[4 August 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
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.
Parenthood aside, the family drama on current television is in dire shape.
Friday Night Lights was not, strictly speaking, a family drama, though few shows on television dealt with families as well. But sadly this past season was its last. As mentioned above, Parenthood’s creator, Jason Katims, was the executive producer for Friday Night Lights. The Taylor family was possibly the most believable family on television the past five years, and could in fact feature in a debate about the great families ever on TV. Eric, Tami, and Julie Taylor were so believable that it felt sometimes as if an invisible videographer had been deposited in their midst to record their everyday lives.
The superhero show No Ordinary Family was definitely family focused, but the Powell family was never particularly super, either as heroes or as a family. The CW, the successor network of the WB, has so far failed to develop the kind of family dramas the latter network excelled at, shows like Seventh Heaven, Gilmore Girls, and Everwood. The CW’s major contribution so far has been to cancel the potentially interesting Life Unexpected.
No show emblemizes the decline of the family drama more than Brothers and Sisters. It started off well enough four years ago, with a large cast of extremely talented actors, and for a season or two developed some reasonably interesting storylines. But the show quickly succumbed to its own conceits and I began to cringe when each episode would begin with what they obviously felt was the obligatory Walker group phone call. The Walker family dinners were just as bad, but thankfully decreased in frequency in the final two seasons.
The show was also hurt by an ever shrinking cast, losing both Rob Lowe and Emily Vancamp in its final season, and Balthazar Getty and Sarah Jane Morris the season before that. But the more serious problem was the weak writing. The show more and more frequently had to rely on melodrama and dark revelations about characters’ pasts to fill time. But never, not even in Season One, did the narrative seem as natural as those on Parenthood.
The final season of Brothers and Sisters was the most difficult to watch, most epitomized in the series finale, in which nearly every character was flung into either an engagement or serious relationship. The final several episodes of the season had been marred by many storylines, including one in which Nora Walker (Sally Field) is out of nowhere revealed to have a lifelong secret great love, with whom she is magically reunited. It felt as hollow as the rest of the story and few lamented the end of the show.
From various comments made by performers on the show, it seems clear that most of them realized that the show had reached the end of anything good it could achieve. The show had a great cast filled with many talented actors, most of whom we’ll see again shortly in one show or another. The failure came with the writing.
Why are there so few family dramas today? I honestly don’t know and won’t even attempt an answer, but it’s a question worth pondering. Do family dramas speak to TV viewers today as they did at one time? Or has society under gone a shift in which we prefer our TV drama to focus on relationships that are not primarily set within the context of a family? “Chosen families” have come to dominate television, with groups of characters forming bonds that no normal family can rival. Take the group of friends in How I Met Your Mother, where the friends have formed a group whose members are as fully committed to one another as anyone in a real family could be.
Certainly one reason there are so few family dramas might be that the networks want to target their series at a younger audience, especially people in the 17 to 34 age range. Perhaps the assumption is that people in that age range do not care for their relational dramas to be embedded in families.
All of which means that we need to appreciate the rare family drama that we do get. Shows like Parenthood are not being pitched in large numbers on any of the major networks. So far the time being, almost all of the families are going to encounter on TV will be in comedies. Television is a cyclical medium. Most likely we’ll see significant numbers of family dramas at some time in the future. But perhaps not.
The Western dominated television in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, but this coming season will see a grand total of one Western, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. But since families are more central to American life today than the Western, I would be astonished if we don’t see a return at some point to the family drama.