Friday, June 10, 2011

The Logical Successor To Once And Again, Parenthood Season One Surprises On DVD!

The Good: Mature values, Great acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: So many lies!, Too many characters, Terrible ending!
The Basics: Parenthood Season One on DVD reinvigorates the family drama with the large and complicated Braverman family.

I have a passion for great television. I have a real passion for great television, but I seldom watch new programs. I catch most of my new television on DVD and I like it that way because I don't have to wait through the commercials or weeks between episodes or the like. It also allows me to see what survives the ratings wars to be worth getting emotionally invested in because I've been burned far too many times by great television that got canceled. In fact, it was only after watching and considering the first season of Parenthood that I realized that I've not given any family drama a serious chance since Once & Again (season 1 reviewed here!) went off the air. But now, I'm there. Parenthood is the program fans of Once & Again have been waiting for for the last . . . decade (oh my gosh, has it been a decade?!).

I stumbled upon Parenthood while watching a new episode of something on NBC and I saw both Peter Krause and Lauren Graham were on a new show together and I got excited. I've loved Peter Krause's work for years and I've been waiting to see Lauren Graham get something of the same caliber as Gilmore Girls (reviewed here!) since that went off the air. I was further sold on the potential of the season by the fact that part of the creative team of Arrested Development was involved with this series. When I took the DVD set of Parenthood Season One out from the library, my wife groaned and said she was only going to watch the first episode and if it didn't grab her right away, she was done with it. The thirteen episode half-season that is Parenthood Season One later . . . she's hooked. And I am looking forward to the second season arriving on DVD.

Parenthood is the story of the Braverman family, a collection of four adults in their mid and late-thirties, their children and their parents. The series opens with Sarah Braverman moving from Fresno, California to Berkeley with her teenage daughter Amber and son Drew. Welcomes back into her parent's house, she tries to set up school for her children while Amber pines for the boy she left behind in Fresno. Meanwhile, Adam and his wife Kristina are struggling with their eight year-old son Max's awkward behavior at school, starting with Max wearing a pirate outfit everywhere he goes. With their daughter, Haddie, getting into her first serious relationship, Adam and Kristina have their hands full. Adam's sister, Julia, is troubled by how her daughter, Sydney, is alienated from her and Crosby is suddenly granted a child when an old fling, Jasmine, resurfaces, with their five year-old son Jabbar.

As Crosby gets out of the relationship he was in to get to know Jabbar, the Julia wrestles with her work demands to become more a part of her daughter's life, including disrupting a Zen Swimming class to actually show her daughter how to swim. Sarah has her hands full with Amber and gravitates toward Amber's English teacher, which causes more of a rift between mother and daughter as Amber has a crush on the teacher. Adam and Kristina quickly discover that the source of Max's behavior issues come from Asberger's Syndrome and they begin making the major life changes needed to accommodate that (and Haddie's relationship with Steve). And the Braverman's older generation has a fracture when Zeek's real estate venture goes bad and he has to confess to Camille that they might lose the house. Camille uses that as an opportunity to stretch her wings and lay down the law about all of Zeek's past wrongs.

If it seems like there is so much to keep track of that Parenthood sounds like it would be a soap opera, that's part of the problem with the show. The problem is not that the show is soap operatic (I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not!), it is that with four couples, their kids and their mutual parents, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and they do not all get represented as well in the first season. Instead, each one is given a little to do throughout the season, while Adam and Sarah dominate the storyline. I was left feeling like the show was sufficiently complex that it warranted episodes that were two hours each in order to give everyone enough exposure. As it is, the hourlong drama feels compacted at points and most of the episodes end very abruptly.

The problem with having so many characters is that some of them get relegated to nonentity status. Most notable are Camille and Joel (Julia's husband) who have less intense character moments even than Crosby's budding partner, Jasmine. Of the children, Drew and Sydney get the short end of the straw. Sydney, for example, turns out to be a gifted girl and after the revelation of that, there is a single scene with Julia trying to teach her something new, then nothing dealing with that whole character aspect.

The two aspects I found most engaging was the lack of predictability and the level of adult character and morality to the characters. Parenthood Season One defied my expectations at several points. For example, in the first episode, Sarah is having sex and she needs a condom and she recalls that she found some condoms in Zeek's, her father, workroom. The question of why Zeek would need condoms is almost immediately asked, but it takes a while to get answered. Given my finding recent shows terribly predictable in this regard – for example in Glee season one (reviewed here!) when Sue Sylvester allowed a girl with Down's Syndrome to try out for and join the Cheerios, I knew the episode would end with the revelation that Sue had a family member with Down's – I immediately predicted that Zeek would eventually confess that he was impotent and the condoms were for his wife Camille to have a sanctioned affair. I was wrong and I felt delighted to experience the answers when they came up.

But one of the intensely likable aspects of the show in its first season is how adult the dialogue is and how, generally, responsible characters are. Characters lie, which made me cringe instantly, but whatever they are lying about usually is confessed within the same episode and sometimes even within the same scene. More often than not, characters are brutally honest with one another and the show is smart enough to not pander to the base. So when a fallout late in the season between Haddie and Amber causes a huge rift between Adam's family and Sarah's family, Sarah and Kristina begin to yell at one another and Adam insists they treat one another and the situation like adults. While they have petulant moments between them that follow that, when a critical decision needs to be made, they are able to work together.

So, despite the conceits that come up – affairs, near-affairs, money problems and medical situations - Parenthood works extraordinarily well in its first season. It works because the characters are so interesting and the first season is populated by:

Adam Braverman – Runs a shoe business, the oldest son of Zeek and Camille is married to Kristina. He is uncomfortable with is fifteen year-old daughter Haddie moving toward a sexual relationship and his world is rocked when his eight year-old son is diagnosed with autism. He is close with his sister Sarah and together they uncover most of the rising conflicts between Zeek and Camille,

Sarah Braverman – Divorced from her rock star husband, she leaves Fresno with Amber and Drew to try to give them a more solid, safe life. She falls for a friend she had in high school and Amber's high school English teacher and takes up bartending to try to get back out in the workplace. She looks to Adam to fill the void left in Drew's life from a lack of a father,

Crosby Braverman – A sound engineer, he is surprised when his ex-girlfriend Jasmine drops their son Jabbar back into his life. This tanks his relationship at the time that had been moving toward the pair having children. As Crosby, who lives on a houseboat, gets to know Jabbar, he becomes more invested in his life and in Jasmine's life,

Julia Braverman-Graham – The youngest of the Braverman adult children, she is a very successful corporate lawyer and she has largely sacrificed her family life for her career. This puts her in a very awkward position when the mother of her daughter's best friend begins spending more time with her husband Joel than she can. She is highly competitive and she gets involved with Sydney's swim class and soccer teams as a result,

Kristina Braverman – Adam's wife, she is a stay-at-home mother who gave up a career in politics to raise her children Haddie and Max. She worries constantly and discovers that having a child with Asberger's Syndrome means even more on her plate. She confesses to Adam to faking orgasms and becomes very protective of Haddie as Haddie becomes involved with Steve,

Haddie Braverman – The fifteen year-old daughter of Adam and Kristina, she tries pot and is in a relationship with Steve, whom Adam immediately mistrusts. At the age where she begins testing boundaries, she buys herself a nice bra and starts sneaking out to be with her boyfriend,

Max Braverman – Adam and Kristina's eight year-old son, he has Asberger's Syndrome and struggles to make social connections,

Amber Holt – The daughter of Sarah and the rock guy, she wanted to stay in Fresno and be with her boyfriend. She smokes, sneaks out a lot and begins to get into more and more trouble. After passing off one of Sarah's old papers as her own, she confesses and begins to work hard, including working at a country club,

Drew Holt – Sarah's teenage son, he is a chronic masturbator until an unlikely family member has a conversation with him and he develops more of an interest in sports. He begins to see Adam as a father figure and resent the time demands Max places on Adam as a result,

Joel Graham – Julia's husband, he is not tempted by the Buddhist bimbo who begins hitting on him. Otherwise, he's a nonentity,

Sydney Graham – The daughter of Julia and Joel, she gives her parents a scare when she makes a rubber band ball and knows how many of each band is in it. She learns not to lie and is labeled as gifted,

Jabbar Trussell - Crosby and Jasmine's son, he gets his finger stuck in a can and adapts to having Crosby in his life remarkably well,

Jasmine Trussell - A dancer that Crosby dated years back, she returns to his life with Jabbar. At his birthday party, she is forced to confess to her family that Crosby did not abandon her and Jabbar but rather she kept his existence a secret from the father. She is given the opportunity to dance again and that might mean relocating her and Jabbar to New York City,

Camille Braverman - The matriarch of the family, she was part of the Berkeley scene in the 1960s and uses Zeek walking out to focus on her art and herself,

and Zeek Braverman - The crusty patriarch of the family, he is surprisingly open with talking about Braverman virility and other sensitive issues. But when the real estate bubble pops, an investment property he secretly invested in threatens to ruin his marriage.

On the acting front, Parenthood lived up to my hopes. Peter Krause continues his streak of great roles that started with playing Casey McCall and continued to play Nate Fisher. Adam is a good role for him and he does not play to his same strengths constantly, like not letting his smile carry scenes. Lauren Graham - despite my wife trying to ruin her for me by declaring her to be a mix of Rene Zelwegger and Mary-Louise Parker (neither of whom am I a fan) - is good as Sarah, though there are some fast-speaking moments where it is hard not to see her still as Lorelai Gilmore. Erika Christensen is wonderful as Julia, which is annoying because I frequently have mistook her for Julia Stiles before seeing her in this role. Here she seems distinctive enough to be more than a poor-producer's Julia Stiles. She plays determined and educated remarkably well, making her character brilliantly plausible.

The real surprise for me on the acting front was Dax Shepard. Shepard is usually a mainstay in goofy comedies and here he is brilliant and carried an emotional resonance that I had not seen from him before. The real challenge Shepard has as Crosby comes early in the season: portraying a noncommittal man who will realistically change everything when his son is revealed to him. Shepard, quite simply, lands it. He is serious and when his character never makes a move to run from Jabbar or responsibility, the audience buys it completely.

The cast is augmented by a series of young actors and actresses highlighted by Max Burkholder as Max and Mae Whitman (from Arrested Development). Whitman is far more emotional in this role and shows off some serious acting chops. If Erika Christensen steps out of Julia Stiles' shadow, Sarah Ramos, who plays Haddie, seems to slip right into the niche filled once by Christina Ricci. Ramos is good, but is not likely to be the next breakout young talent on television.

On DVD, Parenthood Season One comes with a commentary track for the pilot episode and a handful of deleted scenes, most of which seem to have just been cut for time. There is a featurette on family which is not incredible. I was left wishing for more commentary tracks.

All in all, the first season of Parenthood is a welcome arrival and one which will stimulate adults with or without children.

For other works featuring Peter Krause, please check out my reviews of:
Six Feet Under
Sports Night
The Truman Show


For other television program and DVD set reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here for an organized listing!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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