“The Ring” reminds me that there’s no storyline so bad that Parenthood can’t turn it around with a little gumption and some elbow grease, except for, apparently, this godforsaken campaign storyline, but more about that in a moment. Just a few episodes ago, I was ready to toss “Joel and Julia have marriage problems” to the wolves right alongside the campaign, but this episode and “Speaking Of Baggage” have done such a great job of playing up the divide that’s opening between the two characters that it now might be the storyline I’m most invested in, give or take a Zeek and Camille moving story. There’s something so pure to the frustration that Julia is feeling, and there’s a scene in tonight’s episode where Joel hurls a bunch of accusations at her that are all true—you didn’t have to quit your job, among others—but they hurt all the more for being so. There’s nothing like thinking your partner thinks better of you than you yourself do, only to find out they dislike about you all the things you don’t like about yourself. (Joel is also pretty cruel in that scene, even if accurate, just sayin’.)
In the first few episodes of the season, the split between Joel and Julia seemed basically preordained, as if the show had decided that putting stress on their marriage—usually the healthiest in the whole show—would be the most interesting thing to do to them. But it didn’t really bother coming up with believable explanations for that stress, instead just assuming that having them tell us that things weren’t going so well—and plunging directly into that after a season premiere where everything seemed to be largely fine—would be more than enough to get us on board with the story. I’m not one of those people who much minds when TV writers mess with fictional marriages, but I do mind when they’re doing so just to give characters something to do. That’s lazy. But now, Joel and Julia have very real things to be upset about, very real fights to have, and that’s made all the difference in a scene like the one where Julia collapses in tears into Ed’s arms. It’s a friendly hug, but because of her mental state, there’s this 15 percent chance it could turn into something more. What’s more, that 15 percent is much more believable now than it was before.
The scenes where Julia and Joel fight are legitimately gut-wrenching, both because it’s something we haven’t seen them do a lot of and because they’re supposed to be the stable ones. Crosby and Jasmine are the ones who fight like this, or maybe Adam and Kristina. Joel and Julia are the cool, progressive parents who support each other in every way they can and provide a safe and stable environment for their kids. That what tore them apart is the idea of their son being held back feels a little forced, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s absolutely something that would divide them so harshly. They’ve never had to struggle through something like this with Sydney, and both of their points of view are legitimate when it comes to their ultimate goal of making a safe, stable environment for Victor. On the one hand, it’s not good if he keeps falling further behind his classmates. On the other hand, he’ll always have the stigma of being left back. Which is more important? That one can believably side with Julia or Joel in this conflict is what makes it work.
The rest of the episode isn’t quite to that level, but there’s still plenty of good stuff going on. Amber and Ryan are both kinda being too whiny about stupid stuff, but I can absolutely see why they would do this. They’re early along in their relationship, and that means that it’s hard to talk to a partner about a potential problem without it seeming like a personal affront. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that Amber is struggling with more than just the gaudiness of the ring. (If it were simply that, she’d drag Ryan to a jewelry store to find something more to her liking.) What they’re really arguing about is that Amber is so young, and yoking herself to someone when she’s that young is something she’s having some very believable second thoughts about. This isn’t my favorite storyline in the world, but it’s a marked improvement over something like “Crosby and Jasmine argue about product placement,” and I think it’s giving me insight into a couple getting married this young, albeit cringe-inducing insight. (After all, I got married that young, and over the length of that engagement, I frequently asked my fiancée to return her ring to me, after even the most minor of disagreements, because things were over, and I was getting that money back, and I was an asshole. And we’re still married today!)
Sarah and Zeek hanging out because he wasn’t entirely sure how to cope without Camille around—even if he would never put it that way—was very sweet, if not quite a storyline of its own. There was an attempt to coax it in that direction with the device of the party her tenant was throwing, but it was so minimal as to be all but nonexistent. (I keep forgetting that tenant exists until he pops up on screen again.) The same went for Crosby’s concerns over Jabbar doing ballet. I found it refreshing that he wasn’t worried—at least on the surface—about his son doing something that’s “for girls” but, rather, that he didn’t know how he’d share that interest with his son, and having Adam around as a font of wisdom about how he, too, ended up having to get more into bugs than baseball, was a nice use of the character. But this is one of those Crosby storylines where he’s just a stubborn guy, and he comes around by the end, of which we get 500 per season, so it wasn’t a revelation.
On the side of all this solid-to-good stuff, however, there’s Kristina’s continued campaign for local warlord. When the episode opens, she’s pulled to within two points of Bob Little because of that one time she exploited her son’s Asperger’s at a mayoral debate. It’s absolutely preposterous, but, all right, everybody seems happy. Let’s see what happens. Naturally, Bob decides to exploit his knowledge of Kristina’s past, by hauling out that one time Adam punched that guy for calling his son names, which happened so long ago that I couldn’t even tell you what season it occurred in. (Fortunately, the show puts it in the previously on so we can relive it all together.)
Bob then does such a skillful job of portraying Kristina and Adam as bottomless pits of deep black rage (honestly, he doesn’t have to work that hard) that Kristina is wondering whether she should tell everybody about that time he tried to seduce her 19-year-old niece. “Yes,” says Heather. “Yes,” says Adam. “Yes, because he’s a dick and a scumbag,” says Amber. “Woof,” says Otis the dog, which means yes in dog. “Yes,” says Nora, banging on her favorite pot for emphasis. “Yes,” says Bob Little. “Yes, because 99.9999 percent of winning campaigns are forced to go at least somewhat negative,” says Max. “Yes, and did you know I’m studying abroad in Vienna this year and I’ve fallen in love with my art teacher, and she’s a woman?” says Haddie. “Yes,” says the entirety of the comment section at Braverman Berkeley Blue, a popular local blog supporting Kristina’s election that will quickly grow disillusioned when she tries to solve every problem with a free concert at the Luncheonette. “Yes,” say all of the other cast members. “Yes,” says your humble reviewer, and “Just fucking do it already,” says his wife.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” says Kristina.
So, of course, she decides to bail in the press conference in which she’s going to tell everybody about Bob and Amber, and then because some people tell her on Facebook that she was right to stand up for her family (by explaining what caused Adam to go off all half-cocked). She goes down four points in the polling, so she’s six points behind, and I find myself wondering if the Berkeley mayoral election has its own Nate Silver, because when one considers the margin of error (which Adam brings up), it seems more likely that she was always about four or five points down and never that close. But the point is that she’s suffered for all of this, which will either allow next week’s election episode to do the whole “Oh, you lost, but you did so with your honor intact” thing or the “What a crazy underdog upset!” thing, and because we know this show, we know which option it will pick.
This is all presented as her staying true to herself and being a refreshing breath of fresh air in the messy world of politics, but, look, it’s all predicated on information that only the audience has. If Kristina wins the mayoral election at this point without the Amber stuff leaking (and I suspect Heather will leak it), then she’s winning for literally no reason. If the show had done a good job of making us see that Kristina really wanted to win or that her pet issues were so important to her that she was willing to win at any cost or that Bob Little’s politics were atrocious to her, then her decision to not tell about Amber might mean something other than a pointless personal victory. I get that the show is all about the pointless personal victories, but those become so strange when thrust into an arena outside of the show’s messy, family-based center. What Kristina is running on—providing better resources for special-needs kids of all stripes within the Berkeley school system—is completely bonkers as a pet issue for a mayoral election, as my Parenthood podcast cohost Amy Whipple pointed out in a recent episode. It would almost be too bonkers for a school-board election.
I’m gratified that Kristina is down by so much, not because I want her to lose, necessarily (though I think that would make the most sense), but because it at least feels like something that would happen to the character in the wake of this political scandal. “Speaking Of Baggage” and the 75 percent of “The Ring” that isn’t about this election prove that the show isn’t out of ideas and has, instead, wandered into the middle of a bad storyline that it still has time to escape from. But good Lord is it hard to focus on all the good when the bad is right there, staring you in the face.
- Braverman of the week: I’m going to say Zeek, whose scenes with Sarah really were warm and wonderful. Also, he did Whip-Its! And Camille lives in his computer now!
- The scenes where Sydney talks to her mother become so much more interesting if you assume that she, for some reason, is a Machiavellian supervillain who’s going to bring pain to her parents for bringing Victor into the family and reducing her to second child, and she’s slowly, slowly poking at the wound, until they inevitably divorce and she cackles with glee. (I have serious psychological problems.)
- Does anyone mention Haddie Braverman, even tangentially?: Yes! She apparently has a “soccer page” on Facebook. I assume this means a page for her team, but setting up a fan page for Haddie’s high school soccer career, then making every other member of their family “like” it, would be such an Adam and Kristina thing to do.
- I like that the show is insistent that otherwise masculine guys can enjoy all sorts of pursuits, like ballet, and it’s coding all of this as “Jabbar! Surrounded by girls! What an opportunity!” in some ways, because pop culture’s view of masculinity is so limiting too often. However, given my stated desire for the show to have a GLBT character of some sort, I really do think a story where Crosby and Jasmine slowly realize Jabbar is probably gay as he edges into puberty could be interesting. So, basically, I’m okay with whatever, and you needed to know that at length.
- Julia interrupting that poor teacher’s day just to ask her what’s going to happen with Victor is another sign that she probably needs something else to do. (I liked the person in comments last week who said she and Ed should start a business together.)
- I do enjoy the Amber and Ryan storyline, but I can also see the strings pulling the characters around. It’s not to the level of the early stuff in the Joel/Julia storyline, but it’s pretty close.
- Does anyone mention Piecat, even tangentially?: No, and you are kidding yourself if you think I’m not talking about Piecat every week until he turns up in a script on this show.