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Parenthood Cry-Cap: On a Bender

PARENTHOOD -- "Jump Ball" Episode 513 -- Pictured: (l-r)   Dax Shepard as Crosby Braverman, Tyree Brown as Jabbar Trussell.

This week’s episode of Parenthood was called “Jump Ball,” a title borrowed from the assessment Dr. Pelikan offered to Hank regarding his (possible) Asperger's syndrome: “My gut is, it’s a jump ball.” Meaning: There was no way for the gentle, reassuring doctor to say for sure whether Hank has had Asperger’s since he was Max’s age. The figurative ball could fall either way.

That notion of either-wayness permeated this entire episode of Parenthood. Practically every character or key relationship was stuck in some kind of limbo, which turned this into one of season five’s treading-water hours. And sweet fancy Braverman, there have been far, far too many of those. (Note: By episode’s end, Joel and Julia finally appeared to stop treading water and move toward a real separation. And yes, we will talk about that.)

As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons pointed out in this piece, and I also have mentioned at various points in the cry-capping process, this has not been the strongest season of Parenthood. To put it more harshly: It has been inconsistent and often sloppy, not just because the plots feel extra-stretched but also because some of the wonderfully recognizable humanity in these characters sometimes feels like it’s being leached out and replaced with stereotypical TV drama behavior. Don’t misunderstand: I still like the Bravermans very much. But I also realize that anyone who stumbled onto some of the recent Parenthood episodes, without ever seeing seasons one through four, might understandably look at me and go, “Wait, you like this show? Like, a lot?”

What makes matters worse is that sometimes things on Parenthood still jell really nicely, as they did, at least for me, in last week’s episode with the Max/Micah friendship issues. But then just as quickly, they go all haywire and insufferable again. To use yet another game-related reference/blatantly obvious metaphor from this episode: This show itself has become a bit of a wild card. That’s why I totally got where Hank was coming from in that poker scene. The way Hank feels about his cards is how I feel about Parenthood: I just want my show to continue in its preestablished, reassuringly enjoyable patterns, without a bunch of weird, inauthentic randomness thrown in for no reason.

For the record, I’m abandoning the cry-cap format this week. Why? Because to suggest I came close to shedding anything resembling tears last night would require me to lie like unregistered Crosby Braverman pretending he actually voted for Barack Obama. And I don’t want to do that. There was no crying for me this week.

There was, however, plenty of crying for Amber, who embarked on the Ultimate Hoodie-Wearing Road Trip of Melancholy and the Infinite Post-Ryan-Breakup Sadness, which eventually brought her to a bar that — by pure coincidence — happened to be her father Seth’s workplace. (Why does an alcoholic work at a bar? I don’t know, ask Sam Malone.) Of course, while she was at that bar, Amber got totally wasted, made a scene, tried to drive drunk, then confronted all of her latent daddy issues by crying and screaming at Seth. All of a sudden, Parenthood transformed into Parenthood: Osage County.

To me, that scene was emblematic of what the show often does wrong at the moment: trying really hard to make us feel big emotions without earning them or grounding them in situations that feel real and unscripted. I didn’t feel like Amber was really baring her soul in that parking lot. I felt like she was doing a dramatic reading of what drunk, sad girls say to their negligent fathers. Also: Did Amber not remember that she almost died in a car accident during her “I don’t know what to do after high school” heavy drinking period? Or was she so distraught that she just didn’t care? The fact that she’s been similarly out-of-control in the past wasn’t really addressed and it should have been. Or maybe it was and I just couldn’t hear over the sound of Amber raging about how she doesn’t want to turn out like Seth.

In other news: Drew continued to be caught between a rock (desperately needy Amy, symbol of Drew’s high school experience) and a hard place (Natalie the deliberate tease, who represents college life and all the overnight astronomy field trips it has to offer). By episode’s end, he appeared to have gone with rock, retreating to his dorm room to the both comforting and comfort-craving arms of Amy. I’m not loving this whole situation so much, but I do love what it has the potential to be: an exploration of the hard, transformative changes brought on by that first year of college, a time when nothing provides as much instant, much-needed solace as the sight of the people you loved in high school. Given the goofy love triangle that’s been dominating all things associated with Drew’s story line, I’m not sure how subtly or sensitively the show’s going to handle all of that.

Meanwhile, Zeek and Camille — now back from Italy with bangs, a pair of huge sunglasses, and an air of pretension that makes it clear she has “changed” — are still not on the same page. And with Camille now planning to take another lengthy trip to France, it looks like Zeek’s going to be spending even more time with his beloved fire pit. I have to say, I was on Camille’s side when she went all carpe diem about wanting to travel and paint and whatnot. But it doesn’t seem like she’s taking Zeek’s feelings into account at all. She’s just making decisions without discussing things with him. Maybe she’s sick of feeling like she has to ask permission, which is understandable. But in this episode, she just seemed … above it all? Detached? Disinterested in her husband completely? I don’t know, maybe it’s just the sunglasses and all that Italian-speaking.

Wow, I’ve been pretty negative throughout this non-cry cry-cap. Maybe now it’s time to mention the things I appreciated in this episode.

I appreciated the fight between Adam and Crosby over Hank’s participation in poker night. It was very believable to me that Crosby would describe Hank as “a freak,” while citing behavior that sounds awfully Max-like, without even realizing that his words would agitate Adam. The way that Adam and Kristina projected a future for Max based on how Hank had turned out also rang really true for me. Again: All that Hank/Max stuff is the best thing Parenthood has going right now.

But of course, the real drama is what’s happening between Julia and Joel. Good God, I am tired of listening to them argue and have the same “What are we doing with this relationship?” conversations that, on a much less serious level, Ryan and Amber were having a few weeks ago. No one likes having those talks, and they certainly don’t enjoy watching too many of them on TV. It was sort of a relief when, at episode’s end, Joel finally announced he was moving out. Which took a while considering that at the end of last week’s episode, he said the marriage was unfixable.

I did admire one thing about this plot thread, though, and that’s the evolution of how Julia’s side of the story is being presented. She already confessed her Ed kiss to Adam and then to Joel. This week, we got to see her confess what happened to another sibling: Sarah. It was revealing to observe the differences in those admissions of guilt. The first two times she discussed it, Julia made it sound like she had nothing to do with the kiss, like the kiss was something that rudely happened to her. This time, with Sarah, Julia was able to at least acknowledge that she kissed Ed back — “I probably should have pulled away a half second earlier than I did,” she said.

But then she failed to tell Sarah all the other things that have been going wrong in the marriage — the arguments over how to handle Victor getting left back, her sense of isolation since losing her job, the long-standing issues over whether Julia takes Joel’s career seriously enough. She left all of that out and made it sound like their only problem was this itty-bitty smooch that upset Joel so much that he actually slept in his work-trailer. And then, she made that about him, suggesting the kiss may have bothered him because “he’s trying to justify something on his end,” as in his own romantic feelings for Peet.

Basically, Julia was doing a floor exercise routine of denial because she couldn't handle the idea that the marriage is disintegrating, in part because of things she did and decisions she made. She painted a picture that was guaranteed to make Sarah say exactly what she wanted Sarah to say: that she’s done nothing wrong and Joel’s not going to leave her over some dumb kiss. But we know and Julia knows this is about much more than that.

Julia’s behavior in that scene was a little maddening but very credible. I recognized what she did as something that a person might do, in actual life, when their very real marriage is falling apart and they’re too pained and embarrassed to admit all the reasons why. Capturing that kind of reality is what Parenthood, at its best, has always done. Let’s hope there’s more of that in the weeks ahead, and fewer wild-card games.

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC