Editors Notes: Season 5 of Parenthood premieres Thursday, September 26 on NBC.
In the adaptive transition of telling a specific kind of story from one medium to another, the process of turning a hit film into a TV show has always been a daunting task. For every M*A*S*H and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights, there’s a dozen other shows that have all crashed and burned. One film that had not one, but two TV spin-offs was Ron Howard’s 1989 film Parenthood. Remembered nowadays mostly for having Steve Martin in a cowboy costume at a kids birthday party, the film (which admittedly I have never seen so I can’t comment on its quality) had a malleable enough premise (four branches of an extended family in Southern California living their lives and raising kids of varying ages) to lend itself to being turned into a TV series. But despite having considerable talent both in front of and behind the camera (Ed Begley Jr., Thora Birch, David Arquette and freaking Leonardo DiCaprio in the cast and Allan Arkush directing and Joss Whedon writing), the 1st attempt at turning the film into a TV show only lasted one season and promptly disappeared. Normally everyone involved would just move on and consider it a noble but failed experiment. But if you’re Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, one of the most powerful producing duos in Hollywood today, you simply wait 20 years and try again with Jason Katims, the guy that turned Friday Night Lights into one of the most critically acclaimed but little seen network dramas of the previous decade, at the helm.
While it may not have philandering ad execs, warring families in a medieval fantasy world that rivals Middle Earth or a meek, cancer-ridden chemist turned monstrous drug kingpin, Parenthood (now going into its miraculous and much deserved fifth season with a full 22 episode order, something that hasn’t happened since season 2) I feel deserves to be spoken in the same hushed, reverent tone that accompanies the cable dramas that top every TV critics ten best lists. Following the everyday travails of the extended Braverman family located in Berkley, California, trying to describe what the show is about is a fool’s errand, since the show is pretty much about everything. Yes it’s a family drama, but it’s about every combination of family and the shifting interdynamics that come with it. It tackles growing up, growing old, marriage, divorce, separation, reconnecting with your family while also trying to be independent of them, children either entering your life or leaving them and how it affects you, autism, racism, alcoholism, cancer, late in life career changes, infidelity, religion, PTSD, teen sexuality and abortion and that’s just the stuff off the top of my head. It’s Friday Night Lights for people who don’t like football. Whereas Modern Family has maybe had five completely serious moments over the course of its similar run so far, Parenthood has twice as many of those moments in just one episode alone and without the repetitive “Frasier meets The Office” formula. It’s a show that does what the best family dramas in either film or TV do. It helps us to reflect on our own lives and families to see through the conflict and petty bullshit we have with one another to the intense, unconditional love that makes us who we are and what binds us to our families.
Rather than do a season by season recap of the entire series so far (mainly because it would take too damn long), I’m going to break the series down by focusing on each branch of the Braverman family tree while highlighting some of the most notable plotlines and episodes for them. That way you can get caught up with the past 4 seasons without having to watch all 68 episodes, although I still highly recommend you do so.
Adam, Christina, Haddie, Max, Nora: While I may be biased towards this branch of the family due to the presence of Peter Krause, who played my favorite character (Nate Fisher) on one of my all time favorite shows (Six Feet Under), the biggest dramatic turns of the show has always been with Adam and Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) and their three kids. Haddie (Sarah Ramos), their son Max (Max Burkholder) and their newest addition of Nora. Actually, the two best moments in the entire series so far has to do with them. In the pilot, they discover that Max has Aspbergers, which has more or less been the dramatic engine that has powered their side of the series. While on other shows this might’ve been a melodramatic gesture, Max’s and his family’s struggle with his condition has a level of painful authenticity to it, due to Jason Katims’ real life autistic son acting as inspiration. Of the various teens and children on the show, Max has the most challenging role to pull off in playing the character and not the condition. And it’s a testament to Burkholder’s acting ability in that 4 years in, viewers still ask if he has Aspbergers in real life. One particular stand-out episode in this regard is “Qualities and Difficulties” where after finding out about his condition via knock-down, drag-out fight between Adam and Crosby, Adam and Kristina finally have to sit down with Max to explain to him what Aspbergers is. And they screw up big time. She cries, which implies that it’s something to mourn and Adam calls it a disability, which it isn’t. And an attempt to create a memorable father/son bonding experience by playing hooky and going to an amusement park ends up in a meltdown that will forever make me pause the next time I see a kid screaming in a public area. They then have a second talk that goes much better and a simple question asked by Max is one of the most heartbreaking moments in a show that has at least one per episode. If this show is remembered for nothing else, it’ll be for the deft way in which Katims and Co. handle this thorny issue that affects millions of people every day. And it was this episode that I feel the show became “The Show”. When they went from “OK, this in interesting, I’ll check it out.” to “Holy Fucking Shit, I will invest my emotional energy into this on a weekly basis.”
Less her younger brother get all the attention, Haddie also has had some great drama of her own. Yes in season 1 it was the typical “fighting over a boy” type drama between her and her cousin Amber (who we’ll get to later), but in season 2, after volunteering some community service time at a soup kitchen at her grandmother Camille’s behest, she meets and falls in love with Alex (Michael B. Jordan), a slightly older guy whom Adam and Christina object to her dating. Not because he’s black, but because he’s a recovering alcoholic with a record. This leads the straight A good girl of the children to finally rebel against her parents to the point of actually moving out. And while it eventually does get resolved and Haddie and Alex break up in season 3, this was one of the best plotlines of the series. Adding race and recovering alcoholism certainly livens up what would seem like a cookie cutter teen girl romance storyline. But it’s the way that the family actually changes having had Alex come into their lives to the point that Adam went to bat and actually defended him to another family looking to press charges on him. And when Haddie and Alex did break up, his teary eyed monologue to Kristina on how their love and acceptance of him meant so much to him was another great emotional moment in a series filled to the brim with them. Of the various Friday Night Lights alumni to guest on the show, Michael B. Jordan was by far the best of the bunch. Between this, FNL, The Wire, Chronicle and Fruitvale Station, it’s no wonder that this guy is on the brink of much deserved stardom. At the beginning of Season 4, the series did something with Haddie that is an odd occurrence in television. She actually went to college out of state. And while she did come back for a few episodes, Sarah Ramos is now in “guest star” territory. This acknowledgement of the fact that kids eventually move out and live their own lives away from the family (unlike Modern Family which had Haley drop out after a few eps to get her back with the family so as to not disrupt the formula), is another thing that sets this series apart from other family dramas. It follows the natural progression of life and doesn’t write characters out due to contract negotiations or blooming movie careers or find contrived ways to keep the status quo frozen in amber.
Nora we can’t get into since she’s still a baby at this point. Brought in during season 3 and named after a late Vice President at NBC that helped to shepherd to series during development, Nora at this point is just an extension of Kristina, who is tied with Crosby as the adult character that has done the biggest character change of the series so far. Starting out as a harried housewife who always seemed ready to have a nervous breakdown every time Max acts out, and played by an actress whose most notable work in the past was Patch Adams, one would think that there wouldn’t be much to this character. But like Dax Shepherd with Crosby, Monica Potter ended up rising to the level of her co-stars to turn Kristina into a layered character (the hints at the strained relationship with her own family is the closest thing to a “mystery” the show has and is used sparingly but effectively), which culminated in quite possibly the best work of her career in season 4 aka. The Cancer Season. Kristina Braverman battling breast cancer is by far the single best plotline the series has done. While almost every drama in the history of television at one point or another has touched upon cancer, Parenthood I feel has done it the best. As someone whose own mother had breast cancer, I can assure you that this show and Monica Potter nailed it absolutely perfectly. The shock, the apprehension of telling your family, the doctor’s appointments, the friendships that are struck that hinge on both parties knocking on death’s door, the “walking on eggshells while bent backwards” attitude that everyone around you has, the operations, the chemo and the irony of a treatment that’s suppose to cure you doing more damage to your body than the disease itself, trying live a normal life as this growth in your system is spreading, the despairing sense of complete helplessness and the realization of the finality of your life. All of this is depicted with accuracy, dignity and emotional honesty. This I feel culminates in “What To My Wondering Eyes” the 1st Christmas episode Parenthood has done, and memorable mainly for taking place mostly in a hospital as Kristina fights off a staph infection and is potentially on her death bed. While Adam sits at her bedside, he opens up her laptop and discovers a video of her to play to Haddie, Max and Nora in case if she dies.
To me, the mark of a great film or tv show or piece of music or any work of art really, is how much it can affect you on an emotional level. For it to cut through thousands of hours spread over a lifetime to latch onto your soul and create a deeply personal reaction is not something to discount. I have only ever cried twice at a movie (The animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Up in case if you were wondering). I have only ever almost cried at 3 films in the last decade (Atonement, Brokeback Mountain and Superman Returns, which I will fight to the fucking death defending). I have never cried for a TV show. Not for The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones. Not for anything on Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Doctor Who or any Whedon show. Not for Mulder finally seeing his long lost sister and getting closure on The X-Files. Not for any character death on any drama. Not for any Jim and Pam moment on The Office. Not for Fry at his nephew’s grave on Futurama. Not for “You Are Lisa Simpson” on The Simpsons. Not for “WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST LET ME MAKE BELIEVE!!!” on Batman: The Animated Series. Not even for the “Breathe Me” final montage of Six Feet Under, one of my all time favorite shows whose series finale is my gold standard for series finales. But this simple scene of a woman giving her three children a final goodbye and her husband finally breaking down and praying to God to let her live is what finally broke the dam for me. This is the one and only time a TV show has made me cry. So what if it never gets any Emmy love. So what if the TV critics keep overlooking it in favor of yet another HBO, AMC, FX, Showtime or Netflix series. For finally making me weep for fictional characters on a network TV show, this series shall always have a place in my heart.
And finally, we get to the patriarch of this family and arguably the series main character, Adam Braverman, played by the great Peter Krause. Right up top, I admitted my bias towards this actor. But if you’ve seen him in Six Feet Under or Sports Night, or even his one episode of Seinfeld “The Limo”, you know already that this is one of the best, unsung actors working in TV today. A performer who specializes in characters who are supposedly care-free and have it all figured out, but are pressure cookers of frustration who when they finally let said frustrations out, they do so in a controlled, but still devastating manner that makes similar moments seem like over the top histrionics. There are many shades of Nate Fisher in Adam. While Adam is far too responsible to ever date a gloriously messed up woman like Brenda or let a fear of death lead him to do increasingly irresponsible and selfish things at the expense of those around him, he does share the same level of pent up frustration with the world around him, although in this case it’s more towards running a new business on top of dealing with the wife and kids, one of which is technically a special needs child, not to mention Crosby, his slightly immature brother/business partner. This culminates in “If This Boat Is A Rockin'” where in the cold open, his frustrations finally hit a boiling over point when he punches out a guy at a checkout line after said guy calls Max a “retard”. Later on as he explains to Zeek, Adam admits to feeling angry all the time and finds it funny that the man who exploded all the time is admiring him for being in control. I so wish this moment was on YouTube, because I feel it’s one of the best bits of acting in Krause’s career. It should be in every monologue book actors read for their training, it’s that freaking good. Ultimately, Adam’s long term arc of the series is one of letting go and embracing the unpredictability of his life. Where he not feel burdened by what life throws at him but to embrace it and roll with said punches with humor and fortitude.