a small, heavily progressive northern California city.