Season premiere review: ‘Parenthood’ – ‘Family Portrait’

“Parenthood” is back after an absurdly long absence (the season 3 finale aired at the end of February), and I have a review of the season premiere coming up just as soon as I choke on an awkward segue…

Given how long “Parenthood” has been gone, and how the show perpetually lives on the bubble at NBC, I imagine Jason Katims and company were tempted to come back with a splashy, emotional episode designed to make us cry and then evangelize about the show to everyone we’ve somehow forgotten to tell.

Instead, we return with an almost defiantly small episode, one that in its own way is as much a reminder of why I love “Parenthood” as a four-hankie outing would have been.

Much of what makes “Parenthood” great – and also, unfortunately, hard to sell – is the way it deftly tells stories that would seem too minor for most shows, but which are told with such detail and care that they become affecting in their own way. And “Family Portrait” was full of those. The conflict about whether Mark would be allowed in the eponymous photo, for instance, might be a throwaway running gag elsewhere. Here, it was the central storyline and tied to a bunch of other subplots about what it means to be a Braverman, whether you’re a longtime love interest trying to break in, an adopted addition to the family, or a lifelong member like Crosby or Adam struggling with an old family issue (for Crosby, the family’s atheism; for Adam, the desire to protect every other member of the clan). 

I liked, for instance, that Amber sleeping with the skeevy musician (played by Paul McDonald from “American Idol” season 10) was played as no big deal. McDonald being a cheating sleaze isn’t traumatic to Amber at 20 in a way it would’ve been when she was 17 or 18; it’s just life.

Similarly, Crosby and Jasmine’s confusion over what (if anything) to teach Jabbar about religion is the kind of story you wouldn’t expect to see many places, and not just because “Parenthood” is a rare example of a TV show about a lovable family of atheists and agnostics. It’s interesting to see Katims transition from “Friday Night Lights,” where spirituality was such a huge and valuable part of its characters’ lives, to this show, where the Bravermans are their own religion.(*)

(*) Which explains why Mark, Joel, Kristina and Jasmine are all so desperate to join; it’s like a cult! 

If you watched “Men of a Certain Age,” it’s not surprising in the least that Ray Romano would fit into this show as well as he does as Hank. It was particularly funny/sweet to see Hank share a moment with Max, since this is one of the few shows on television that all but invites its audience to make armchair Asperger’s diagnoses. I would, frankly, rather focus on Sarah’s professional life than see her get involved in another love triangle (as I suspect we will, given Hank’s irritation at learning Mark is her fiance), but I look forward to watching Romano be part of this world for a while.

My only major complaint is that the long gap between Jasmine and Crosby’s wedding and the events of this episode gives the show license to drop certain stories from the end of last season. I’m fine if we never see Bob Little again, but I’d like to have gotten some details on how Adam’s family dealt with the financial repercussions of him turning down Dwayne Wayne’s life-changing offer, how they’re actually paying for Haddie to go to Cornell(**), etc.

(**) Though Haddie’s various goodbye scenes were a nice range of messy and sweet, particularly her giving Max the blanket and accepting that there’s only so much warmth she’ll get from her little brother. Also, note that Sarah Ramos is now listed as a guest star (while the actor who plays Victor is in the opening credits), suggesting that we’re not steering towards a Julie Taylor storyline where Haddie winds up moving back home early so the show doesn’t have to lose her. 

But all in all, this was a nice, simple, welcoming return for “Parenthood.” Always glad to have the Bravermans in my life, even if their show can sometimes be as messy as the family itself.

What did everybody else think?