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'Parenthood' Takes on Alcoholism, With Surprisingly Realistic Results

If Parenthood is teaching us anything, it is that addiction turns all of us into addicts, even those of us who thought we didn't have a problem.

Parenthood, a decent show from NBC that has been generating medium-high heat this season, doesn’t hesitate to confront the mundane. Most problems, especially those involving family, are not exciting, sweeping affairs, but involve small fights that escalate because people just see things differently; Parenthood specializes in said fights.

The show, which PopMatters’ Daynah Burnett originally reviewed to low marks, has become markably better this season. The characters have developed into a relatively healthy family grappling with its fair share of normal and less than normal issues; Aspergers, unemployment and adultery are just some of them. But by far the most interesting hurdle in this second season for the Braverman family is addiction; most specifically, alcoholism.

Alcoholism has been a plot point in two storylines; in the budding relationship between 16-year-old Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and her boyfriend Alex (Michael B. Jordan), who is six months sober with a dark past, and through the reemergence of the father of her cousins Amber (Mae Whitman) and Drew (Miles Heizer), Seth (John Corbett). With both characters, the message Parenthood sends us is that redemption is possible -- but not without strings.

The first case evolves as a tumultuous, multi-episode arc of Haddie rebelling against her parent’s worry and anger over her dating a boy who has, for all appearances, become responsible and turned his life around. They consider her naïve because of her love; he is three years older than her and in AA. Their concerns, expressed poorly, are not unfounded; we see her naivete through a conversation Haddie has with Amber in Episode 12. Concerned, Amber says, “When somebody you love drinks, it’s like you don't matter, and they become a different person, and it can be really really scary.” Haddie listens to her, but of course Alex is different, and we see her instead fixate on what she has now, not what has been or what could be.

Amber has rough memories of her father, a musician who has been divorced from her mother Sarah (Lauren Graham) for some time, and who has obviously created a great deal of instability and damage in her family. When Seth comes “back into the picture” so to speak, Sarah says to him, “If you hurt them again, I’ll kill you.”

Sarah and Seth have a relationship frought with confusion; she wants to give him a second chance, but struggles with how much is too much, and how to control him, something that was likely a problem while they were married. But a desire to allow her son Drew to get to know his father better is not entirely deterred by her own insecurities and memories, and she pushes past her worry. Even a fistfight at school, which we see is spurred by Drew’s time with his father, is eventually shaken off by Sarah. But a previous struggle with her father over Drew’s drinking shows that she cannot forget the ease with which we slip into addiction.

Amber, however, is not so forgiving. She wants to support Drew, but she says to him forcefully in Episode 15, “I remember specifically how things were at home when you were just a baby.” Drew counters by claiming, “I know that he's changed now. I talked to him. He's different.” Amber cannot entirely write off Seth’s influence, but her budding love of music shows he is not as distant as she'd like, and brings out emotional moments with Sarah, who wrote music with Seth and is greatly moved by Amber’s talents.

Every connection to Seth, however, comes with reservations. Sarah’s mother Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) notes that Amber reminds her of Seth, but her father Zeke (Craig T. Nelson) is not so clear-headed, despite expressing that he should make more of an effort with his children. When Sarah tentatively asserts in Episode 16 that, “It’s really good for him [Drew] to see his dad, it really is”, Zeke says, “Is it? I don’t know.”

Through the confusion and controversy these characters go through in dealing with addiction problems, it feels as though the creators of Parenthood have purposefully avoided having a nuclear family member be an alcoholic. Instead, many of them deal with the repercussions of other important, but more peripheral friends and family coping with their own sobriety. This is most likely because it makes for greater ease in writing future plotlines on behalf of the writers; if the story gets tired, the character does not need to be part of the permanent show arc.

Few other dramas have dealt well with alcoholism in such a believable, consistent manner; the ABC show Brothers & Sisters has Justin Walker (Dave Annable), the youngest brother of a similarly large brood, who has had realistic up and downs in his fight with addiction to painkillers. Early on, one of the Desperate Housewives’, Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Kross), began to deal with familial stress by drinking excessively. She eventually conquers her battle despite early-on denial and a relapse in a later season, but in one particularly zany turn of events, develops an insatiable attraction to her sponsor, who is a sex addict. Mad Men spent the entirety of its fourth season showing an increasingly unhinged Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who eventually showed us that even if it was the '60s, when drinking on the job was, in some circles, acceptable, the term “functioning alcoholic” only goes so far.

Sitcoms often paint a much brighter version of drinking. Friends utilized “Fun Bobby”, Monica’s boyfriend who the gang eventually realizes is only fun when he is intoxicated. When Monica (Courtney Cox) helps him stop drinking, she soon turns to it herself to stay interested in being around him. They eventually break up because her drinking has become “a problem” and threatens his own sobriety.

Cox currently plays an avid drinker herself; Jules on Cougar Town, which New York Magazine called “The Most Pro-Alcohol show on TV", due to the “Cul-de-sac-Crew’s" love of red wine. Jules even has a huge wine glass she calls “Big Carl”, and one episode centered around her attempting to go a month without drinking. Many of the antics during the run of Will & Grace featured another hilarious drunk, Karen Walker (Megan Mullally), who once said "Honey, I'd suck the alcohol out of a deodorant stick." These lovable alcoholics poke fun of our addictions, with few ramifications in their own lives or in the lives of their friends and family.

Parenthood has yet to resolve either of their addiction plotlines, but both look like rocky roads. The choice to have these characters be guest stars, no matter how central, is a normal one: it’s more difficult to have to keep referring to an addiction, season after season. Alcoholism is a constant, hard, uphill battle for most people, and television, even serious television, is escapism. In Episode 16, Seth apologizes to Drew, saying, “I’m sorry I’m not everything I’m supposed to be. You know, we are who we are. It’s just hard having people tell you you don’t add up, even if you don’t add up.” Drew asserts to his father that he “does add up", but this scene leaves those of us watching at home little comfort.

Addiction infests us all; even more so than the 1 in 3 Americans who have abused alcohol in their lifetimes. If Parenthood is teaching us anything, it is that addiction turns all of us into addicts, even those of us who thought we didn't have a problem.

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