Editors Notes: Season 5 of Parenthood premieres Thursday, September 26 on NBC.
Sarah, Amber, Drew: Next up in the family tree, we have single mom Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) and her two teenage kids Amber (Mae Whitman, the hardest working actress in showbiz) and Drew (Miles Heizer). Having never seen an episode of Gilmore Girls and only familiar with Graham due to the immortal phrase “Fuck Me, Santa!”, I was going in with fresh eyes for this actress whose developed a somewhat rabid cult following online. And for someone who inherited the role from Maura Tierney who had to bow out due to breast cancer, I think Lauren was the better actress for the role. Sarah requires a certain level of vulnerability. Of someone who is certainly strong from having to raise two kids on her own after Seth, her high school love, turned into an alcoholic asshole that made their family life a living hell. Despite all this, she is still trying to figure out what to do with her life and who she is. Graham nails this dichotomy of the character perfectly. Of making you care for this woman and be invested in what she does while feeling frustrated as she bounces from one job and man to the next. One season she’s becoming a playwright, the next she’s working as a photographer’s assistant. First she’s falling in love with Mark Cyr (Jason Ritter, Son of John), one of the teachers at Amber’s school, the next she’s being “wooed” by Hank (Ray Romano, or as I like to call him Henchman 24), the misanthropic photographer she works for. The plotlines Sarah gets are reflective of the characters somewhat flighty nature, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. For me, the character shines the most when dealing with her children. When she’s trying either to keep her daughter from going down the same path of mistakes that she’s made or get her painfully shy son out into the world and to open up. Particularly in season 2 in the episode “Just Go Home” when Seth briefly returns back into their lives as a recovering alcoholic whom Drew is trying to reconnect with. This leads to an incredible moment of Sarah going to Seth’s motel room and confronting him about seeing Drew without her knowledge of him being back in town. Of seeing Sarah as the ferocious mama bear protecting her cubs while also dealing with the man who once meant the world to her and is now a walking hazard zone. And as she leaves, she tells Seth with a small smile and in as matter of fact a delivery as possible, “If you hurt them again, I’ll kill you.” It’s these moments that I feel Sarah shines as a character and by extension Graham as an actress as opposed to when she’s deliberating over Son of John and Henchman 24.
Moving onto the two teenagers, the one that has gone through the biggest change is Amber. Starting out as a petulant, snotty brat of a teenage girl, she was obviously the yang to Haddie’s ying. The “black sheep” of the kids, if you will. But over the course of the shows 4 seasons so far, she has evolved from said snotty brat to a confident and mature woman. From dealing with her mother and her brother, to learning how to integrate within this larger extended family to graduating high school, but not having good enough grades to get into college, her arc was of a screw-up kid trying to do right, but not exactly sure how. In a way, Amber is Sarah back when she was a teenager herself, with the added bonus of having the aforementioned Seth as her father. In the previously mentioned episode, she finally tells her father off for never being there when she needed him the most. And in one of the most touching moments of season 3 (set to Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, written by Bob Dylan who is the show’s musical secret weapon), Amber’s heart finally melts just slightly for the man who she had never given an inch to before after receiving some much overdue items. Her time as a screw-up though comes to a head at the end of season 2 when she almost dies due to a car accident. And while she’s still a brat even after the accident, it was only when Zeek took her to the junkyard to see the trashed car that she realizes how close she was not only to losing her life but also ruining her family. After that, she finally got on the straight and narrow path. She started working with Adam and Crosby at The Luncheonette (which we’ll get to later) and in season 4, she met and fell in love with Ryan (Matt Lauria),an Iraq War vet who she might get married to in season 5. For initially following her mother’s path, but finally breaking free somewhat to evolve into a mature woman, Amber has gone through the biggest change of the kids in the series and for that I give kudos to not only the writers and Katims, but also Mae Whitman who once again proves why she’s one of the hardest working twenty something actresses in the industry today.
And finally, we get to Drew, a kid so painfully shy and introverted that he makes Charlie from The Perks of Being A Wallflower look like Ferris Bueller. Whereas Amber’s character transformation is apparent and done in big gestures, Drew’s changes are small and almost microscopic. His most notable change is in season 3 when he finally gets a girlfriend, Amy. And in the 3rd season finale, in an act that actually got Bill O’Reilly upset, he actually had sex with said girlfriend. This wasn’t played salaciously, but in the same tasteful, matter of fact way that the show has always dealt with when tackling real life issues. Teenagers have sex. Let’s not kid ourselves. But this pretty minor controversy lead to “Small Victories” the season 4 episode where Amy tells Drew that she’s pregnant and that she’s going for an abortion. While teenagers getting abortions in tv shows is nothing new, what is new is that for once it’s told from the guy’s point of view. And given that Drew isn’t some player scumbag but a sweet kid just trying to do what’s right but feels terrible for the implications this act has makes what would feel like teen melodrama and give it actual weight and pathos. This is even better considering that a lot of this plotline is conveyed visually. While the show sometimes has a feel of Robert Altman with its ensemble cast, multiple plotlines and overlapping dialogue, the scenes involving Drew and Amy at Planned Parenthood are told through visual storytelling. Where the weight of the situation they’re in is conveyed by a match cut between two nearly identical shots.
This is carried out even more later on, as the wait in the waiting room is nearly silent save for “Hole in the Ocean Floor” by Andrew Bird playing over the soundtrack and a few lines at the end of the scene.
By focusing on the body language and facial expressions of the actors, not a single word is needed to get across the weight of the situation. While the show isn’t going to give Breaking Bad a run for its money in terms of visual storytelling, it does show that on occasion the series can rise to the heights of its cable brethren to give a cinematic quality to the stories it tells and the characters it depicts.
And in the final part of this article, we will look at the younger Braverman parents, as well as the grandparents of the show.