Sunday, November 24, 2013

Midseason Report: Parenthood closes out 2013 with a killer run

*Note*: This post was written after "Election Day," under the assumption that it was the midseason finale.  There was another episode two weeks after this and it was also pretty good!

I recently wrote a post about Parenthood right before the 5th season started, where I explained what makes it one of the best dramas on TV, even though it's not as "flashy" as some of the other great dramas that are currently on.  Personally, I was pretty proud of it -- I consider it one of my best pieces of writing -- and it was enough to convince two people who hadn't previously watched the show to check it out.  So naturally, I was very worried, both as a fan of the show and a recommender, that season 5 didn't get off to the strongest start.

With the exception of "Nipple Confusion," which is probably one of my top 5 favorite episodes of television this year, the first four episodes were pretty scattered, and the main stories that were being established for the season didn't leave me enthusiastic.  The one that I was the biggest skeptic of was the decision for Kristina to run for mayor of Berkeley (god, even typing that sentence made me cringe).  It makes sense that after her intense battle with cancer last season, Kristina would be reinvigorated and want to do something with her new lease on life.  The problem is that Jason Katims and crew bit off more than they could chew thinking that Kristina, a woman whom the city has no knowledge of or investment in, would have any chance of winning against a well-established politician like Bob Little.  A part of me thinks that Katims is just really obsessed with politics, much like how J.J. Abrams came up with the idea for Alias while working on Felicity and wishing he could just turn the protagonist into a spy, because Parenthood has had some sort of election storyline for 3 seasons in a row now.

Usually, I'm great at suspending my disbelief when it comes to fiction, but the Kristina election arc was a step too far for me.  In my post about the first 4 seasons of the show, I mentioned how Kristina's storyline was so significant that every other storyline was made better by being caught in its orbit.  If that's the case, then her plotline this year was like a photo negative of her cancer scare.  At some point, every Braverman got caught in the vortex of the election arc, and it threatened to bring the entire season down.

One storyline that was great from the start was Zeek and Camille's, which is surprising, given that the two haven't really had a meaty plot together since the adultery storyline in season 1.  Season 5 found them disagreeing on whether they should sell their house, which is slowly decaying from all the years of housing various Bravermans.  It's the kind of conflict that Katims does better than any other creator, the kind that's driven by the gap that occurs when two people who care deeply about each other have differing perspectives, and neither is wholly right or wrong.  It's easy to see why Zeek would want to keep the house.  After all, he and Camille watched their kids grow up there -- it's basically all he knows.  But Camille knows that they're entering the third act of their lives, and understandably wants to see more of the world while she still has the chance to.  We don't often get to see stories on television that really get into the internal lives of the elderly, but the Zeek and Camille arc was handled with a Sarah Polley-esque level of grace and beauty.  At a time where we were mired in Kristina's ludicrous mayoral campaign, repetitive Crosby stories, and whatever it is that Sarah does, this one was what kept the early episodes from completely falling apart.

Luckily, things got much more stable around the middle of the season, starting with "Let's Be Mad Together."  The other big storyline of season 5 that I was deeply concerned about was Joel and Julia's.  Ever since it was announced at the TCAs over the summer that the two of them were going to go through a "rough year," I was worried that they'd do some cheating story that would break the two of them up.  Infidelity isn't inherently an idea that Parenthood shouldn't touch, but the contrived way in which they introduced the possibility didn't do much to mollify my anxiety.  Ed and particularly Peet (or Penny from Lost or British Julia or Sonya Walger -- take your pick) felt more like devices than characters, and watching them interact with Joel and Julia was like watching a game of "Who Will Cheat on Whom First?"  

But once again, it was "Let's Be Mad Together" where I had a real turnaround on the story.  It made me realize that I was so busy fretting over where things would end up that I was misjudging what was going on in the present tense.  This is something fans and critics do often, judging the journey based on our expectations of the destination.  Sure, the idea of either Joel or Julia cheating on one another seemed like a misstep, but on a moment-to-moment basis, their storyline was gripping.  In isolation, the idea of Julia, a woman who has always been career-driven and ambitious, finding herself lost when she no longer has that career to pour her energy into and bonding with a friend facing similar frustrations, is a strong foundation for story.  Parenthood has always been fascinated with the idea of emotional transference, the way that drama from one corner of the Braverman clan can bleed into another corner, but this season has really shone a light on that theme, and the Joel and Julia conflict came into even stronger focus when the writers made the parallels between the two of them and Zeek and Camille clearer.  Both pairs of couples are facing a tough decision -- for Zeek and Camille it's whether to sell their house, for Joel and Julia it's whether Victor should be held back in the 4th grade -- and on top of that, the women in the relationship are feeling unfulfilled.  And like Zeek and Camille's storyline, what made the Joel and Julia conflict so compelling is that it couldn't be divided into simple black and white terms.

Things just got stronger and stronger as everything began to snap into place, to the point where even the god awful election storyline concluded in terrific fashion.  Part of the reason why it was so frustrating to sit through this election was because it seemed pretty obvious that Kristina was going to win.  Over and over, the show kept bumping up against opportunities where they could bail out on it, in the way that some shows do when the writers realized they've made a huge mistake with a certain plotline.  Yet it never took those openings, choosing to trudge forward with starry-eyed optimism instead.  Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims' previous drama, wasn't afraid to have the Panthers and the Lions lose, and tragically at that.  But Parenthood has always been a softer, brighter version of its spiritual predecessor, so the idea of Kristina losing seemed out of the question.  Consequently, her loss in "Election Day," the midseason finale, was truly a surprise and delight (as much as saying the latter part may make me seem like an awful person).  Granted, the way her loss played out -- the election is lost, but is still seen as a personal victory -- was predictable in its own right, but it worked because it was in tune with the core of the show.  Kristina becoming mayor of Berkeley would've been a bad idea because it's a big (and ridiculous) victory on a show that's all about small ones.  At the end of the day, Kristina learned a lesson that the show has been putting forth all along: you can never truly lose if you're surrounded by the ones you love.

Parenthood ended the year with its two biggest stories going out on a high note, but things are still up in the air for the rest of the plots.  For every storyline that's going well, like the aforementioned Zeek and Camille material or the delightful Max and Hank stuff, there are an equal amount of sketchy ones.  The show has rarely ever told strong Jasmine and Crosby stories, but the new baby plotline still feels like a weird afterthought, even though it seems like a deeper well from which to extract good drama than this bizarre "Adam and Crosby start their own record label" thing.  The biggest problem, however, lies within the Amber and Ryan storyline.  After being a fan of their arc in season 4, I've found it to be a relative non-starter so far in season 5.  It all feels so preordained, particularly since we know that Matt Lauria isn't a series regular.  Maybe that's a cynical way to look at things, but I'd have an easier time swallowing this story if it didn't just hit the same beats again and again.  Yet these quibbles aren't enough to have me down on the first half of the season as a whole, and I'm very optimistic about the second half of season 5.  In a way, this season reminds me alot of season 3, which also started out shakily but just kept building and building until the incredible catharsis of "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You" (still the show's best episode).  I wouldn't be surprised if this season has also been constructing an intricate set of dominoes that we won't become aware of until it all topples over in 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Skimmed the first paragraph and I'm glad to hear that it righted itself.

    Still in the 4th season obviously so I'll have to look at this again when I get caught up eventually.