Review: ‘Parenthood’ – ‘The M Word’

A review of last night’s “Parenthood” coming up just as soon as I tell you I’m moving to Europe…

Sometimes, shows go through rough patches because good story ideas are being executed poorly. This season of “Parenthood” has been the opposite: scene-to-scene, beat-to-beat, it feels like “Parenthood,” the performances remain excellent and the characters still feel like themselves, but most of them are stuck in stories that are so fundamentally misconceived that no level of execution is going to make them work. I’m just running out the clock on the majority of the current story arcs, hoping they’ll end soon so the characters involved can do something more interesting.

In general, “Parenthood” is a show that’s great at telling stories that are small and/or morally complicated, where the writers can really dig into the minutiae of family life, and where there’s not a clear-cut answer to any one problem. It often struggles, though, at telling big stories and/or ones where there’s only a single right answer – even if it’s not necessarily the answer that the show thinks is the right one.

So last week, the mayoral campaign wasn’t mentioned once, and not coincidentally we got by far our most satisfying Kristina story of the season. Last night, it was all campaign, all the time, and it was a mess, from the notion that Kristina and Heather had never once discussed whether Max could be used as a talking point to the way that Kristina then threw out her principles on that subject in a way that was presented as a big triumphant moment. Yes, Max knows he has Asperger’s, and all the kids at his school know, so it’s not like she outed him against his will, but you don’t set up Kristina having an adamant and understandable belief that her son’s condition shouldn’t be part of her platform and then have her abandon that belief a few scenes later because Bob Little is now the jerkiest jerk who ever jerked. This is two campaign stories in a row that held out the tantalizing possibility of hitting the eject button on this silly arc, and instead we’re getting closer and closer to Kristina actually becoming the mayor of Berkeley. Blergh.

Meanwhile, the idea of Joel and/or Julia having an affair isn’t terrible in and of itself. Spouses cheat. Marriages break apart. These are things that happen, even in a perfect cult of a family like the Bravermans, and the right creative team can do a great job telling that story. Jason Katims’ first TV job was on “My So-Called Life,” which had a terrific arc about Angela’s dad being tempted by a woman he met in cooking class. But that kind of story has to build organically over time, where this one feels cold and mechanical, down to the way we seem to be alternating weeks of who’s getting tempted when. There are so many great stories to be told about where Joel and Julia are as a couple, as parents, about the professional role reversal, etc., and while the show has touched on a lot of those issues this season, by far the one I’m least interested in seeing more of is whether Joel sleeps with Penny from “Lost” or Julia kisses Roy from “The Office.” (On the plus side, given Julia’s behavior when Ed’s wife shows up – all but sprinting out the door with a guilty look on her face, rather than calmly staying and inviting her to join them in this totally casual and platonic get-together – any affair she might have with Ed would remain a secret from Joel for about five seconds.)

The best arcs of the season have been the smallest, and the messiest. Look at Camille and Zeek. You can’t offer an obvious solution to them the way you might yell, “DO NOT SLEEP WITH PENNY, JOEL!” or “DO NOT RUN FOR MAYOR, KRISTINA!” or “DO NOT TRADE IN CROSBY’S CAR FOR THE ONE YOU WANT, JASMINE!”(*) These two love each other, but they want very different things at this stage of their life. Do they stay together while one of them curdles in misery? Split up? Try Camille’s plan of taking extended trips away from Zeek? It’s complicated, and it’s fascinating, and I don’t spend a second of those scenes hoping that the show will abandon the arc by the episode’s end.

(*) For the most part, I had no problem with the subplot about Crosby slowly embracing the purchase of a product-integrated minivan, but it’s not cool of Jasmine to insist that they buy a minivan and ditch Crosby’s beloved classic car at the same time. You get the minivan and trade in the bug to do it. Everybody wins, and the show still gets some money from the car company.

The Sarah/Amber/Ryan arc has been a bit more uneven, but this episode nicely laid out – in another good Camille scene – the best of several bad options for Sarah. (That she had been told this before doesn’t matter much; she needed to hear it from the woman who was in the exact same position with her all those years ago.) Plus, as a Mae Whitman Tear Delivery System, it has a lower bar to clear than some other current arcs.

“Parenthood” can be one of the very best dramas on television. We saw that a year ago, when all the stories were clicking on their own and in concert with each other. Right now, though, it’s going down too many bad roads at the same time. And all we can do is wait and hope that none of these were designed to play out over this whole, full-length season.

What did everybody else think?