Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Checking in on 'Parenthood' Season 4 (Through "What To My Wondering Eyes")...

I do not come from a big, raucous, loving family like the Bravermans. Nor am I yet a parent myself. Still, there has always been so familiar about Parenthood that I couldn't help but be comforted by it week after week, regardless of how many tears I would shed while watching. This season, especially, feels like Jason Katims is writing directly for me. Between Julia's (Erika Christensen) struggle to show her newly adopted son what love and family are all about, to Kristina's (Monica Potter) battle with breast cancer, Parenthood is tapping into issues that hit extremely close to home. So close to home that I have, unfortunately, found myself unable to write about the show week after week, dissolving in a blubbering mess into my pillow instead. It's a shame that this is my fate, though, because any show that can render me speechless and so overcome with emotion is exactly the kind of show I want more people to watch.

I have to start with Julia, as she has always been my unsung hero of this show. I admit that I don't think I would have nearly the attachment to the character if any other actor was in the role, but Christensen has been on my One to Watch list ever since Traffic; her utter rawness and complete devotion to such a damaged character completely blew me away then, and watching her transform into someone more mature, though equally flawed in different ways, has been a highlight of Parenthood for me. 

I was thrilled when the show was taking Julia down a road of adoption last season, though I struggled with the fact that she just "happened" upon a young, pregnant woman who needed a home for her baby. I felt like things, if they were to work out, would be "too easy" in that TV way, and Parenthood is nothing if not heart-wrenchingly real. So when she got her more-grown-than-expected son at the end of season three, I fully expected season four to be full of learning curves and challenges from the child who had been raised by a less-than-fit parent for the past seven years.

Parenthood has delivered on that, though they haven't made Victor (Xolo Mariduena) nearly as tragic as they could have. I mean, sure, my heart broke when he couldn't hit the baseball or lamented that he was stupid, but he's not nearly as angry or otherwise maladjusted as many other kids in his situation would be-- acting out by setting fires or stealing or something else melodramatic. Instead, the show has focused on Julia's struggles as a woman for whom things always seemed to come relatively easily now having to adapt just as much as this kid does, though hers is late enough in life that she's set in her ways and doesn't know how to change. It gives Christensen a chance to shine in a new light, but it raises a whole bunch of new questions about how adoption affects everyone in a very real way that no one else has cared to explore.

But if anyone is the unsung hero of season four of Parenthood right now, it is surely Potter herself. Look, should the TV Academy suddenly wisen up and bestow upon her Emmy accolades, then we'll come back here and cross out the word "unsung" but honestly, we fear that won't happen. SAG even overlooked this talented bunch! Talk about raw and completely emotionally devoted! From the moment Kristina thought something might be wrong, Potter wore this look of quiet concern, proving that as on point as the writing of Parenthood is, there are some things words just can't express. The beauty of this show is in the performances-- the nuances, the plays off each other. When Kristina came to Adam (Peter Krause) at the dog adoption fair and told him her diagnosis, the show didn't even need words. Their body language and the expressions on their faces were more than enough. Personally, I don't like it when a show relies heavily on music to tell me how to feel; I believe the product should stand up without emotional manipulation. So I watched this scene completely on mute to see if it worked, and it did. And even more impressively, so did the scene in which she told the whole family, in the most inopportune of places.

There is a part of me that, intellectually, just knows Kristina is going to be fine. It's the price any television show pays simply for being a television show with contracts and key players. Potter is certainly a key player. She's not incidental; she's not expendable. Would a show dare to kill her off, mid-run!? The kudos really come here because as much as you may know how this business works, you easily forget about all of that while watching this story unfold. The story is so rich and so real, it really feels like anything can happen. You're so caught up in everything the Bravermans are going through, you're one hundred percent in the moment with them, and it's as if your own loved one is sick. The fear of the unknown floods you-- or for anyone who's experience with cancer did not end well, the inevitable seems to be having to say good-bye to another beloved family member, and fictional or not, you don't want to be believe that's true.

I could not be more thankful that not every episode is heavily focused on Kristina. That sounds terrible for a lot of reasons, namely the fact that it's such a key part of the story, usually if the show diverges, it seems unnecessarily distracted, or is otherwise taking away from something important. But Parenthood is all about life, and life throws a lot of things at you at once. To get through it all, you have to be able to balance, not to obsessively hone in on only one problem at a time. And that means sometimes your focus is on something seemingly trivial for a few moments, even while major stuff is still going on in the background. 

At times, I admit this is how I've felt about the whole Luncheonette neighbor debacle. I mean, seriously, didn't that woman do her research before moving into that neighborhood, let alone that particular condo? Her squawking is ignorant, even if not completely unfounded. But it is just plain tough to watch Kristina struggle with chemo-- especially while Max (Max Burkholder) is just being awful in the background*-- so to not have to sit by her bedside every minute keeps this show well-balanced.

And honestly, the stuff with Kristina makes me want to procrastinate watching the show, which admittedly is a flaw in its design. There's something to be sad for knowing sadness so you can also know joy, but this season has just been too sad. There are more trivially dramatic moments than cancer, cancer, cancer all the time (and we'll get to those in a minute), but there really is no light this year. Sure, watching buttoned-up Adam ask his brother for pot could be light, but you never forget the very heavy reason he needs that pot. And it's hard to laugh without a lump forming in your throat.

There's a thin line sometimes between therapeutic crying and being a masochist. Case in point: The mid-season finale, the Braverman family Christmas, "What To My Wondering Eyes." I don't want to get into what life was like in my household when it was my mother's last Christmas. She knew it, and I knew it, even though neither of us wanted to talk about it. We sat and watched the Supernatural Christmas episode where Dean thought it would be his last, wordlessly, of course, as a way of acknowledging it. The Bravermans are a much different kind of family: they actually talk through everything, check in with each other, ask for advice and details. They know to make the most of any and all time they have, especially if that time is no longer guaranteed. They're the kind of family who, even though they all have separate lives and families, would come together at the holidays anyway, even if one of their family members wasn't sick. This wasn't a rally just for Kristina; it was just indicative of the amazing support she has to hold onto. Still, I love all things Christmas and holiday pop culture, and this was a downer; there's just no way around it.

The fact that she took such a dark turn at such a festive time may have made Katims the biggest Grinch of them all. I have to say, through it all, though, I couldn't help but marvel at just how truthful every little thing was. Kristina was such a mom, even when she was "not feeling very well"; she had prepared her good-byes to her kids in just in case; she was doing everything she could to give them the best Christmas ever, even if at her own expense. And then there was Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) who sprang into perfect action without a second thought and the opposite of being asked. I always thought Nelson physically resembled my own grandfather, but Zeek is such a better man than mine. Kristina isn't even his daughter, and he was there for her the best ways he knew how. My own grandfather never called to check on my mother, and to this day, I expect him to contact me asking how much I inherited and where is his percentage? Of course, if Christmas really brought miracles the way Zeek claimed, Kristina would have been home with them. 

* By the way, yes, I know Max has autism and is therefore not being intentionally awful and therefore should not be held to the same standards as characters like Homeland's Dana Brody or The Good Wife's Grace Florrick or Smash's Leo when bad behavior is exhibited. But this season Max's autism seems to be more and more akin to just typical teenage terriblism, like obsessing over something that doesn't really matter in the end (the damn vending machine), shirking responsibility (like taking care of the dog he fought so hard for) to sit around and play video games, and you know, general sullenness. I think Burkholder is doing a fantastic job, but I want to smack some sense into Max, autistic or not. I just really hate teenagers.

Which is why I'm not even going to talk about Drew (Miles Heizer). It's so ridiculous to use his aunt's disease to get sympathy sex from a girl he has no chemistry with in the first place. Is he so afraid of being alone, he'll just take anything? Usually girls without dads grow up with those issues, so I guess it's refreshing to see it from a different perspective, but meh, he's still just a teenager making some terrible decisions, and I really have no patience for that when there are real issues at hand.

There is a lot of tragedy in Parenthood this year, turning its drama a lot darker than usual. Ryan (Matt Lauria) certainly fits into that category as a kid who has returned home from far with a chip on his shoulder and an uncertainty of his future and his worth. I half-joked at the beginning of the season that I was going to pretend he was just Luke Cafferty, relocated and trying to start a new life for himself, but that attitude doesn't seem too far off. Ryan is absolutely trying to start a new life for himself. He's not comfortable talking about the war or relying on his status as a veteran, even with Zeek, where I've found my new favorite kind of bromance. It's like the reverse Archie Bunker: Zeek's big ole heart just wants to help this kid, while this kid just wants to snark off and give the old timer crap for being an old timer. Yet, at the same time, being a soldier has so clearly affected how he thinks of himself and his worth. The minor angry outbursts that cause him to storm out of interviews or off job sites or ignore knocks at his door are much greater problems than the pills. But in the end, those are all just side effects.

I've loved seeing how far Amber (Mae Whitman) has come since we first met her. She's a natural nurturer, as has been evident in how she has helped with Max in the past, and lately it just seemed like she was also trying to be a "fixer." She gravitated towards guys who needed help, and she may not be as determined to save them as is her mother's pattern, but she's not too far off from it. The fact that she realized it just went to show how mature she actually is. She's a testament to learning from other people's mistakes-- proof that you don't have to repeat the sins of the mother or the father. Her life is coming together nicely on all fronts, and that is easily a lesson that could have ended in heartache. She took the high road-- she did the adult, responsible thing-- and called out the bad behavior before it became a pattern. It's something Ryan absolutely needs to figure out how to do. Maybe Amber would have been the only one to hold him accountable, but I'm thrilled to see her put herself first in a non-corny Kelly Taylor kind of way. It wasn't her job to mother him, and she knew enough to know they couldn't work as a couple if he couldn't get his own shit together. She wasn't going to sit around an enable him forever, which is the key thing. It should take her walking away to snap him out of it if he really cares enough-- not about her but himself. She did for Ryan what every loved one of every addict needs to do (though maybe she didn't use all of the best choices of words). It isn't easy, but in the end, nothing will change and no amount of attempt will actually help if the person on the other end isn't ready.

I so desperately want to hope for the best for her, for Ryan, and for her and Ryan together sometime in the future. I want him to take what she said to him and get some help so he can go back to her a better man. As cute and sweet as they are together now, he's been keeping himself so distanced from her, and he's made so many excuses, it all just resulted in him raging. He didn't physically hurt her, and he may have finally found a way to verbalize his feelings (though the problems run so much deeper than simply not having a family like the Bravermans-- none of us have a family like the Bravermans, but well-adjusted folks can stand to feel like an outsider for the first event or two, and these guys embrace faster than most anyway), but words are futile when actions don't move to fix the problem. His omissions are just as detrimental to relationships as secrets. In this case, the omissions are things he is not willing to face himself, either, so how could a relationship be right or lasting if he isn't willing to work on himself?

As aforementioned, though, the breaks from the tragedy, with still dramatic but less-so stories like Sarah's (Lauren Graham) inevitable self-sabotaging, seem that much more refreshing, even though they're far from the lighthearted family dance scenes of seasons past. Relationship drama is certainly hard on you when you're in the middle of it, but in the grand scheme of things-- like loss of a job or cancer-- it's a blip on the radar. Do I hate watching Sarah screw things up with Mark (Jason Ritter) unintentionally but still thoroughly nonetheless? Of course. It's just another example of how this show manages to tap into a side of my own life that hurts to see reflected back at me. But do I think it equally makes for a fascinating character study unlike ones we see often on today's television? Of course!

Say what you want for all the ways that Sarah has screwed up in the past (or even pull the mom "I told you so" about the family portrait), but she has a bit of a savior complex. Sadly, like with Ryan, she can't see that she can't help anyone until she helps herself, though, and people can't be saved until they actively want to be anyway. The fact that she's still falling into this pattern now, at her age and while in a relationship that's actually good for her, is sadder than ever. There are no real boundaries with Hank (Ray Romano), even when there clearly should be. She works for him as a photographer's assistant, not a personal assistant, but they are closer than most in a working environment. Perhaps it's because there are only two of them, perhaps because there was an attraction and a natural banter anyway, but long before the trip to L.A. that seemed to explode everything were things too close for comfort between them. 

When I first "met" Hank, I kind of assumed he had a touch of autism. I know the show already did that when the bug guy came to Max's birthday party, and for the first time, everyone got a look at what a potential adult life for Max could be like, but the way he bonded with Max at Haddie's going away party seemed to indicate something similar. Getting to know him, he's certainly stand-offish and aloof at times-- a sad sack if not a true cynic-- but the way Sarah has brought him out of his shell seems to indicate she actually is good for him, even if it's not reciprocal.

And um, can we talk about how much mall holiday photographers make? I could do that! I do need a seasonal gig, and I'm good with kids and dogs.

And similarly, as good as Mark may be for Sarah, things won't ever be one hundred percent good between them until Sarah figures herself out. She may not realize why she self-sabotages and wants to save everyone from Seth to Hank, but now that she has at least been asked to acknowledge it (and kudos to Mark for not just giving in or compromising or adjusting his life on that point the way he has on other, smaller things like having cable. He really is the most mature person on the show), it should be a moment of reflection and hopefully maturation for her. Should being the key word since she just let Mark walk away, and she slept with Hank out of a weird pity, though. Sarah has always been a bit emotionally stunted, and being with Mark has not cured her, it just tucked it away temporarily-- that much is abundantly clear now.

Being one of the only outsiders from the Braverman family, Mark has always offered a different perspective. Though every family is made up of unique personalities, their long history with each other influences how they react in certain situations with each other. Mark has always seemed the calmest and most level-headed, perhaps mostly because he doesn't have years of experience of pushing these people's buttons to get them going at the drop of a hat now. But a show like this absolutely needs those kinds of characters as gateways for the audience, so if Hank comes between Sarah and Mark permanently, I'm going to be just as sad as I am watching Kristina struggle with chemo.

Parenthood's fourth season started out a bit more evenly matched than it has fleshed out. The premiere had a strong story for Crosby (Dax Shepard) and Jasmine (Joy Bryant) as they struggled over how to teach their son (Tyree Brown) about religion, but they have kind of been lost in the shuffle since. I was not super on-board with them rushing to get married at the end of season three, and I loved that they were being thrown a major issue right away in that "locked in" relationship. Again, it was a story that hit close to home because my mother was Jewish and my father Catholic, and when it came to me, they decided I should just grow up without organized religion of any kind and figure it out later. It worked out okay for me: in high school I did a lot of independent study and reading into a number of different religions, and ultimately I found that my own belief system, pulled from the influences of some kind of combination of nature or nurture and mostly pop culture, gave me enough comfort. Jabbar was still young enough to be molded by those who realized he had no given direction, though, and his grandmother was using that to her advantage, so naturally Crosby and Jasmine had to get involved. I had hoped this would set up a more involved story than it actually did, because Crosby didn't believe in anything, yet he took time to consider possibilities if it would benefit his son. There have been moments sprinkled in later episodes, where you can kind of still see Crosby's journey (most notably when he asked his son to help him pray for Aunt Kristina), but it was mostly dropped as a one-episode "issue," and I do feel that's a bit of a shame. Sure, religions can be polarizing-- for viewers and characters alike, but the intense discussion around something that inspires so much passion would only add to the level of importance Parenthood is delivering every week.

Parenthood is not a plot-driven show, but its characters have developed in such complex ways, every episode feels jam-packed with stuff nonetheless. Usually, it's emotional work and little slice of life moments, but at least a few of them thus far in season four have the promise of a much bigger pay-off down the line. Sending Haddie (Sarah Ramos) back off to school with a lie that her mother was cancer-free, for example, seemed so dumb at the time it happened but even worse in the light of the holidays. There was no way she wouldn't notice her mother's pallor, if not the waft of pot-smoke from under her bedroom door even way before she landed in the hospital. Maybe it was just lucky her flight was delayed, though she was still going to have a big adjustment when she eventually made it home.  

But that's the thing about life and therefore Parenthood: it never lets you get too comfortable. A few episodes with Kristina smiling again, a big time family holiday where everyone is getting along-- even when the new brother told your only daughter there is no Santa-- and boom; gut punch. You just have to sit back with Parenthood, willing to go along for the emotional ride, no matter how hard it makes you ugly cry in the end.

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