Cut your mom and dad some slack once in a while,” my pastor once advised the assembled children, young and old, in his Mother’s Day homily. “They’ve never done parenthood before.”
Not so for NBC, whose new dramedy Parenthood is the network’s second attempt to turn Ron Howard’s 1989 hit movie of the same name (starring Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen) into must-see TV. Fortunately for NBC, this shot at “Parenthood,” promoted during the Winter Olympics with the manic energy of a frenetically sweeping curler, offers flashes of pure joy that make its moments of banality worthwhile–much like parenthood itself.
The series begins with Adam Braverman (Peter Krause, late of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and ABC’s recent “Dirty Sexy Money”) dealing with his extended family’s crap. Literally. No sooner does Adam field a frantic phone call from his sister, Sarah (“Gilmore Girl” Lauren Graham), whose daughter has run away, than his father Zeke (Craig T. Nelson) demands that Adam come unclog his plumbing. The predictably gross outcome smacks Adam in the face just as subtly as the show’s symbolism does the viewer’s.
In addition to Adam, Sarah, and Zeke, “Parenthood” is populated with stock characters whose chalk-and-cheese personalities are guaranteed to produce future story arcs rife with family conflict: Uber-responsible Adam vs. his Peter-Pan younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard of “Baby Mama”); Sarah, an unemployed single mom with two sullen teenagers vs. her successful workaholic lawyer-sister (a properly uptight Erika Christensen); and the old-school “Great Santini” grandpa vs.—well, someone for sure. The family’s matriarch, the always-reliable Bonnie Bedelia, had only five or six unrevealing lines in the pilot (including “Welcome home!” and “I liked Jim.”), so she’s still a cipher. But I’m betting on her being a curly-haired, gauze-skirted, jingly-braceleted earth mother.
The characters aren’t the only things you’ve seen before. If you’d taken a drink for every unoriginal scene in the "Parenthood" pilot, you’d have been sloshed by the end of the first half-hour. Broke, divorced adult child slinking back to the family nest? Check. The kid who hates Little League finally getting a hit? Check. The derisive teenage daughter sneering, “You’re wearing that?” as her insecure mom goes on her first date in years? Check. The only thing missing was Mom getting caught in a drunken hook-up by her horrified son. Oh, wait. Check.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a family dramedy to avoid clichés. After all, one of the strangest (and sometimes most annoying) experiences for veteran parents is hearing new mothers and fathers breathlessly recount the daily challenges of parenthood as if they were the first people in the universe to experience them. It’s tempting to condescend to these newbies, but when been-there, done-that parents allow themselves to rediscover parenthood through their friends’ unjaded eyes, everything in their own lives can become new again.
This is the unexpected and often deeply touching delight afforded by “Parenthood.” Hackneyed as they are, each tired scenario is given new, vibrant life by the sensitivity, daring and charm of the almost uniformly superb cast. Lauren Graham’s luminous face fearlessly reveals every flicker of vulnerability, uncertainty and hopelessness threatening to overwhelm Sarah as she struggles to get back on her feet (illustrated, in a clever visual metaphor, when she teeters perilously in her new boots).
Graham’s performance is more than matched by Krause’s portrayal of Sarah’s seemingly level-headed, optimistic brother Adam, the Braverman (get it?) fixer on whom the entire family relies to clean up their messes. But Krause projects subtle hints of the suffocating anxiety lurking below Adam’s efficient, Zen-like competence in all things familial, particularly when dealing with his “sensitive” eight-year-old son Max (Max Burckholder).
“You were sensitive, too, and I cured you,” Grandpa Zeke scoffs to Adam. Despite predictable protests to the contrary (“I don’t want to raise him the way you raised us!”), Krause makes it clear, through his dogged cheerfulness and too-bright and fading smiles, that though Adam sees himself in Max, he cannot recognize that he’s also become his father—gentler, perhaps, but no less determined to transform his son through sheer strength of will. That’s why Krause’s most authentic work comes when Adam’s can-do confidence suddenly drains when confronted by Max’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome—a problem the family fixer is powerless to fix and the show’s first and only departure from its dated family-drama tropes.
Masterful acting by a talented cast helped the “Parenthood” pilot to more than transcend its many clichés and contrivances. But the ongoing success of the series will depend on its writers’ ability to inject a greater realism (real realism, not TV realism) into this tired genre. In the meantime, tune in and cut them some slack, even though this isn’t their first time doing “Parenthood.”