Monday, September 16, 2013

No really, Parenthood is one of the best dramas on television

This year, NBC struck gold with Hannibal, and everybody's been quick to call it the best drama on the network.  But in this excitement for the hot new thing, people have forgotten about Parenthood, Jason Katims' successor to the great Friday Night Lights.  Parenthood is not just the best NBC drama or the best network drama, it's one of the best dramas on television in general.  People might not readily accept this idea because of the show's name or because a cursory glance can make it seem like "that annoying show about annoying white people and their annoying problems."  It certainly doesn't have a cool hook like many of the other great dramas do either.  Nevertheless, it proceeds to quietly make its qualitative case, continually getting better every year, to the point where it was my #2 show of 2012 (ahead of the likes of cable giants such as Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Justified).

And it's that lack of a hook that's one of the most appealing things about the show to me.  Parenthood manages to avoid melodrama or any other sort of heightened emotion, instead choosing to provide an unvarnished look at family life.  Its exploration of different family dynamics and heartwarming charm has inspired other underrated shows like The Fosters and Switched at Birth, but it remains the best at balancing these elements.  The first few episodes have tonal shifts that feel slightly off, but after that it becomes perfectly modulated, fully capable of making you cry big, ugly tears in one scene and flash a giant grin in the very next one.

Of course, a family drama wouldn't work without a good family, and the Bravermans aren't just great; they're very well-constructed too.  They're like a normal American family, except much bigger, and the stretched-out ranks allow for there to be something relatable for people to find in any one of the characters.  These little groupings of the family span years and income levels, and the cross-generational, inter-familial parallels that unite them provide a backbone for the series' most potent stories.  There's alot of love to go around amongst the Bravermans, to the point where it can almost feel cultish, but the writers use this to generate wonderful little conflicts that come about when what you want contradicts with the wants and needs of others.  It's all relatively low-stakes, but Parenthood has a habit of highlighting how failures and triumphs alike seem to magnify when they involve those closest to you.

Jason Katims and the rest of the writing staff have no ambitions of rewriting the family drama playbook.  In fact, they recycle through storylines you've seen before, but find originality in the execution.  Katims is less interested in the big events that checkpoint our lives than he is in burrowing into the spaces in between, and mining beautiful moments from them.  Whenever I find myself rolling my eyes about where I anticipate the direction of a plotline going, I find myself proven wrong.  Take the arc in season 2, for instance, where Crosby sleeps with Gaby (played FNL alum, Minka Kelly), the behavioral therapist of his nephew, Max.  It's a plotline taken straight out of a lesser quality, more soapy show; but the way it fractures Adam and Crosby's relationship is so perfectly pitched that it ends up being rich, compelling drama.  

For its first two and a half seasons, the show was great, and certainly capable of short bursts of excellence -- like the aforementioned Crosby arc in season 2 -- but it started becoming transcendent television in the back half of season 3.  The writers were just firing on all cylinders at this point, tossing out stellar standalone stories ("Road Trip," the Haddie storyline in "It Is What It Is") and course-correcting problematic storylines from the first half.  Julia's Great Baby Caper was one of my least favorite things about season 3 for a long time, but it wound up being the most devastating storyline by the end.  And somehow, season 4 managed to be even better.  The Kristina cancer plot, another one that initially induced some worried sighs on my part before becoming magnificent, gave the season a stable center, and almost every arc got caught in its orbit in some way or another.  Between the back half of season 3 and the first two-thirds of season 4, 2012 was an impressive run, the kind that some shows can only hope to have, even during their creative peak.

I'm hoping that season 5, which premieres next Thursday night, can continue to work at a similarly high level.  Parenthood is a show about the small stories that spring up when you're in a family; about finally communicating with your taciturn teen, about explaining the complexities of race issues to your young child, about finally getting those Skittles in the darn vending machines at school.  While that may not be of interest to some, if it resonates with you, then Parenthood can soar to wild heights.  So catch up with the show on Neftlix if you don't already watch it.  The Braverman clan will be there to welcome you with open arms.

1 comment:

  1. Caught up to where this was written, and I have an idea for how I want to react to it, but you're going to have to wait for it until I can put it together.