I’m married. Three kids. A mortgage. I’ve been under-employed, over-employed, even unemployed. I remember moving into my first apartment, missing my mom’s 50th birthday, starting a business despite the fear of failure, and I’ve even experienced victorious defeat after a backyard fistfight. I tell you this because I, like many Parenthood fans, have lived through most of the everyday situations set up in Parenthood’s Season 3 premiere. Well, except for the wanting to buy the coffee girl’s unborn baby, but then again, we’re not all big shot corporate lawyers with babies on the brain either.
What has made Parenthood so enjoyable over the past two seasons is the skillful application of taking real, believable characters and putting these people into everyday dramatic (and comedic) situations that we can all relate to. And as a self-described fan (Parenthood actually gets scheduled on our kitchen whiteboard), I had been brimming with anticipation for this season’s premiere all summer. And even though Parenthood brought bat to ball in the situation department, the execution of said situations were force fed, leaving this fan just a little bit disappointed.
Let’s start with Adam Braverman (Peter Krause), the eldest son of Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille Braverman (Bonnie Bedelia), the patriarch and matriarch of the Braverman family. Adam, the former COO of a shoe company, has been unemployed for the better half of a year, which irks at his self-identity as the family’s provider. Their savings is gone, and without the part-time work his very pregnant wife Kristina (Monica Potter) has been able to generate, they’d clearly be underwater. Sure, his situation breeds conflict: economically strapped and unemployed during the worst recession America has seen since the Great Depression and the added financial stress of a baby on the way. So, what’s the problem? Kristina is offered a full-time position, which launches Adam into a tailspin of angry self-loathing. Now I understand this stereotypical attitude of “I’m the man. I’m work. You’re the woman. You raise children.” It’s just that Adam has not been developed as that guy. Force-feeding conflict simply to raise the stakes and push plot forward doesn’t work. It must feel organic and believable.
The same can be said for Adam’s daughter, Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and her recovering alcoholic boyfriend Alex (Michael B. Jordan). It’s not that I don’t believe Haddie wouldn’t want to go to a senior year house party, nor do I have a problem with her getting drunk, but it’s questionable that Alex, a wise and intelligent young man actively working the 12 steps, would put himself in the situation to pick her up, and then so conveniently punch the white rich kid host in the nose, only to wait around for the police to arrive and put him in cuffs. It’s all too easy. Too contrived. Too black vs. white. And for a show that has embraced wonderful shades of grey, this time it misses the mark.
Another mistake comes with Adam’s youngest sister, Julia (Erika Christensen), the bread-winning corporate lawyer who clearly wears the pants in the relationship with her stay-at-home-child-rearing husband Joel (Sam Jaeger). Sure, I wish Joel would grow a pair, but there’s a warmth to Julia that is simply infectious, and combined with her focused, unwavering drive to accomplish her goals, she’s hard not to like. So what’s the problem? She’s smart. Very smart. This is not a bad thing. Julia’s intelligence adds depth to her character, but when the writers decide that she needs a momentary lapse of astute logic and analytical observation so that she can conveniently and unknowingly insult the office’s pregnant coffee girl by showering her with baby gushiness, again, I just don’t buy it.
But Adam and Julia are not the only branches of the Zeek and Camille family tree. Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Crosby (Dax Shepherd) hit all the marks convincingly with their quixotic and uncalculated personalities, something fans have learned to embrace. And the writers do their jobs quite well here, as Sarah and Crosby’s situations are injected with genuine believability.
Sarah is on the eve of her 40th birthday, and despite her claims that the big 40 is not a big deal, her actions say otherwise. As usual, her emotions get the better of her, but at least this time her instincts are better. And after a small outburst, she doesn’t try to stop her daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) from leaving the birthday party early in order to pick up the keys to her new loft apartment – a place that doesn’t even have a kitchen. Sarah hates the idea of her daughter leaving her, but she has evolved as a mother, learning to let go and allow Amber to make her own mistakes.
Crosby, seemingly matured from previous seasons, has moved on from the false dream of getting back together with Jasmine (Joy Bryant), the mother to his son Jabbar (Tyree Brown). He did sleep with another woman after all. But even though Crosby is a self-proclaimed fuck up, what we love about him is how much he adores his son. More than any other father on the show, when Crosby is with Jabbar, he is really with him, a devotion that is simply astonishing. Moreover, Crosby’s appeal is fueled in part because he’s not afraid to dream. He bought a house that everybody said he shouldn’t in Season 2, and it worked out. And now he wants to buy a well-storied recording studio and go into business with Adam. It’s not a safe bet, but as the late Theodore Roosevelt so poetically put it, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
Parenthood has proven to be a top-quality show over the past two seasons, but my fear is that the writers are trying too hard to raise the proverbial stakes in Season 3. My hope, however, is that they go back to the show’s roots. The appeal of Parenthood does not come from fabricating stereotypical situations that generate conflict. The show works because of the dynamics within the relationships of the family. Situations don’t have to be over the top, but they do need to breathe believable.