TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011... Number 5

Except for Parenthood, television is bereft of great family dramas. Just where have all the family dramas gone?

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.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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