TV Review: NBC’s ‘Parenthood’

03.01.10 7 years ago 6 Comments


I don’t quite get what the value of the “Parenthood” brand is to NBC.
It’s a name associated with a 21-year-old feature film hit starring Steve Martin and also with a 20-year-old small screen dud starring Ed Begley Jr. That is to say that the youngest members of the key 18-49 demographic don’t even relate to “Parenthood” as a pop culture title of note.
And even for people who care that “Parenthood” was a relatively well-received movie, even picking up a pair of Oscar nominations, there isn’t even all that much connecting the new NBC dramedy “Parenthood” to either of its predecessors.
The 1989 film and 1990 television versions of “Parenthood” focused on a Midwestern brood named the Buckmans. The 2010 TV show is centered around the Bravermans, whose residence in the Bay Area seems to negate what was regionally distinctive about the brand in the first place.
I’m just wondering out loud why NBC decided to sell “Parenthood” around an old and somewhat unconnected title, rather than marketing a relatively winning show with a strong creative team and a tremendous cast. This is certainly a story about parenthood, but it’s also a story about brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, but you don’t see NBC attempting to glom onto those connections as titles. I can’t imagine many viewers signing on for “Parenthood” because they liked something else with the same title a long time in the past, but I assume focus groups told NBC a different story (probably the same story they believed on brands like “Knight Rider” and “Bionic Woman”).
A fuller review of NBC’s new “Parenthood” — beyond just its title, I mean —  after the break.
My memories of the Ron Howard-directed “Parenthood” are fuzzy, but although I recall moments of heart-felt domestic melodrama, I mostly think of the movie as having been a comedy.
For that reason, I was confused that the original pilot NBC sent out to critics last summer felt dark and moody and, at times, pretty miserable. It was still well-written, in the way you’d expect from developer Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights”) and it was well-acted in the way you’d expect from a cast including Peter Krause, Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Erika Christensen, Monica Potter, Maura Tierney, Dax Shepard and more. But that “Parenthood” felt murky and despite only a standard running time, it also felt long and poorly paced, a bit of a surprise coming from pilot director Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”), one of the medium’s true masters of narrative momentum.
Due to Maura Tierney’s health problems, that version of “Parenthood” was first delayed and then Lauren Graham was brought in to replace Tierney. The largely (but not completely) reshot pilot, the show that premieres on Tuesday (March 2) night on NBC, is a far superior show, one that has a much better chance of working with audiences.
The first thing that needs to be cleared up is that “Parenthood” is not better for Tierney’s absence, nor for Graham’s introduction. Tierney was one of the best parts of the original pilot, while Graham is one of the best parts of the revised pilot and while they aren’t interchangeable, I think they’re both good enough actresses that either of them could have been fine in either version of the pilot. 
“Parenthood” is better for the months of reflection the creative team had between the first pilot and the reshoots, months which allowed them to see the need to loosen up the introduction to this large family and their particular assortment of problems. The revised pilot is lighter, faster and more likable. Coupled with a solid and tonally consistent second episode, “Parenthood” has become a show I can see myself sticking with for a while.
I say that as a viewer who finally gave up on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” earlier this season after remaining bizarrely dedicated to the cast and the characters long after I stopped enjoying anything at all that was happening to the Walker Clan. “Parenthood,” in this revised incarnation, plays as “Brothers & Sisters” with a little less wine and a lot less sturm-und-drang. It’s a tenuous mixture, though.
The Bravermans — Camille (Bedelia) and Zeke (Nelson), their kids Sarah (Graham), Adam (Krause), Crosby (Shepard) and Julia (Christensen), plus various spouses (including Potter and Sam Jaeger) and children (including Mae Whitman, Sarah Ramos and Max Burkholder) — are mostly coping with small personal problems, but they seem to have potential for “Brothers & Sisters”-sized soapiness, particularly since the pilot includes the first of what we can only hope won’t be dozens of long-lost relatives coming out of the woodwork. 
The more serious the issues for the Bravermans, the less interested I actually am. The best scenes in each of the first two episodes are just conversations between the four siblings, short dialogues written with a marvelously clear sense of family histories and dynamics. [Note: This is also what “Brothers & Sisters” did best before appealing interplay took a backseat to heavy-handed politics and completely superfluous mysteries and scandals.] Instead, the show is starting off handling simple and universal issues. When is it time to grow up and become a parent? What do you do if working keeps you away from your kids? How do you react when you discover there’s something different about your child? The issues in “Parenthood” are so basic that you’re going to feel, correctly in some cases, that they’ve been dealt with on dozens of shows and indie movies, but there’s still a much appreciated care that that Katims and his team are putting into the material.
At least initially, there are no weak links in the cast. I loved the authority and sly humor Nelson brings to his work as pater familias, with Bedlia as the calming influence on the side. I appreciated how Krause, with his strong background in both comedy and drama, seems to be pushing Potter to what’s probably the best work of her career. Graham’s performance may have notes of Lorelai Gilmore, but no more or less than Graham herself has notes of Lorelai Gilmore, so fans will never question that she’s playing a new role and playing it nicely. Having seen Shepard in the Sundance favorite “The Freebie,” I’m finding myself a greater and greater admirer of the understated charm he can show when properly directed (admittedly a rarity in his body of work). The show is also peppered with good child performances (Burkholder is particularly good with a tricky role) and with solid (and aesthetically pleasing) guest players like Marguerite Moreau, Erinn Hayes and Joy Bryant, all three of whom really should have had worthy star vehicles long ago.
“Parenthood” is part of NBC’s triumphant return to reclaim the 10 p.m. hour following Jay Leno’s primetime reign of terror. It’s a better fit for the 10 p.m. hour, because although the original movie was PG-13 rated and tailored to offer amusement for older and younger viewers alike, this “Parenthood” skews toward an older audience. It’s intended for actual parents to watch, nod and laugh knowingly, rather than as overall family viewership.
Then again, actual parenthood isn’t required to enjoy the cast and writing on display here. I have no kids, but I have parents and I have a pretty good sense of what feels “right” and the early episodes of “Parenthood,” in this incarnation, feel right.
“Parenthood” premieres on Tuesday, March 2 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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