TV Binge Report: Parenthood

After years of hearing friends and critics talk about how wonderful Parenthood is, I decided to use some of my time during a recent hiatus from work to catch up. The first thing that struck me about it was that after only an episode or two, I cared about every single character, which is a feat considering there are up to 15 series regulars at any given time.

For those who are unaware, Parenthood follows the Bravermans, a large, multi-generational family consisting of Zeek and Camille (played by Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia), their four children (Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shephard, and Erika Christensen), and those children’s families, including, at the beginning of the series, six grandchildren. Parenthood is what I consider to be a low-concept TV series. Like The Office and Friends, Parenthood doesn’t have a concept that can easily be boiled down to a simple pitch or sentence. A show like Buffy (so far I have mentioned Buffy in every post of this blog, if you thought that was going to change you’re wrong) is high-concept: it is about a teenage girl who is a vampire slayer. Low-c0ncept certainly does not mean lowbrow or unsophisticated; in many cases low-concept shows are more about everyday life as most people experience it, without a noteworthy hook. In some ways I think developing and writing a low-concept show is harder because without a major plot element or hook to base the series around, you have to rely solely on the strength of your characters, their relationships, and the situations you put them in to carry the show. Parenthood has certainly tackled many difficult situations and subjects over the course of its five seasons, including but not limited to raising a child with a developmental disorder, divorce, infidelity, addiction, abortion, cancer, and adoption.

One of the most impressive things about the show is that is manages to continually do all 15 (give or take) characters justice. Obviously there are times when one family on the show is more heavily featured while others are somewhat on the backburner, but most characters appear in every episode, and they rarely feel like they are being forced in for the sake of fulfilling contracts. For example, the critically acclaimed season 4 centers around Adam (Peter Krause), the oldest son of Zeek and Camille, and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) dealing with her breast cancer diagnosis. This arc was incredibly well done, beautifully acted, and praised by fans and critics alike for how realistic and emotional it was. During season 5, Julia, the youngest Braverman daughter, and her husband Joel were brought to the forefront with a storyline that tested their marriage. The sheer number of storylines featured in any given episode requires a great deal of planning and finesse on the writers’ part, and it has only gotten more difficult as the show has progressed. When the show began, the grandchildren were all still living with their respective parents. By season 5, one was across the country at college, one was at college locally but with his own storyline, and another was living independently with a fiance. Only once did the show take the easy out of mostly removing a character by sending them away to college.

Parenthood has also received a lot of attention for its portrayal of Max, Adam and Kristina’s young son, who is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in the pilot. The show deftly and realistically shows the impact of this diagnosis on Max and his family as he grows up, including his struggles to relate to his peers, his parents’ difficulties in finding a school that suits his needs, and, earlier on, figuring out how to explain to Max that he is different without making him feel diminished. It is rare to see a portrayal of a disorder like Asperger’s on television at all, let alone done so well.

One of my favorite elements of the show is the relationship between the four Braverman siblings. The show plays with all sorts of combinations of the characters- in the earlier seasons, the female Bravermans often have wine nights, and the grandparent/grandchild relationship is also frequently explored. The four siblings are, in my opinion, the heart of the show. Scenes with only the four of them are somewhat rare, but when they happen, the dynamic is so wonderful. In season 5, there is a scene where Adam, Sarah, and Crosby all independently decide to pay Julia, their youngest sister, a visit on a day when she needs some cheering up, and they all end up having a dance party turned sleepover.

When people tell you how much they adore Parenthood, it is usually followed by “I cry during every episode!” I’m not going to lie- the show is a tearjerker, and I spent more than one evening crying on my couch during my binge watch. I still think I cried more during the final 5 episodes of Six Feet Under (which also starred Peter Krause- if he does a sitcom one day it will probably somehow still make me cry) than during the entirety of this show, but there were still many tears, of both the happy and sad varieties. Without spoiling anything for those who will hopefully be inclined to check out the show after reading this, one season features a tumultuous adoption storyline that culminates in a beautiful scene that left me weeping happy tears. On the flip side, Kristina’s cancer battle, particularly a scene involving a goodbye video she makes for her children in case the worst happens, inspires many sad tears. Some people might shy away from a show that is widely considered a tearjerker, but what is the point of good television if not to move us?

Parenthood returns for its sixth and final 13-episode season on September 25th, meaning you still have plenty of time to catch up. Showrunner Jason Katims has been teasing that the final season will force the Bravermans to deal with their biggest challenge yet. I am confident that whatever it is, tissues will be required, and I personally can’t wait.


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