In honor of Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for Parenthood, network catnip with a brain. Last night’s episode was a typically satisfying feast of aspirational bickering, scored to a Starbucks soundtrack. The children of Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) Braverman gathered at the family table: Hipster-doofus son Crosby (Dax Shepherd) proved himself with a carving knife. Oldest son Adam (Peter Krause) objected when his single-mom sister Sarah (Lauren “Lorelei Gilmore” Graham) invited his boss to dinner. Younger sister Julia (Erika Christensen) went hardcore on Oreos. Adam’s daughter Haddie sneaked off to see her boyfriend. There was flag football, there were confessions and bonding, there was an all-family boogie to “You Down With OPP.” It was no Big Chill, but it hit the spot, if you happen to have that spot, and I do.
Along with The Middle, Modern Family, and Raising Hope, Parenthood is part of a sly renaissance of network family shows. But unlike those sweet-and-sour sitcoms, the NBC drama follows in the tradition of Thirtysomething and Once and Again; while it may be one notch more conventional than those shows, it has all of the same talky pleasures. Best of all, it has a truly kick-ass ensemble, highlighted by Krause’s worrywart charisma and the dry-humored sanity of Mae Whitman, who plays Sarah’s daughter Amber. (It’s hard to pick just two, since everybody is terrific, from Monica Potter as Adam’s wife Kristina, the anxious mom of their son with Asperger’s; to Max Burkholder, as that kid, Max; to Christensen as a self-flagellating working mother. The show has even made me like Graham — and I was not a Gilmore Girls fan.)
The best — and most distinctive — thing about Parenthood is also the thing that’s easiest to mock: its earnestness. There’s an overflow of hard-candy camp on television right now, from Desperate Housewives to Glee to Secret Life of the American Teenager. I adored Ugly Betty and am a big fan of United States of Tara (the other great modern show about family), but there’s something refreshing about a series where people don’t talk in air quotes. There’s Brothers & Sisters, I guess, but that show takes itself way too seriously. Parenthood is lighter, more playful, and while it could be condemned for yuppie navel-gazing, I say, bring on the navels. Let us gaze.
The show’s standout story, and its most original element, deals with Adam and Kristina’s struggle to cope with Max’s diagnosis. There’s been a spike in Aspie adults on television — mostly comic types, on The Big Bang Theory and Community, or savants, on Bones. Parenthood has a very different angle, dramatizing Max’s parents’ waves of fear, their pained hovering, their immersion in a world of half-hopes. In last week’s episode, Potter had a prickly showdown with another mother, whose own special-needs daughter hadn’t invited Max to her birthday party. I, Sap, cried.
That plot ended in warmth and closure, as most of the show’s stories do. It’s a shame: The series is at its best whenever it takes a moment to let the darkness linger. The dialogue varies in quality, sometimes very funny (as when Nelson’s crusty dad calls his wife’s ex-lover “your Portuguese pound cake”), sometimes almost maddeningly on the nose. The writers are also not averse to gimmicks, as when one character eavesdrops on another one monologue-ing in the next room.
In the show’s early episodes, I was allergic to Graham’s Sarah, who seemed like a Lorelei Gilmore xerox: a cutesy flibbertigibbet to whom men regularly announce “you have no idea how great you are.” (On Twitter, TV scholar Jason Mittell aptly summed her up as “manic pixie dream girl grows up and starts doubting her own magical powers.”) Yet on Parenthood, the role works, since it’s clear that Sarah’s not the heroine of the show, just another struggling parent, as flawed as she is charming. Her relationship with her daughter rings especially true, including a complex moment in which the teenager found herself weeping, mom-style, “I thought I could trust you and I’m very, very disappointed in you.”
And I can’t lie: Parenthood regularly chokes me up, the way Grey’s Anatomy does others. Scenes of Max’s vulnerability devastate me. Small misunderstandings, small triumphs, they slay me, even when I recognize they’re manipulative. We all have our weaknesses, and mine is this beautifully-lit porn of familial forgiveness, even when it climaxes in sing-alongs to Naughty by Nature.