Email Roundtable #50 – Jane Makes Kerri Watch Parenthood

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This week Jane attempts to convince Kerri that the NBC drama Parenthood is the perfect show for her.

Jane: Parenthood is my show. I know we could be round-tabling about the brilliant last episode of Community or the crazy-butt-crazy things happening on Hannibal (or not happening, I can’t tell,) but those shows haven’t been consuming my TV life in the same way. I want them to consume Kerri’s life too. If there is one thing I know, Kerri will love this show as much as I do. Kerri, you need to watch this show and you need to start soon because I really, REALLY need to talk to you about it! To get down to basics, I know you will love this show because it is about good people. They are flawed people sure, but they are trying to do what’s best for the people they love. What I think creator/writer Jason Katims does so well is present and perfect tired TV clichés (a son with a disease that makes him different, grown children moving back home, balancing work and family life) in new and surprising ways. Katims reveals many sides and corners to previously one-note stories by populating Parenthood with well-intentioned characters and not passing judgement on them. Life is hard and everyone is trying to do the right thing. I think as a lover of good people and creative melodrama, you will fall deeply in love with this show. I really do. I know you’ve seen the pilot. What were your initial thoughts?

Kerri: I have seen the first episode of Parenthood and well…I liked it. But, and this is a big but, I wasn’t drawn in as I thought I might be. Parenthood is, as you say, exactly the kind of show I should like. I love shows about good people being good and struggling to remain good. I love shows about families. I love shows about kids. I like all of the actors on this show a great deal. There’s a lot for me, specifically, to like. When I was watching the first episode, though, I wondered what I would have thought if I had watched it when it initially aired. I don’t think I would have stuck with it. I found it a bit schmaltzy, maybe a bit heavy-handed. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it didn’t make a big impression. But I do know that very smart and wonderful (like you) people like this show a lot. Where do things go from the first episode?

Jane: I totally understand where you are coming from and many, many people feel the same way. I loved the first episode, but I’m pretty forgiving for the exact reasons you mentioned. The actors are fantastic and they completely drew me in to a story that in less capable hands would have turned me off. I think where Parenthood goes from the pilot is building on these incredible performances, to create complicated characters creating drama out of seemingly mundane things. Todd VanDerWerff had a hilarious response to a scene where Julia and Joel are trying to teach daughter Sydney to be a good loser. He writes, “the two realized that they were raising a spoiled brat who didn’t know how to lose after Sydney threw a giant tantrum after losing at a game of Charades. (Again, that I can write this sentence like I might breathlessly recount Tony Soprano whacking a guy is one of the reasons I love covering this show.)” I will get back to VanDerWerff’s AMAZING reviews later, but he is spot on.

Parenthood wrings drama from the most unexpected places. You think you know where the show is going, but it always throws a twist at you. I have two favourite examples of this (spoiler alert). In Season 1, Crosby is disappointed that his son Jabbar isn’t as excited as he thinks he should be about marrying his mother Jasmine. It seems like this worry is forgotten about until late in season 2 (after Crosby and Jasmine have split up and moved on with other people,) when Jabbar asks his parents about when they are getting married? It is a sucker punch to them and the audience as it was assumed this notion was long forgotten about. The consequences of moving on and changing their family dynamic come flooding back after the show has let that drama simmer for almost a season. Again, they are both good people who are doing the best they can, but they are going to have to hurt their son and that is really sad. I think my favourite moment in Parenthood (and there are many) comes from a seemingly silly story-line. Adam’s picture appears on the cover of a magazine with a story featuring him and his brother Crosby. We assume the payoff of the storyline will come from Crosby being jealous.  In the most wonderfully unexpected turn it doesn’t. Let me go back. Since the show’s pilot, and Adam’s son Maxs’ diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, Parenthood has been sprinkled with examples of how Adam and his wife Christina adjust their lives and expectations of how to raise their son. They are constantly telling Max they love him, with no response. They seem not to need it and little is made of these interactions (they are generally used for humour). However, when Adam asks Max what he thinks of his picture on the magazine cover; Max responds that he “thinks it’s pretty awesome.” The surprise and love on Adam’s face as he hears this is the payoff I was speaking about. These are the kind of unexpected and subtle moments that Parenthood supplies in droves. There is more schmaltz to follow, but Katims figures out how to find melodrama in unexpected places. I think that these characters are the key in investing in Parenthood. What characters (if any) drew you in during the pilot? Or are there any characters you especially didn’t connect with, and I will try to redeem them for you because I love EVERYONE.

Kerri: I am predisposed to liking Lauren Graham because I watched Gilmore Girls for many, many seasons – beyond the point where it had many redeeming qualities left. I think she can be extremely effective playing the kind of character she plays here, that sort of frazzled, slightly hippy-ish, unlucky-in-love single mom. I like her warmth. I think part of it is that she reminds me of my own sister. So, yes, I didn’t have any issues with Lauren Graham (#TeamLaurenGraham) or her character, Sarah, based on the first episode. Interestingly, when I was reading about the first episode, I found out that Maura Tierney was originally supposed to play Sarah. I love Maura Tierney but I wonder what that would have changed. I like Graham’s tinny-ness in the role (does that even make sense?).

Peter Krause I mostly know from Sports Night (I never watched much of Six Feet Under). He was always very good on that show even though he was sometimes overshadowed by the very fine Josh Charles. I know that Krause is supposed to be handsome but he always seems like a goober to me. A very attractive goober. He seems like the “main guy” in Parenthood. I’m good with him being the “main guy” if he is indeed the “main guy”.

I even liked Dax Shephard and I thought Coach-dad was good. Here’s the one thing that really threw me for a loop: Erika Christensen. I think she’s fine in the first episode. Is she like a lawyer? A super hot lawyer or something? OK. Sure, I buy that. And, yes, she’s super hot. Good. Excellent even. But why on earth would Sarah (who let’s remember is played by the also SUPER HOT Lauren Graham) feel so, so inadequate next to her? Because she’s a super hot lawyer? OK sure. #TeamLaurenGraham. Does that continue? Is that a story-line?

Jane: I love all of this. Due to Bunheads, I was predisposed to thinking Lauren Graham was a hammy over-actor. Boy was I wrong and an idiot. You are right. She is warm and frazzled; and “tinny-ness” is a terrific assessment. I’ve never watched Gilmore Girls but her relationship with daughter Amber (the INCREDIBLE Mae Whitman) develops into a messy and wonderful cornerstone of the show. She is unapologetically intrusive in her children’s lives and she doesn’t always have the right answers. What I love about Parenthood is that the adults aren’t always right. The children on this show are intelligent and complex and prove impressive foils for their well-meaning parents. I’m also a big fan of Hattie, Max’s often over-looked sister.

Peter Krause and Dax Shepard are equally excellent. In fact, I find the entire ensemble exceptional. I love how any pairing in the Braverman family provides intricate family dynamics and insight into family history. I’d love to go back in time and have Jason Katims write a series about growing up in the Braverman household. Each family member (including the youngsters) have a unique relationship with whomever they are paired with. I could go on and on but I must give my defense of Erika Christensen. I love Julie Braverman in spite of so many things. Her and husband Joel are always given the short end of the stick when it comes to story-lines. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’ve always loved her. She’s a terrible cook but insists on baking for family dinners, she loves her daughter and her husband fiercely and she has some incredible moments of self-doubt that always swing me to her side. One of my favourite pairings on the show is Julia and sister-in-law Kristina (Monica Potter). They don’t have many scenes together, but when they do it is a treat to watch two strong female characters let down their guard and let each other in. It’s also so much fun to watch them have fun. They are my favourite participants in the famous Braverman dance parties. Dance parties are another big reason that I think you will fall in love with Parenthood!

Kerri: Now you are hitting on things that are really intriguing to me. I love it when the characters on a show feel like they have histories that start before the show begins. Actually, that’s a must for me. As a counter-point, take the show Bloodline. It’s also a show about a close-knit family, with varied interpersonal dynamics based on the paring in any given scene. It has an amazing cast, actors that I have loved in many other things. Kyle Chandler! Linda Cardellini! Sissy Spacek! Yes! But as I was watching the first episode (and the couple subsequent episodes that I subjected myself to) I just didn’t believe it. Everything seemed like it was happening NOW. Not so much like the characters were reacting to their lives for the first time. Not quite that. It’s just that nothing felt lived-in. Like the characters were always telling us what we should think and feel without showing it. There is one character that is the “bad boy” of the family and his siblings are basically just awful to him for the first few episodes. I am assuming because he did something awful at some point in the past. But we don’t know what it was or how awful it was (at least in the episodes I watched) so his siblings just seem like asshats. Maybe we find out. I am assuming that we eventually find out but I checked-out before that happened. I will say that everything about Parenthood seemed lived-in and considered, even in the first episode.

Also, you are doing a bang-up job selling me on the women on this show. If there is one thing that I’ll gravitate to in an ensemble piece like this one it is any storyline involving women. I’m sure Erika Christensen’s character would grow on me. She’s probably even the character I’d end up liking the most BECAUSE it would take me time to warm up to her. Those are always the characters I end up falling for.

And, yes, dance parties. I’m always down for a dance party scene.

Jane: That’s too bad about Bloodline, what a waste of a great cast. There are so many impeccably observed details that make Parenthood feel lived in. A shared look between characters is HUGE. My favourite episode of the series (so far) demonstrates how well these characters are developed. The series takes a break from each characters story-line to follow the Braverman’s to Zeek’s mother’s place for her 86th birthday. It is never explicitly mentioned that Zeke has a troubled relationship with his mother, but through off-hand comments from the siblings, Zeke’s past with his mother is coloured in for us. Sarah Braverman tells her daughter that “Grandma thought I was inappropriate,” in a hilarious Laruren Graham way that elicits laughter not sympathy. She’s comfortable in her own skin and the notion is extremely funny to her. It is remarkable how this new development of Zeke’s mother didn’t feel thrust upon us but like it had always been there. Her relationship with each family member felt authentic.

I really could go on and on about the little moments that make the show great, but the moments are so great that describing them deflates them somehow. I have one more selling point, Todd VanDerWerff’s reviews! Reading his perspective on the show is an important part of my Parenthood watching ritual. When Max called his mom a bitch , I couldn’t wait to run to my computer to read if Todd was just as scandalized as I was. He wasn’t. I’ve always loved his reviews but there is something special in the way he writes about Parenthood. He loves the show as much as I do. That’s not to say that he pulls any punches when something happens he doesn’t like but he always gives the show the benefit of the doubt. In fact, he’s deeply disappointed when he feels the show takes a wrong turn. He reminds me of Zeek Braverman when he’s lovingly disappointed in his children. Also, his stray observation section is the funniest I’ve read on the AV Club. It’s another subject I could go on and on about but here is my favourite stray observation: “Nora is an awfully cute baby. It’s good to know that Jason Katims learned his lessons with Gracie Bell over on Friday Night Lights. Television demands preternaturally cute children”!

To recap: good people, strong women, strong kids, a great family, laughs, tears, dance parties and the love of Todd VanDerWerff. Am I missing anything?

Kerri: No. I’m sold.

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