I didn’t think I’d like Parenthood, a show about family relationships which focuses on the conflicts of the Braverman family. A premise that leaves much room for over-dramatic clichés.
And it starts out that way. We are introduced to oldest son Adam (Peter Krause ) who is distracted from his morning run by calls from siblings looking for advice and his crusty father Zeek, (Craig T. Nelson) insisting he drop everything to unclog a drain. Sister Sarah (Lauren Graham) is moving home after a failed marriage. She drags her two children along with her as her daughter’s bare-chested, guitar-clad boyfriend hangs out the window looking after them wistfully. Julia (Erika Christensen) is trying to show her daughter a great time in fairyland but is interrupted by her hectic work life. Even Adam’s central conflict is cliché. His son Max won’t put on his baseball uniform for “the big game”. Adam insists his son participate claiming, “once he gets his first hit everything will turn around for him.” It is this hit about 8 minutes into the episode that had me hooked on the show.
It is clear from his teammate’s disappointed reactions as Max steps up to the plate that he is not good at baseball. I don’t really care about sports and I didn’t really care about Max’s triumph or failure here. However, there is something about the way his Uncle Crosby (Dax Shepard) leans in to watch his nephew bat that immediately drew me in. I was suddenly spellbound (no exaggeration) as the family is intently focused on Max. Mother (Monica Potter) is clasping and wringing her hands as she forces herself to stare forward and Grandpa Zeek is frantically pacing and ranting on the sidelines. As Max’s bat connects with the ball with a metal snap, the look of shock, surprise and confusion on Max’s face – as well as the gasp that escapes his mother’s throat and the pride in his father’s eyes – immediately had me in tears. I was on the edge of my seat as Max ran the wrong way and was narrowly called out. As the family went into protection mode, with Grandpa Zeek cursing the umpire out and Adam even trying to punch him in the face, my emotions went to the same place: I also wanted to scream at the umpire for his clearly-stupid and blind (if technically correct) call. It was these carefully selected and beautifully acted moments of feeling that connected me to the show.
From this point forward, I knew this was a show for me. These moments continued to tell the story of the Braverman family in the first of many incredible family dinners. As the camera wove through the pandemonium of three generations of Bravermans sitting down to share a meal, we are instantly informed of family ritual and sibling hierarchy. In what begins as an innocent request, Julia’s shame as her daughter insists that her daddy cut her meat because he “does it better” is rendered even more heartbreaking because of the sorrowful looks passed around by her family. Her fear that her busy work schedule is alienating her daughters’ affections is amplified with each shake of the head or concerned glance from her family. Julia’s humiliation leads her to pick the scab of Sarah’s financial failures by expertly asking about her “future plans.” Crosby claims Switzerland status when Sarah looks to him for help and Matriarch Camille, (Bonnie Bedelia) silently urges her husband to fix things. Zeek unites the family once again with a toast about love and homecoming, but I get the sense that it is the ritual of Dad swooping in for the rescue that eases the tension of the scene more than his words.
Craig T. Nelson continues to demonstrates his powerful and understated performance as Zeek in my favourite scene of the episode. He seeks out Adam and Max after they don’t show up to their cousins/nieces concert. This apparent lack of support is unheard of in the Braverman family and he heads outside to fix it. Adam explains Max can’t go into the theatre because he is unable to walk past the candles. What Zeek doesn’t know is that Adam and Monica have been devastated by Max’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. As Zeek tries to coax the pair back into the theatre Adam says, “There’s something wrong with my son,” as a cry for help to his father. The silence that follows as Zeek takes in the seriousness of a problem he can’t fix is shattering for both father and son. He watches Max playing happily beside his grieving father, suddenly answerless and lost. All he can utter is, “Ok. Oh, Sonny,” as he pulls Adam close offering the heroic strength of the father that Adam must also provide to Max. This depiction of unconditional and unshakable love may border on cliché, but the writing and transcendent performance in this scene make the moment feel true.
In the beginning of the episode Adam is certain that “once [Max] gets his first hit everything will turn around for him”. When I heard this I turned up my nose. The suggestion that a sport would make everything OK, was the definition of cliché for me. But then the episode ends back on the ball diamond. Max interrupts family mealtime by asking, “Isn’t the game today?” The beautiful chaos that follows as the Bravermans get Max to his game is astounding. As Max steps up to the plate once again the camera finds each of the Bravermens raptly invested in the moment. The camera stays on Adam as we once again hear the clink of the bat connecting with the ball. The hope and love that seep through his eyes as Max gets his hit are what every child wants to pull from his parents. Adam never expected that Max’s first real hit would turn things around for his family in such a powerful way. What I didn’t know at the beginning of the episode was Investment in this game was an investment in the Braverman family.