What Parenthood Gets Right About Families and Drama — and Three Things It Just Gets Wrong

Photo: Harper Smith/? NBC Universal, Inc
Photo: Harper Smith/? NBC Universal, Inc

Parenthood sure knows how to pluck some heartstrings. Last night’s season finale, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” squeezed a superhuman amount of tears into a mere 44 minutes, and in doing so highlighted everything the sophomore drama does right (pick it up for a third season, NBC) — and a lot of what it does wrong. Cue the Bob Dylan!

Let’s start with the good.

The show features best crying on television.
Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham can go from furrowed-brow screaming to open sobs in a heartbeat, and Parenthood has put that to superb use. As previously mentioned, Whitman in particular gets that adolescent frustration-cry exactly right, joining Claire Danes in the Teenage Weeping Hall of Fame.

All the performances are good, and some are actually great.
Crosby should be annoying and awful, but he’s not: Dax Shepard gives him an energy and vulnerability that make him not just likable but endearing, too. Max Burkholder, who’s all of 13, is fantastic, and Craig T. Nelson makes Zeek’s volatility seem like a virtue.

It’s a family fantasy without being too saccharine.
Parenthood makes moving in with your folks when you’re 40 seem kind of spunky and fun — Sarah might, on paper, seem like the family fuck-up, but she’s also obviously its biggest cheerleader and emotional MVP. Everyone obviously loves each other very much, and there’s not a lot of squabbling; no one is stupid or bad or the villain. They pop in to say hi to each other; they can all gather around a luxuriously massive outdoor dinner table pretty much whenever; and while the characters experience frustration or anger sometimes, the series is absent grief.

The drama and conflict are authentic.
With a few exceptions, the show avoids the crisis-of-the-week histrionics that can doom family dramas. (Exhibit A: Brothers & Sisters.) Haddie’s fight with her parents over Alex really seemed like something she’d go to the mat for; Sarah’s ongoing frustration with and barely healed heartbreak over her ex Seth is present even when it’s not explicit. Max’s Asperger’s didn’t get magically solved somehow. Characters’ issues are emotionally relevant and socially legitimate.

There’s no formula.
Some weeks, the Bravermans are jokey. Some weeks, it’s all tears. On a given episode, characters may lovingly tease each other or have a door-slamming fight. The ambient chitchat can be hilarious (and given how much of the cast has substantial comedy chops, it’d be nice if that happened more often), and there are episodes that brim with optimism. It can be unpredictable, in a good way.

Nobody’s perfect.
Does the Braverman clan have a hero? Well, not quite. They all behave badly sometimes (except for Joel, who doesn’t quite count), and not just in casual ways. Zeek is actually kind of a bastard. Camille can be distant and judgmental. Adam is controlling, Sarah’s unbelievably needy, and Crosby has a persistent learned helplessness.

But that brings us to some of the show’s issues:

Julia and Joel are not interesting enough.
They don’t have enough to do, and compared to the other characters, their problems don’t have the same depth.

The show doesn’t balance its story effectively among all the characters.
Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis dominated the story lines in season one and continued to be the series’ central story this season. But we still don’t know Drew very well, nor has there been any real exploration of how Jabbar’s sense of self may have changed since his father became a presence in his life. What ever happened to Camille and Zeek’s marital woes?

People come and go so quickly. Or they really, really overstay their welcome.
Parenthood has such a large regular cast that guest stars don’t always get effective plotlines. Billy Baldwin’s Gordon was a major story for a hot minute, and then he vanished. Amber and Haddie had the hots for the same guy, and then he disappeared. Drew had a crush, but she vanished. Amber had a BFF (Zosia Mamet), but she’s gone too. On the other hand, Adam’s young boss Cody and his pals (who are pretty much ripped from a Mr. Show sketch) got a lot of screen time. Last night’s episode included a whole delivery scene starring a character we’d never seen before. “The Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs” may as well have been a backdoor pilot for a new Michael Emerson series. Focus, Parenthood!

What Parenthood Gets Right About Families and Drama — and Three Things It Just Gets Wrong