NBC’s Parenthood is a drama deserving of the kind of veneration normally reserved for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and other cable TV darlings. Based very loosely on the 1989 Ron Howard-directed comedy of the same name and developed by Friday Night Lights writer Jason Katims, the series is a deft mix of humor and gut-wrenching poignancy that can, rather amazingly, turn its audience into bunch of sobbing fools without having to resort to emotional manipulation.
Parenthood revolves around the Bravermans: Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia); their four adult children, Adam (Peter Krause), Sarah (Lauren Graham), Julia (Erika Christensen), and Crosby (Dax Shepard); and the significant others and kids of the four siblings. They’re a family so close-knit and mutually supportive that they’d seemingly rather die than not do everything together—they attend little league games and school plays as a 16-member unit. They are the kind of “fight hard but love harder” crew that should be nauseating to watch. Yet, these characters are written and portrayed with so much honesty and as a result Parenthood is never repellently schmaltzy.
Over the years, the Bravermans have grappled with most of the stereotypical issues that you’d expect a modern, middle-class, American, TV family to face—teen rebellion, unemployment, the professional sacrifices made by the stay-at-home-parent, single motherhood, infidelity, infertility, etc. However, Katmis, his writers, and the actors tap into the emotional truth of these broad, universal dilemmas.
Here’s a perfect example of its genius:
In the second season, Sarah’s defiant teen daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) begins to self-destruct after being rejected from UC Berkeley and is involved in a drunk-driving related car accident. After she’s released from the hospital, Grandpa Zeek takes her to the see the totaled car, tells her that when he was a soldier in Vietnam all he could think about was starting a family and having grandkids. “I dreamt you,” he says. Zeek doesn’t scold his granddaughter for her recklessness in a predictable way; instead, he says, “you do not have my permission to mess with my dreams.” What could have easily devolved into after school special melodrama culminates in a simple, beautiful, original statement that doesn’t just articulate the character’s love, anger, and relief in the wake of this potentially fatal accident but is so well executed by Nelson that it makes those feelings palpable for the viewer.
As Zeek, Nelson is stern here but while holding Whitman his chin quivers—he’s clearly fighting the urge to be demonstratively emotional—and then, as I think any curt grandpa or father who grew up during an era when men weren’t encouraged to express themselves would do, he wraps up this serious moment with a quick “good.”
Parenthood gets better every year and this season—the show’s fourth—the stakes are higher than ever. Adam’s wife Kristina (Monica Potter) has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has to care for a newborn baby and a son with Asperger’s syndrome while facing all of this uncertainty. On any other network drama, the introduction of this storyline would have been questionable, perhaps seen as a ratings ploy. But if there’s any show capable of handling the illness respectfully and believably it’s this one.
On Parenthood, no one is going to get half of his face blown off or have to deal with a drug cartel. People hug on this show and dance in kitchens. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less audacious than the venerable dramas on AMC, HBO, and FX. It’s just a different kind of audacity. In moments like the one between Zeek and Amber, it’s clear that this show is defiantly sentimental. It dares to be heartwarming during a time when all of the most outstanding dramas are dark and fatalistic.