Braving It With the Family
by QICHEN ZHANG
Maybe if we didn't allow him to wear a pirate costume to school, he would fit in a little bit better.
— Parenthood's Adam Braverman, played by Peter Krause
Television's always been slow to pick up on parental irony. I probably wouldn't find Adam Braverman's delivery of a banal line so guffaw-worthy otherwise. To segue the family TV genre into a wholesomely sarcastic direction, NBC's new show Parenthood rallies Krause and a diverse cast (diverse meaning Joy Bryant as the token black character) in an attempt to portray real-to-life family issues without any syrupy ethical undertones, without any cultish evangelist propaganda, and — most importantly — without the sixties hair.
To catch up, one sentence sums up the plot — a family living in Berkeley headed by a grandfather/grandmother couple with four smaller nuclear families living in northern California maneuvers around the tensions of their criss-crossing relationships. At face value, the show sounds mundane at best, a contemporary American Dreams at worst. With mostly B-list actors who peaked in movies with titles like Let's Go to Prison and How to Rob a Bank, the cast's potential to depict domestically-oriented characters seem initially dubious as well. But after giving it a chance, I realized that throwing a Berkeley hippie into the mix would've just complicated the weird, almost-incestuous, boyfriend-sharing debacle that pops up in later episodes of this falsely tame debut. NBC. Who could've guessed?
Scandals don't create Parenthood's entertainment value. Instead, the show relies on character quirks for its draw. Even though the Braverman clan appears as though the members came out of an assembly line at the perfect-All-American-family factory, the script takes surprisingly humorous digs at the paradigms of kin.
Juggling both a son with Asperger's Syndrome and a teenager daughter who just started shopping at Victoria's Secret, Adam's bottle-blond wife Kristina (Monica Potter) acts as the doting and patient mother until you realize her stammering is just the beginning of her control-freak neuroses. Julia (Erika Christensen), the youngest Braverman sibling and feminist corporate lawyer, still eats dinner with her husband and daughter in their sleek kitchen, but only to project her personal competitiveness onto her soon-to-be-OCD kid at meal times and to make her husband feel insecure for cleaning so much as a stay-at-home dad.
It would be easy to assume that Parenthood's producers simply took Girl, Interrupted and removed all the knives and pills, if it weren't for the fact that Adam and Kristina's huge house in Berkeley's 'burbs looks too welcoming to double as an insane asylum.
Sadly, the next generation of Bravermans don't live up to their complicated adult counterparts. Haddie (Sarah Ramos), with enough teenage insecurities to fill up her pink Jansport backpack, gives off a more than irritating vibe as a sullen, typical, and over-privileged suburbanite. The inclusion of her edgier, pseudohipster cousin Amber Holt (Mae Whitman) in the show aims to balance Haddie's tall, blond goodness with a short, brunette hipster who moves into Berkeley with a too-cool-for-school attitude and an entire wardrobe from Urban Outfitters (fake glasses included).
A lapse in good script judgment — or lack of story ideas — further makes Amber out as an immature, boy-obsessed dunce, especially when Haddie and Amber get into a bitchfight during gym class about Amber sleeping with Haddie's scrawny boyfriend. Slogging through plotlines that make American middle-class teenagers look the fools, Sarah Ramos and Mae Whitman with their one dimensional performances make the show's Tuesday night counterpart The Biggest Loser look like intellectual fare. With the exception of Drew, Amber's introverted brother played who's SuPeR dReAmY in that soft-spoken way, the Braverman teenagers make a hysterectomy sound not only necessary but pleasant.
Unquestionably, Whitman's character would've been better as a nonchalant ne'er-do-well, but her idiotic conversations with her mother about moving in with her boyfriend and, like, totally loving him always escalate into shrill, overdramatic chicken squawking and destroys the possibility for collected coolness in a deafening way. Get a grip! You're from Fresno, not a farm.
And the recasting of Graham to replace Maura Tierney — originally slated to play Sarah Braverman who left the show to deal with breast cancer treatment — doesn't exactly do the show favors either. What hopes I had for her television comeback dried up from the frictional heat of her never-ending babble, whether she's screaming at her over-processed daughter or covering up her awkward flubs at diner lunches with her siblings. Blaming the irritating pace of Graham's delivery on the writers resolves only a part of the problem. Soon, you start to realize that Graham basically started her new show where her old one left off. As the daughter who never managed to get her life together with no college degree toting sassy offspring, it's like we're back in Connecticut all over again, only with better weather this time.
Sarah, without a precociously wise daughter to fire back in witty repartée or a scheming, bougey mother to make her look like the good guy, doesn't pull off the friend-mother role in what Graham's treating as Gilmore Girls: The Sequel. Instead, she's stuck stuttering like a moron into the phone while she looks for her runaway daughter, making her look more incompetent parent than an insightful "frother."
It's not like the woman can't act — after all, of all jobs Graham could've bagged after Gilmore Girls wrapped, she took on the role of a biblical wife with realistic aplomb and without wearing Jesus sandals. Parenthood provides a storyline with plenty of opportunities for sharp quips and introspective performances, but Graham refuses to budge from the comfort of Lorelai's nervous and energetic rambling, something that doesn't work within an ensemble cast where Krause's calm Adam just ends up making anxiety-ridden Graham's Sarah look dumb. After 10-plus episodes, I pin it to sheer acting laziness. So I stayed up on a Tuesday night for this?
But a huge surprise redeems Graham's disappointing job and allows for another low-key actor's potential comeback. As Crosby Braverman, Dax Shepard somehow manages to make the youngest, most irresponsible member of the middle generation look the most in touch with reality. Granted, the producers took a cheap shot and stuck the usual black sheep into the family ensemble for variety's sake. But the casting of Shepard as a born-again father when he discovers his old girlfriend gave birth to their son Jabbar — which could've backfired given his history in über-family-friendly shows Punk'd and King of the Hill — is supported by his kooky take on the bachelor who refuses to settle down until forced to do so.
When the rest of his family becomes conceitedly embroiled in their own lives, Crosby reminds us that there's nothing wrong with just chillin' on a house boat, playin' some ping pong. With Type-A Adam and Julia fending off husband-and-wife problems in power suits, Crosby brings some laid-back attitude without breaking out the NorCal weed once. In an odd Zach-Braff-on-Scrubs manner but without the annoying exaggeration and overt displays of "Look at me! I'm madcap and funny!", Shepard uses his honest goofiness paired with an emotional conscience for his new task as his son's role model in order to legitimize himself as a "serious actor," leaving behind his days making movies in a New Mexico Costco.
It could be the onslaught of vampire fantasy dramas within the past two seasons. It could be that fat people losing weight is now considered prime entertainment. Whatever the reason, at the end of the past few Tuesday nights, I like Parenthood. I didn't mind that taken as a whole, the manufactured Braverman family resembled all the rest in television history. If the dialogue's this perfectly laced with sarcasm, I can take some of the more predictable moments.
If Peter Krause actually existed as a suburban dad in real life, I wouldn't mind moving to Berkeley for a piece of that jawline. And after the season finale in which Haddie dyed her hair black, maybe she'll be less angsty and more cool come September. In this age of hipsters where everyone is only allowed to like things ironically, Ron Howard's latest project lets me feel genuine for once. (With a hipster on the show to boot! OH, THE IRONY.)
After watching the season finale on Tuesday, I thought I had come to a neat little conclusion. Alas, NBC had again resorted to packaging a cute, family-oriented program into an hour-long dramedy dominated by levelheaded men complemented with their shrill overstrung wives and sisters, handing the viewer a challenge of making sense out of it. Looking back at past mediocre dramas like 7th Heaven, American Dreams, and even supposedly realistic but actually voyeuristic Friday Night Lights — Parenthood follows the lead of its many, many, many, many, many (press one for English, oprima numero dos para espanol) predecessors.
This conclusion was promptly destroyed when Grandfather Zeek threw a first-class hissy fit at the dinner table when his own children attempted to help his property insolvency issues. Try as he may to ease into the warm and fluffy family genre, Craig T. Nelson flounders almost as much as his bald mullet. Whether acting gruff after cheating on his wife or bickering with his children in a redneck accent, the charm of senile seniority is lost on me. Kudos to Nelson for knowing how to channel maternal and menopausal onscreen — I just really wish he could've let Graham take over those reins.
Even though his character fails miserably at imparting wisdom even at his age, Nelson may singlehandedly make Parenthood must-see TV. You can't help but respect NBC a little more for breaking the mold and turning the usually wise and caring grandfather into a certifiable jackass who congratulates his granddaughter on standing her ground "when that boy was trying to get you to have intercourse with him."
Did I also mention they made Jason Ritter grow a 'stache and goatee combo?
"Bears Only Hibernate Sometimes" - Options (mp3)
"Back Home" - Options (mp3)
"The Best Part" - Options (mp3)