TV

Parenthood: Series Premiere

The adult siblings in Parenthood engage in plenty of passive aggression and clever banter (see, just like at your house!).

Parenthood

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Monica Potter, Dax Shepard, Erika Christensen, Monica Potter, Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Air date: 2010-03-02
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The problem with crafting a show after a movie as popular as Parenthood is that it now feels familiar to the point of cliché. While NBC's series is shorter on comedy and longer on drama than Ron Howard's 1989 film, the material still feels rehashed at lukewarm temp.

In part this is because the show's focus is typical of TV fare: suburban, upper middle class white folks, here, un-ironically named the Bravermans. The pilot begins, as most pilots do, with a heavy dose of exposition, in which we learn that Sarah (Lauren Graham) has split some time ago from her drug-addicted musician husband, also the absent father to her two teenage kids. She's 38 years old, out of money and in need of a fresh start, and so opts to move her begrudging brood from Fresno to Berkeley to all live with her well-intentioned parents (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia). Here she also can reconnect with her siblings -- who have all stayed near their childhood home. As she visits with family man Adam (Peter Krause), commitment-phobe Crosby (Dax Shepard), and workaholic Julia (Erika Christensen), each with his or her own nuclear family in the area, it becomes clear that their cell phones only ring when there is a child-related crisis that needs immediate resolution.

When they're not on their phones with spouses, the siblings engage in plenty of passive aggression and clever banter (see, just like at your house!). But they must also endure contrived nonsense that depletes these exchanges of their potential emotional charge. On the night of Sarah's arrival, Julia aims to fix her up with a friend, insisting, "You need a date." Their mother nods in agreement, "Badly." This interaction typifies the inane premise of Parenthood. How could her family not consider Sarah's current troubles with her children, Amber (Mae Whitman) and Drew (Miles Heizer), struggling as their lives have turned upside down. They have in fact moved elsewhere: Amber's living with her musician boyfriend and Drew to live with his musician daddy. Honestly, anyone close to Sarah -- say, her mother -- should see that the last thing she "badly" needs is a date.

More bad parenting is on display by Adam and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter). A Little League coach, he begs his sports-averse eight-year-old, Max (Max Burkholder) to play, because, he says, baseball "meant a lot to me when I was a kid." This moment is framed as one of genuine compromise and honesty rather than what it is: Adam refusing to accept that his son is not just like him. There's more: if we accept that Adam believes his son is his direct reflection, we have to think his worst parenting fears are realized when Max begins withdrawing from school and biting classmates rather than saying hello to them. A few commercials later, Max is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome (one way that the series clumsily "updates" the movie). Miserable at the news, Adam rejects Max's condition until a teary Kristina pleads, "Don't make me go through this alone." Um, what about what little Max is going through?

The generation-wide gap between the film and the series is underlined when you consider their audiences. Today's TV viewers recognize Adam's uninspired efforts as obviously bad parenting. We've learned already from watching films like Parenthood that parenthood itself is largely about putting aside selfish, self-absorbed, self-serving decisions in favor of those that will ultimately nurture and protect your children -- it's a constant, daily struggle. Simply put, the painful process of getting over yourself is one of the hallmarks of good parenting. Even though Parenthood's parents are all making completely misguided choices, the series doesn't consider these as a means to education, through which the adults might reach that kind of self-awareness. That lack of consideration is the series' most unfortunate waste of a promising storyline, one that could have imbued this second version with something refreshing or even revelatory.

One last gripe: casting. NBC elected to cherry-pick gifted and well respected actors with ample family dramedy experience, but the actors' association with other family dramas is distracting at best. What can Lauren Graham possibly bring to the single mother story that she didn't do as Lorelei in Gilmore Girls? Even more puzzling is the series' opening scene, in which Peter Krause steps off his porch in athletic shorts to stretch before he jolts down the sidewalk, launching a minute-long montage of his run through a California neighborhood. In this scene, Krause could be Nate Fischer, Krause's character in HBO's Six Feet Under, which routinely featured scenes of him running through his California neighborhood shot nearly identically. Why Parenthood opens with this explicit visual reference to a far superior family drama on a competing network is anyone's guess. Whether it's an intended joke, an intentional homage or something accidental, its effect is profound: I couldn't help but wish I was watching that excellent show and not this unexceptional one.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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