For its last four seasons, Parenthood has owned the territory of manufactured middle-class angst. The Braverman siblings, who have almost everything any normal person could want—parents round the corner, children, spouses they like and often love, jobs that pay or family members who’ll support them, roofs over their heads, sometimes luxurious—are some of the saddest people on TV. It’s the kind of show where you can’t see a hug or hear a proposal without immediately thinking, “Trouble ahead.”
That trouble is always dire, to someone. Whether it’s a tussle with the neighbors or a cancer diagnosis, the register of tragedy is the same: someone’s ego is being bruised, and he or she is just not happy about it. It is, perhaps, the show featuring the most self-absorbed characters not written or produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (although creator Jason Katims did find his first TV job on the duo’s My So-Called Life.)
Despite some of the most accomplished performances on television, especially from Peter Krause as tighty-whitie big brother Adam and Lauren Graham, who finds the kernel of charm in self-obsessed Sarah, Parenthood paints families more like predators than refuges. In the Season Five premiere, one visit from parents Camille and Zeek (Bonnie Bedelia and Craig T. Nelson), and assorted siblings and kids, drives new parents Crosby (Dax Shephard) and Jasmine (Joy Bryant) into door-slamming hostility. Adam turns a gentle gesture of friendship from Hank (Ray Romano) towards Max (Max Burkholder) into a potentially sneaky route back into Sarah’s life, which he attempts to divert by paying Hank for his kindness. Despite being possibly the best-housed super in the entire Bay area, Sarah still manages to whine about lack of attention. Only this time her kids are the culprits, not the men in her life. Sometimes beating one’s head against the wall, as Max used to do when overwhelmed in the earlier seasons, seems the only logical response.
The navel-gazing tenor doesn’t always obscure Parenthood‘s thought-provoking moments, which often also showcase clipped, witty scripting, and lucid acting. After Sarah tweets to Amber about Drew’s minimalist updates from college, Amber pins him down at a coffee shop table to remind him of the curse of a perpetually needy parent. If one sibling neglects their mother, she sucks all energy from the other and leaving home doesn’t mean leaving the mother-management bargain behind. After three days as the parent of a crying newborn, Crosby is reduced to all-night, two-mile-an-hour drives to lull the baby to sleep.
Amid the slapstick of Adam’s jumping into, and out of, the moving car to dispense parenting advice, Crosby also confesses that he feels no love or connection to his daughter. He realizes, watching, with the audience, all expression of brotherly reassurance fade from Adam’s face, that he may be facing bigger trouble than the sleep deprivation wrecking his body and his brain. Yet such moments of intelligence and revelation never add up to long-term character change or even the slightest revolution in family dynamics.
In December 2010, the Economist ran an article in its Christmas special reporting on research that showed how individuals’ psychological well-being declined during precisely those years when they were marrying and having and raising children. It kicked up again from the early 50s onwards, just when those chicks were exiting the nest. Parenthood begins its fifth season just as it concluded its fourth (and third, second, and first) with its central characters, the Braverman siblings, still mired in what the Economist called “The U-Bend of Life,” the fictional epitome of one of those happiness researchers’ key conclusions: “People with children in the house are less happy than those without.” If only we knew….