Why Jason Katims’ underrated NBC drama is one of the decade’s most poignant and timeless TV shows.
When NBC’s This is Us launched in September, the media (encouraged by the network) proclaimed it the “natural successor to Parenthood“, another family drama that ran from 2010 to 2015 on the network, and one that I had never seen. I found the pilot of This is Us clichéd and full of unlikeable characters, but when I stuck my nose into Parenthood, I instantly fell in love. Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepherd, Craig T. Nelson, Mae Whitman, Monica Potter: these are some of modern television’s finest actors. Paired with an instantly welcoming middle-class California setting and the smart but accessible style of creator Jason Katims, this is a charming and constantly moving work of serialised storytelling.
The Waltons is my favourite TV show of all time; I was shown it as a child and I have a long-lasting relationship with its enormously-talented titular family. The Bravermans of Parenthood, and the general sensibility of Katims’ show is- in my opinion- extremely reminiscent of Earl Hamner’s masterful Waltons world. But that sense of sentimental American family values that both series feature is, in Parenthood, liberalised by a contemporary edge that feels more like Modern Family; though overwhelmingly white and (until late in the series) heterosexual, they’re class- and career-wise a very diverse group of adults and kids. The first season begins with single mom Sarah (Lauren Graham) and her teenage kids moving home to Berkeley when she falls upon financial hardship in Fresno.
We’re soon introduced to her siblings: perfect father Adam (Peter Krause), control freak lawyer Julia (Erika Christensen) and manchild music producer Crosby (Dax Shepherd). These four couldn’t be more different, but they visibly share the passion and generous spirit of their ‘Nam vet dad Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and amateur-artist mother Camille (Bonnie Bedelia). Every character in this family, even the children, is deeply imperfect: Parenthood never falls into a trap of idealism. Where Elizabeth Walton was an adorable little girl whose storylines were generally based on other people being mean to her, Julia’s daughter Sydney is often unruly, obnoxious and quite unlikeable: she bears the burden of her mother’s difficult qualities. Her father Joel, a selfless stay-at-home dad who lost his construction job in the recession, flirts with other moms when Julia’s at work. Crosby is a fun fellow, but lacks empathy for his child-rearing elder siblings. Amber and Drew (Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer, arguably the most talented members of the cast) suffer from a variety of abandonment issues early on: frequent tricky encounters with absent dad Seth provide the backbone of Sarah’s family storyline in the early seasons.
But everybody changes: the best people make horrible mistakes, the most troubled Bravermans are elevated to our favourites (except Sydney: she never stops being annoying). In the pilot, Amber is irritating as hell; by Season 5 I adored her. Similarly, Adam’s wife Kristina (Monica Potter), who initially seemed highly-strung and unsympathetic, showed such strength during the tribulations of son Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis, an election run and a battle with cancer, that there was no character I admired more by the show’s end. What’s so wonderful about these men and women is that they’re REAL: they are not archetypes, they act as unpredictably and irrationally as any of us. This is why the viewer’s preferred Braverman repeatedly shifts: each character does the wrong thing a lot of the time, leaving us frustrated but understanding.
Parenthood‘s refusal to resort to cliché means it can take some time to pull you in emotionally. I didn’t cry watching the show until Season 2, Episode 16, when birthday entertainer Amazing Andy (the magnificent Michael Emerson) discusses his life as an adult with Asperger’s with Adam, revealing that he is- indeed- ‘happy’. This small detail brings such joy to Adam, now knowing that an independent life and career are future possibilities for Max, that- even though both actors maintain enormous subtlety- the emotion of the moment beams off the screen. Parenthood spends so much time with its characters, they become genuine companions to the viewer: they don’t need to be ‘perfect’ or ‘likeable’ to keep our attention, just like members of a real family would.
Modern Family has always suffered from its child actors’ lack of individual charisma: Rico Rodriguez aside, the kids on that show are insufferable. Like The Waltons, however, Parenthood‘s casting of child performers was one of the show’s earliest successes: Heizer, Sarah Ramos, Max Burkholder and Tyree Brown are charming and diverse actors. And it’s not Savannah Paige Rae’s fault that Sydney is so hard to like. As a result of this, the show is able to follow the kids on their own adventures while maintaining the interest of the adult audience (something Modern Family has never accomplished). Highlights have included Haddie’s relationship with a recovering alcoholic (Michael B. Jordan), Drew’s accidental impregnation of girlfriend Amy and dozens of subplots involving Max’s difficult attempts to ingratiate himself with his peers at Middle School. The children of Parenthood are both reflections of their parents and totally fresh personalities: often they turn to Zeke and Camille for guidance when their mother or father fails them. This is as honest and universally-relatable a depiction of a white American family as one will find on contemporary television.
The sincerity of the relationships depicted is often stunning, as the show simultaneously surprises us and incorporates elements that are more familiar and foreseeable. Watching, one consistently finds new dynamics to be moved by: whether it’s Crosby’s blossoming bond with his estranged son Jabbar, Zeek’s paternal attitude to Drew or the unbreakable love between Adam and Kristina, the ties that bind these Bravermans are aspirational and beautiful. When our tear ducts aren’t being flushed by moments of melancholy, we’re gifted with comedy gold: give Adam one drink too many and out comes The Fever; Max’s unfiltered bluntness is often mined- tastefully- for humour. Parenthood never once takes itself more seriously than is necessary, and because of this it succeeds.
Not to mention that the show’s themes are seamlessly, lyrically bound by the music of Bob Dylan.
Parenthood, which is after all a 42-minute NBC drama, may not be an aesthetically-groundbreaking piece of television. It may not bear the ingenious scriptwriting of Aaron Sorkin’s ensemble dramas, but it does share their humanity and courage. Undervalued in its time, mercifully allowed to run for six seasons by the network, I strongly believe Parenthood will earn a reputation as one of this decade’s strongest network TV shows. These stories are timeless. May they stay forever young.