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.