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Family Drama: An Advance Review of NBC's "Parenthood"

NBC seems to be positioning Parenthood, the second attempt to remake Ron Howard's 1989 feature film as a weekly television series, as a comedy-drama but after watching the first episode, I was hard pressed to find much mirth among the melodrama.

Parenthood, from writer/executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights), has had a number of hurdles to overcome. Originally slated to launch last fall, production was suspended due to then-series co-star Maura Tierney's treatment for breast cancer. She was later replaced by Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham and the series was given a 9 pm timeslot spot in the spring. But the Jay Leno Show fiasco at the Peacock meant that the series would now become part of NBC's attempts to salvage the post-watershed hour.

After being promoted heavily during the Olympics, Parenthood will now get its shot at NBC's contentious 10 pm hour but whether anyone will be laughing remains to be seen. The series revolves around a sprawling Berkeley, California family who, amid frequent squabbles, come together seemingly several times a week for a series of rowdy and bustling family lunches and dinners.

Presided over by Craig T. Nelson's Zeek and Bonnie Bedelia's Camille, these family gatherings are meant to display the range of emotions and behaviors that every family manifests: the little slights, the seething injuries, the results of growing up and growing old together. There's a nice sense of camaraderie among the actors playing the adult children of this aging couple but I couldn't shake the sense that Bedelia seemed oddly disconnected from the action, as though emotionally she were somewhere else. (It seemed, in fact, as though Camille were Zeek's second wife rather than the biological mother of these kids as there seemed to be little display of any real emotional bond between her and them.)

Parenthood is meant to tap into the universal sense of belonging and not belonging that all families seem to deal in: the sense that they are both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. This is felt most keenly by the arrival of Lauren Graham's Sarah, a single mom trying to best she can to raise her two teenage kids, Amber (Mae Whitman) and Drew (Miles Heizer). She has temporarily moved her kids in to her childhood home while she can figure things out and get back on her feet again but one can't help but feel that Sarah, for all of her good intentions, is a bit of a screw-up to begin with, the black sheep of a family that seems to be doing quite well for itself.

Graham's participation wakes this sleepy, weepy melodrama up considerably. The sequence where Sarah discovers proof of her father's possible affair was played quite nicely and sharply... and her blind date with her high school boyfriend Jim (Mike O'Malley), now a barista/poet, was one of the few bright, comedic moments among the action. The unlikeliness of their rekindled romance remains a high point in an overstuffed pilot episode that's noticeably short on laughs and rather high in terms of predictability.

Erika Christensen's Julia is a workaholic working mom, the sort of stereotypical television working woman who is more connected to her Blackberry than the needs of her child, which are served by her sensitive husband Joel (Sam Jaeger). I feel like we've seen this play out a zillion times before in a zillion other television dramas and while their dynamic is meant perhaps to be progressive, it just feels repetitive and flat. Julia's brother Crosby (Dax Shepard), meanwhile, is the sort of commitment-phobic guy who is surprised to learn that his girlfriend (Marguerite Moreau) wants to get married and have a kid. His discovery of a canister of frozen sperm in her freezer leads to the sort of obvious resolution at the end of the episode that viewers can spot from several miles away.

The one storyline that truly functioned as the sort of heartbreaking plot that Parenthood seems to aspire to was the discovery by Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter) that their son Max (Max Burkholder) has Asperger's Syndrome. The dual moments of Kristina pleading with her husband not to leave her alone to deal with this and Adam telling his overbearing father that something is wrong with his son carried true emotional weight. (I spoke to Katims about the handling of this storyline for a piece about portrayals of autism on television and in film for The Daily Beast.)

I can only hope that Parenthood finds a better balance between light and dark, comedy and tragedy, humor and heartbreak as the season progresses. But at the moment, this isn't the sort of family that I want to spend time with each week, especially right after the majesty and scope of ABC's Lost, which airs an hour before. Which is a shame as we could all do with more Lauren Graham on our televisions.

Parenthood launches tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Lucy said…
"...we could all do with more Lauren Graham on our televisions."


I wouldn't normally have any interest in this show but I may check it out just to see the lovely and talented Graham. I loved the original Parenthood movie but, judging by the previews and your review, this version seems very melodramatic and heavy-handed, which is too bad.
John said…
I'll tune in for Lauren Graham and Peter Krause for at least a couple episodes, but this seems an awful lot like Brothers & Sisters. Loved the 1989 Ron Howard movie though.
Unknown said…
Steve says,

A little disappointing. The only minority or color on the show is a woman who had a kid with the most irresponsible character on the show. So I assume the writers think that minorities are irresponsible, sleasy, and poor decisionmakers and only need about 3 minutes per episode to explore their character because they are all the same - or maybe just all look the same. I did however love the original movie...but this, thanks but no thanks!

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