High Point Number 5: Parenthood Carries the Banner of Family Drama
Few people have commented on the recent demise of the family drama. It is, of course, a genre with a long and distinguished history, but unfortunately of late there have been far too few examples. I’ll hold off commenting further about the absence of great family drama until today’s lowpoint, but great television family dramas are almost nonexistent, these days.
There are, of course, several fine family comedies, including Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the recently cancelled United States of Tara, as well as perhaps the best new comedy of 2010-2011 season, Raising Hope. There’s also Desperate Housewives, which is several years past its prime (if indeed it ever was ‘prime’). Indeed, the family remains a ripe source of humor in both one hour and half hour increments, especially when the families are as delightfully dysfunctional as in Raising Hope.
There is, however, one series that is both the finest family drama on TV and as well as perhaps its most underrated show: Parenthood. What sets it apart from many other family dramas from the past is its relative lack of melodrama and its embrace of realism. What distinguishes it from other family dramas of the past ten or so years is the quality of the writing, the outstanding cast, and deft handling of issues.
Parenthood is a remake of a series based on a successful 1989 movie of the same name that starred Steve Martin. The film, by the way, featured a very young Martha Plimton as one of the stars, who just garnered a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her role in the series Raising Hope. The earlier Parenthood series was a failure both critically and in ratings, despite an outstanding assemblage of talent; Ron Howard was an executive producer while Joss Whedon was on the writing staff, and Ed Begley Jr., a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, Thora Birch, and David Arquette were in front of the camera.
The new Parenthood has not gotten very good ratings, but NBC is not distinguished for having a powerful roster of shows, and the series has at least gotten some significant critical acclaim. It’s not a stretch to say that in spite of the ratings, it’s the network’s finest drama.
What makes Parenthood such a delightful series is the realistic feel to the show, which translates into complete believability. While all scripted shows are by definition artificial, in that they are fictional creations, the good shows disguise that fact. Just as Yeats wrote that “women must labour to be beautiful,” so television shows must labor to seem everyday. Disguising the artifice takes an enormous amount of skill, and some shows rarely manage to sustain the illusion. Take the recently ended Brothers and Sisters. There were few scenes in that show that felt even the tiniest bit real; instead, one is acutely aware of watching a bunch of actors watching their marks and trying to remember their lines.
One reason that Parenthood feels so much more realistic is the producers’ decision to employ a multi-camera set up. Using more than one camera gives a show a very different look and feel than a single camera series. The gains are usually twofold. First, there’s greater continuity in scenes. Here’s an example: in the Season Four premiere of Gossip Girl, there’s a long scene in which Nate and Juliet have their first conversation. A single camera was used, which meant that they filmed the entire scene from the standpoint of one of the characters, and then refilmed the entire dialogue from a different point of view. In the editing process they cut from one point of view to the other to give the sense of a conversational exchange.
The problem with the scene is that Juliet handles the book differently in the two set ups, open from one viewpoint, and closed from the other. It’s an error that often occurs when filming with a single camera. If they had used two or three cameras, the scene would have been captured from several angles, but all of the action would match because all cameras would have captured the same action.
A second and perhaps bigger problem with using a single camera is that all actors tend to act toward the camera rather than to each other. In a single camera approach, the actors all stand in such a way that they are in the frame of the camera. But with multiple cameras, there’s no single framing of the action; instead of acting towards the camera, the actors focus instead on one another. Shows filmed like this have a much greater sense of realism.
The technique goes back to Akira Kurosawa, who first learned the benefits of multiple cameras in action sequences but soon began using them in all scenes in his films. Most recently, the technique has been used to enormous effect in Friday Night Lights. Not coincidentally, the creator of this new version of Parenthood is Jason Katims, who was the showrunner of Friday Night Lights for its first several seasons.
With the advantages that multiple cameras bring, the directors are able to take full advantage of Parenthood’s outstanding cast. It’s a travesty that the series did not receive any major Emmy nominations, and especially tragic that not a single actor received a nod. The problem might be that with a large and remarkably strong ensemble cast, it’s difficult for one actor or actress to really stand out. The ensemble is so superb that everyone steals one another’s thunder.
It’s easy to praise the more obvious actors on the show, like Peter Krause and Lauren Graham, not to mention Erika Christensen, Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, and Mae Whitman, but let me single out two whose excellence has been most surprising to me. Max Burkholder, who plays the autistic child Max Braverman, never breaks character as an unusually demanding, challenging child. If he weren’t so exceptional and convincing as an autistic child, the great scenes he sets up for Peter Krause and Monica Potter wouldn’t be anywhere near as impressive. It’s because we believe Max so completely that we are able to believe the agony and strain of his parents.
The other actor I want to single out is Dax Shepard. When I heard the names of the cast before the series began, I was really upset that Shepard had been cast. I’d seen him in a couple of things and I considered him both too lightweight for a serious drama and more than a tiny bit irritating. But he has become one of my favorite characters on the show. It’s easy to feel his anguish as he strives to regain the woman he loves and his child after sleeping with another woman in a moment of weakness. He’s the character on the show filled with the greatest pathos, and despite his failure with his fiancé, the one we most root far.
Parenthood is a great show, but it doesn’t fulfill today’s expectations of what a great show is supposed to be like. It doesn’t fit in with the spirit of the age very well, where procedurals, talent shows, and reality shows tend to dominate. But no show on television deals with the quiet desperation that Thoreau so eloquently said runs through the lives of most people. The Bravermans are not perfect. Nearly every character on the show has hurt another in some spectacular fashion, but it is also perhaps the most human show on TV. It may be like all TV all artifice, but it is also the one that feels most like real life.
Katims’s earlier show, Friday Night Lights, did not get the Emmy nominations it deserved until after its final season had been broadcast. Hopefully he won’t have to wait as long for the kind of recognition that Parenthood deserves.