Review: ‘Parenthood’ – ‘Promises’

A review of tonight’s “Parenthood” coming up just as soon as I make a presidential joke…

“And all of a sudden, I’m not reading about the kid anymore. I’m reading about me!” -Hank

“Parenthood” concluded 2013 on a down note, with one of the season’s two major story arcs to that point (Kristina runs for mayor) being a total misfire, while the other (Joel and Julia’s marital problems) was both perhaps darker than the show could handle and made one of the four leads seem wildly unsympathetic in the process.

The show begins 2014 on vastly stronger footing, thankfully. “Promises” was a terrific episode where nearly everything worked – up to and including even more Julia/Joel ugliness – and where the plan to have Ray Romano stick around paid off big-time.

If you watched “Men of a Certain Age” (or even certain more serious episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond”), you know what a great dramatic actor Romano can be. He’s had his moments on “Parenthood,” but none as strong as Hank’s reaction to reading the Asperger’s book and realizing (as most of us did not long after he was introduced) that he has a whole lot more in common with Max than a love of photography. The scene at Sarah’s apartment where he talked about how much the book had upended his view of his entire life was incredibly powerful, both because of what we know about Hank and what we know about Max. (It was also rooted in many stories I’ve heard about adults who figured out they had Asperger’s under similar circumstances; the diagnosis was so obscure when a man like Hank was growing up that he would’ve been written off by adults as slightly awkward.) And their reconciliation over chess – with Max delivering a rehearsed apology as sincerely as he could, even while avoiding eye contact, then offering to be flexible on which color he played – was so understatedly beautiful that for a moment, I imagined a version of the show that was just about Hank and Max, having adventures and trying to make sense of world operating by rules they’re not wired to entirely understand.

Hank’s arrival at Sarah’s apartment also gave us a version of the scene I’ve been expecting ever since Carl was introduced, but it played out in a much more different, and interesting, fashion than I had assumed. For one thing, Hank isn’t there for some romantic reconciliation, but is consumed with this discovery; that he sees Sarah has a date with a hunk in a nice tux is just an added insult to a rough day. For another, making Carl a secretly awesome philanthropic doctor gives some actual dimension to his relationship with Sarah, whether or not it turns into a triangle with Hank down the road. We don’t necessarily need for every Sarah storyline to be a romance (let alone a triangle), but the idea of her being put with a great guy with no obvious conflicts (even Mr. Cyr was ultimately too young for her) is at least a different direction for her. That said, Carl’s transition from d-bag to saint was a bit jarring, and  Sarah’s 180 on him upon learning these new details about him was not especially flattering for her. They could have stretched that out over an extra episode or two, but we’re at least on more fertile ground now.

Zeek’s time alone continues to be an excellent showcase for Craig T. Nelson. His new friendship with Rocky (played by the great Paul Dooley, whose presence legally requires me to link to this scene from “Breaking Away”) also happened quickly, but the performances, the casual details, and the shorthand of them both being veterans made it work. He doesn’t take Rocky’s advice to get on a plane to tell his wife how he feels and join her adventure, but he also doesn’t demand her return home. Progress! Now if he can just get rid of the chunky milk…

Joel and Julia’s story went in about the only direction it could at this point – give or take the weird attempt at comedy as big brothers Adam and Crosby discussed what to do about Ed – with Ed making a scene at the charity auction and Joel finally exploding. Joel puts Julia in a tough spot after: there is genuine value to Julia telling Joel about the kiss now, rather than it coming out later, but he’s also in such a foul mood that the news would perhaps make things vastly worse in the moment. Based on how the show ultimately dealt with Crosby and Jasmine’s toxic relationship, I have been assuming we will eventually get a reconciliation between these two. But the longer this story goes, and the uglier things get, the more I begin to wonder if we might be heading for a Braverman split. And if we’re not going there, then the back half of the season will have an awful lot of repair work to do.

What did everybody else think? Are you worried that Natalie is going to ramp up her behavior around Amy? Disappointed Amber was absent entirely in the first episode after Ryan broke off the engagement? Imagining Hank and Max traveling the Bay Area in a van and solving mysteries?

NOTE: Because of press tour travels and a few other January commitments, I may have to skip reviewing the next few episodes. Will return to the show when I can.