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Parenthood Cry-Cap: Born Again

PARENTHOOD -- "Limbo"

Joel and Julia inched just a teensy, tiny bit closer to reconciliation in this week’s Parenthood, a progression that was easy to see coming since the advance promos for this episode practically spelled it out in all-capital letters. As those teasers promised, Joel walked into a church, sat down in a back pew — this was during Aida’s baptism, it turned out — and exchanged meaningful glances with Julia that suggested that, perhaps, he is ready to start fighting for their marriage again. It was a nice moment, but one that would have had more emotional impact if we hadn’t already known, at least vaguely, that it was coming.

That was true about much of this week’s episode, which passed basic Parenthood muster but would have been even more compelling if it had been a little less predictable. Of course Natalie was going to hook up with Drew’s roommate, Berto, and make things unnecessarily extra-awkward between her and Drew. Of course Camille would apologize to Crosby, and vice versa, after their big argument last week about the selling of the Braverman compound. Of course Camille would follow up on that apology by insisting that she host a celebration for Aida’s baptism, which is why there ended up being a big dinner at Braverman Central where, of course, multiple Parenthood story lines totally hit the fan all at once. Those story lines included: Sarah’s run-in with Max, Kristina, and Adam over the controversial printer-monopolization incident; Julia’s sense of inadequacy over her separation from Joel; the fact that Amber and Drew are both in such bad emotional places that they now show up high at pre-baptism dinners and gnaw haphazardly on asparagus tips; the reveal to the rest of the Braverman offspring (specifically, the always-last-to-know Sarah) that Zeek and Camille plan to sell the house; and the fact that Adam was a godfather substitute for Joel, as opposed to the first man Crosby recruited for the job of being Aida’s kinda-sorta spiritual guardian. That dinner scene could have been wonderfully, infectiously, dramatically chaotic, if it hadn’t clearly wanted so damn much to be wonderfully, infectiously, dramatically chaotic. Like the rest of this episode, it felt like it was trying just a little too hard.

Still, this was not a bad hour of Parenthood. Not at all. But like much of this fifth season, it wasn’t quite as good as we all know this show is capable of being. 

On the all-important cry front, there were three tear-inducing (or inducing-ish) moments in this week’s episode, all of which fell on the slightly verklempt side of the spectrum, as opposed to the all-out bawling that may require medical attention end, which, frankly, is what Parenthood should be striving for every week. If this season ends without me crying so hard that I think I might need to be hospitalized, something is not right. That’s all I’m saying. Before I touch on the specific almost-cry moments, though, there are three important questions I’d like to raise after watching this episode:

1. So are Julia and Joel getting back together?

All the drama over Joel no longer serving as Aida’s godfather and not coming to any of the activities planned during Baptism Fest prompted a pair of confrontations: one between Julia and Joel and another between Joel and Zeek. It was obvious from those conversations that Joel’s stone wall of Julia-avoidance was beginning to slowly crumble.

But — but! — that does not necessarily mean the two skinned-knee J’s are getting back together. And frankly, I don’t want them to yet. As I mentioned in last week’s recap, the split of Joel and Julia has provided the most significant conflict and source of quality drama in season five. Ultimately, I’d like to see them back together, but narratively, it’s to Parenthood’s benefit if their separation percolates a bit longer. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if we ended season five not knowing whether their marriage would survive or not — assuming, that is, that we know there will be a sixth season in which that issue can continue to be resolved.

2. So was Sarah really at fault in the whole Max/printer-sharing situation?

Kristina was really unhappy with Sarah when she brought Max home from Hank’s studio after Max flipped out over not being able to use the printer, which Sarah needed to use for work. Kristina made it sound like there was no question that Sarah’s handling of the situation was wrong: “I just felt like, you know, she doesn’t get it,” Kristina told Adam, sounding even more high-and-mighty because she made that statement while preparing Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipe for roasted chicken.

But was Sarah wrong? Perhaps she could have been a little more sensitive toward Max. And later, when she told Adam that he doesn’t understand how to say no to the boy, she did sound like someone who doesn’t really understand the challenges of raising a child with Asperger’s. But I wasn’t sure that she was wrong to try to set boundaries with Max, or to tell him he couldn’t just barge in and use the printer whenever he wanted. Plus, hey: At least she walked the kid all the way home. If she were really being a monster, she would have booted him out of Hank’s studio and told him to hitchhike his way back to his parent’s place.

Look, I’m not saying Sarah dealt with the incident perfectly. But Kristina was so self-righteous about it — it was like “she was expecting me to apologize,” she said, all indignant — that it really rubbed me the wrong way. She has to know that Max is a handful, and that not everyone can always deal with his handful-ish-ness. Then again,  maybe I was just irritated because Kristina was making a family meal based on the contents of a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook.

By the way, random observation: I really wish Parenthood would spend more time exploring the challenges Adam and Kristina face by trying to raise Nora. It has to be really, really hard to bring up another baby at a later stage in life, after having already ushered two kids to the preteen and teenage stage. Right after Nora was born, the show dealt with that subject a little bit. But I feel like there’s a lot more narrative territory to mine there.

3. Can Drew just stop talking to Natalie?

Oh my God, I am so sick of Natalie’s mercurial behavior, and I am so tired of Drew gazing wistfully at iPhone photos of her and getting caught up in all of her manufactured romantic intrigue. When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people,” I’m pretty sure he was specifically referring to Natalie and her attempts to justify hooking up with a guy who obviously has no sense of ethics when it comes to borrowing his roommate’s Gatorade and cashew butter without asking. Drew deserves better, and the show deserves better stories about Drew’s college experience. Now that Drew has decided to bunk with Amber for a while — a move that’s basically a repeat of the same kind of college-scene-avoidance that Drew advised Amy not to engage in — maybe we’ll see less of her. And maybe we’ll see more scenes in which Amber and Drew get high, try to talk about Sartre, and realize they have no idea how to say the name Sartre.

Now, without further ado, here are the three moments that came closest to resulting in weepiness this week:

The Joel/Julia telephone argument: This was probably my favorite moment in this episode because that conversation — about no longer being co-godparents, and also potentially not being a couple again, for good — hit such relatable, moving beats. The idea that the separation would feel more permanent and painful because of a family event made total sense, and Julia’s emotional response to the situation — “It’s a huge honor and it’s a huge responsibility ... and I know we’re not even religious, but this is a loss for me” — was authentic and understandable. (By the way, I loved how all the Bravermans kept reminding everyone that they are not into the whole God thing. Religion is so tied to family. Since it was never a family priority for Zeek and Camille, it’s not a priority for their kids, and, notably, something that doesn’t prevent any of them from being decent people.) Erika Christensen was really great in this scene. When she said, “Whenever you’re ready to fight for us, I’m here,” I felt for her. And I got a wee, wee bit teary.

Cry factor (on a scale of 1 to 5 tears): 1.5 tears.

Zeek confronts Julia: It was completely preposterous that Zeek would leave in the middle of that pre-baptism dinner to go talk to Joel. How did he even know where Joel’s sad-dad apartment was located? Did he just type "Sad-Dad Apartment" into Google Maps and it immediately told him where to go? Nevertheless, his desire to fix his daughter’s marriage was sweet, and it was even sweeter that he clearly really cares for Joel as a person, separate from his relationship with Julia. “I made a vow to support you and her in that marriage,” he said. “I took you on as a son.” Dammit, Craig T. Nelson. Your words made my eye rivers very gently start to run.

Cry factor: 2 tears.

Joel at the baptism: As stated earlier, we knew Joel was going to make an appearance in a church. So when it was time for the baptism, we knew he’d probably show up at the last minute. While that made it less of a surprise, and slightly less affecting that it might have been, it was still affecting. A sign that a marriage could be born again, on a day when a family celebrates a birth? Come on, that’s total cry-cap-worthy material.

Cry factor: 2 tears.

Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC