After seven months off the air, Parenthood returned last night with a quintessential Parenthood episode: lots and lots and lots of overtalking, a few emotional scenes, and a little thoughtful meditation on the nature of family. It’s the Parenthood we know and love. But there were a few danger signs in the episode, too, signs that Parenthood is relying on some worn-out character-types and looking for drama in all the wrong places.
Last night’s episode included a minor story about Amber sleeping with one of the musicians recording at her uncles’ studio, only to discover that he was a slimy cheater. You don’t say! More distressingly, he was a perfect dopplegänger for Charlie from Lost, from the song that might as well have been “You All Everybody,” to the scruffy blond vibes, to the overenthusiasm for male jewelry. Certainly the grody rock star who wears vests and lies to women is a stereotype for a reason, and maybe Amber is predisposed to be charmed by bad-boy musician-types thanks to her father, but this secondary character we’ve seen a million other places just felt so warmed over for Parenthood. It’s especially a bummer in an Amber storyline, because Amber’s such a terrific and rare kind of character: a really self-possessed young woman who’s smart and strong and really together in some ways, and very not-together in others, just like a real 20-year-old.
That character déjà vu was even stronger with Ray Romano’s character, an extra-cranky version of his character from Men of a Certain Age. Sarah’s predictable flightiness — lie about your job experience! keep the job based on your charm! — plus a bitter dude who’s gently won over by her spunk? Eesh, Parenthood. We want more for you than this. (And more for Ray Romano, honestly.)
And we want more for Joel and Julia, whose stories never seem as meaningful or naturalistic as the other characters’, and this Victor arc is particularly egregious. Do Joel and Julia just have no idea what is involved with adopting a 10-year-old? (Foster-to-adopting, possibly? It’s not clear.) It’s a weird misfire for a show that’s so, so invested in What Constitutes Family, especially because adopting older children who are possibly trauma survivors is an extremely fraught process that might force one to very seriously consider What Constitutes Family, and to be confronted with the realization that just showering a new family member with love and acceptance is unlikely to be enough.
We get why the Bravermans et al on Parenthood like each other and love each other and take care of one another. But here’s a secret about adult siblings, even close ones: They spend a considerable amount of time discussing one another with one another. Parenthood is at its best in scenes about that, scenes that have inherent, important backstories, scenes that shed some light on the different ways siblings interact in one-on-one pairs, the differences in how the siblings relate to their parents. You know, family stuff. The loose dialogue and lack of melodrama make Parenthood feel authentic, even when it’s being schmaltzy — sometimes life is schmaltzy! — but the scenes and stories that really shine on Parenthood marry that authenticity with a sense of shared history and lasting impact. (Like Haddie at the airport with her parents.) Weak subplots and recycled characters we shouldn’t bother caring about chip away at that, and it’s a shame. Because Parenthood is a very good show.