Friday, July 12, 2013

Cancer And Annoying Children Make Parenthood Season Four Something Of A Wash.

The Good: Decent performances (especially from Ray Romano and Monica Potter), Moments of character
The Bad: Feels very soap opera-ish at times, Entire characters essentially get dropped for the season, Max, Sydney and Victor are all super-obnoxious making the kids virtually unwatchable this season.
The Basics: The charm of Parenthood is largely gone in its fourth season and the now-crowded cast and storylines start to seriously neglect (or make poor use of) several of the characters.

I am a big fan of movies that feature a lot of characters. Long movies packed with interesting characters unified by a single theme, like Magnolia (reviewed here!) or Cloud Atlas (reviewed here!) play well for me. So, when writers and producers have the opportunity to do even something deeper and more impressive – which is one of the potential strengths of serialized television – I get interested. Parenthood has been a television series that has, in general, played well to my tastes because it has a huge cast with interesting characters who are often in intriguing situations. But, but the fourth season of Parenthood, the story of the Braverman family is beginning to show its cracks and strains and the storylines are experiencing a real sense that the writers overreached on the initial concept and are now struggling to keep the show both grounded (one of the strengths of Parenthood has long been that the show is rooted in a very real-seeming world) and use all of the characters (and well).

Coming off of the third season of Parenthood (reviewed here!), some of the major character conflicts and plot arcs had been resolved. The “will they or won’t they” aspect of Crosby and Jasmine’s relationship was concluded with the two finally tying the knot. Similarly, the season-long build-up to Julia and Joel getting a child took an abrupt left turn in the prior season’s finale after they were jerked around and heartbroken by the woman whose child they planned to adopt running off. Even the marital problems between the eldest Bravermans, Zeek and Camille seem largely resolved. So, the fourth season of Parenthood seemed like it had a number of conceptually new places it could go and there was the sense that many of the characters could actually be used in new and different ways.

Unfortunately, in its fourth season, Parenthood went in both a different and painfully familiar series of directions. By that, I mean that the show essentially drops some of the characters (are Camille and Jabbar even in this season?! Yes, but not in any meaningful ways) and it puts others in character conflicts that are so familiar, it is hard to believe the writers could not come up with something new for them. Chief among these examples is Sarah Braverman, who is once again caught between two men and while her daughter’s former teacher, Mark Cyr, remains one of the men she is trying to negotiate a relationship with, the “fix-er upper” guy is now her new boss, Hank Rizzoli. In addition to putting characters like Sarah in painfully familiar situations, Parenthood adds a cancer storyline (which, admittedly, is fairly well-executed) and it returns children to the forefront, with most of them acting appallingly bad . . . to the point of being unwatchable.

Opening with Haddie preparing to go off to Cornell, Sarah gets a job with a photographer to whom she exaggerates her skill set when she interviews with him. Hank, however, is not much of a people person and Sarah is, so he sees a lot of use in bringing her aboard his business to help him out. Julie is dealing with her new adopted son, Victor. Victor steals Max’s lizard Guacamole, which causes some family tension. Meanwhile, Zeek is somewhat aimlessly going from one thing to another when he meets a young veteran, who helps him with a sprinkler problem at the house. Ryan, despite having trouble with job placement and post-traumatic stress, quickly bonds with Amber and the two begin a tumultuous relationship.

But the Bravermans come together in support of Kristina, who has developed cancer and who undergoes surgery and treatment (chemotherapy) to save her life. While Max is characteristically unsympathetic to Kristina (as a function of his Asperger’s Syndrome), Adam struggles to keep the family together while she fights her illness. As Crosby and Jasmine get used to married life, Crosby gets into a conflict with a new woman in the Luncheonette neighborhood. And as Sarah and Mark’s relationship suffers when they move in together, Sarah finds herself drawn to Hank, which could upset the entire family.

If it sounds like Parenthood has gone in a more soap operatic direction in its fourth season, then appearances are not deceiving. While Kristina’s cancer arc is treated with astonishing realism and coldness (the vomiting after the chemo begins and Kristina getting baked to manage the pain and get through her days is presented very directly and well), much of the rest of the show has turned into something very much like a soap opera. The gifted young daughter of Julia and Joel now throws temper tantrums because Victor is around. Victor forces Julia and Joel to visit the slums in search of people Victor once knew and in one of the least probable turns ever, Max is elected student council president.

Beyond that, the bitchy new neighbor for the Luncheonette seems like a way to kill time and utilize Crosby before Jasmine’s mother re-enters the story with a debt arc that comes out of nowhere. Similarly, Sarah’s push-pull relationship issues between Mark and Hank are instantly predictable the moment Hank enters the series (one doesn’t cast Ray Romano for a recurring role without having some larger plan for him) as is the idea that Amber and Ryan will hook up. Now lacking his sister at home, Drew is basically tossed from one situation to another, though he is given both an arc with Mark and an abortion subplot with his ex-, then back to current, girlfriend, Amy.

Virtually lost in the shuffle are Camille, Jabar, Jasmine, Zeek and (essentially) Sydney. Sydney reacts to Victor’s presence in Julia and Joel’s life/family. Her acting out trumps any of her prior characterization as a smart, perceptive and empathetic girl. After serving as, essentially, a plot tool to introduce Ryan into the family, Zeek virtually disappears for the remainder of the season as Ryan and Amber bonding takes over what started as Zeek’s story. Camille, Jabar, and Jasmine are supporting roles at best with nothing memorable in their character arcs (this is especially disappointing for Camille as an episode has her lending a hand with Kristina, but does not actually have her and Kristina reaching any meaningful new plateau in their relationship).

On the acting front, the fourth season of Parenthood has all of the actors hitting their marks consistently. Ray Romano gives one of the best, most memorable and deep performances of his career as Hank, the curmudgeon photographer. He is both funny and surprisingly easy to care about, with no traces of his popular character from Everybody Loves Raymond in his performance. While the character arc between Hank and Sarah may be entirely predictable, Romano’s performance is anything but dull or ordinary. As well, against all odds of on-screen chemistry, Romano and co-star Lauren Graham play off one another exceptionally well to make for a plausible on-screen couple (as they work their way toward that).

Actor Miles Heizer comes into his own as Drew. Heizer seems realistically insecure in the role of Drew as Drew is compelled to move between the comfortable room in his grandparent’s house and Mark Cyr’s apartment (and back). As Drew works through being dumped by Amy and then reconciling with her, Heizer plays emotionally knocked around very well. He might not get the most airtime in season four, but he might make the best use of being a supporting main castmember.

Parenthood Season Four is owned by Monica Potter, though. Starting the season with Kristina predictably drained by the new baby, Haddie going off to college, Max going through his tantrum about the school getting rid of the vending machines (and resolving to run for class president) and the financial uncertainty of Adam’s Luncheonette endeavor, Potter manages to run Kristina down for the length of the cancer arc (which is most of the season) without simply playing the same beats she did for the prior three seasons. In fact, Kristina’s video presentation to her family is one Potter’s best, most heartwrenching performances and for those who might not have been enamored with the character prior to that . . . it is hard not to be afterward.

Unfortunately, Potter’s performance and the power and realism of the cancer arc does not undo the sheer volume of annoying airtime as Max, Victor, and Sydney whine and throw temper tantrums through their time on screen. Season four of Parenthood is worth watching, but there is not much in it to encourage rewatching it, which is a departure from the prior seasons.

For other current shows from the 2012 - 2013 television season, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Newsroom - Season 1
Game Of Thrones - Season 3
New Girl - Season 2
Happy Endings - Season 3
The Walking Dead - Season 3
Arrested Development - Season 4
House Of Cards - Season 1
True Blood - Season 5


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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