Welcome back, Braverfans. It’s been a long, interminable spring and summer, but NBC has seen through to the essential quality of this show—and the fact that Smash was an absolute bomb last spring—and we have the Bravermans back for their first full-season order since season two. Season two was a little lumpy, particularly at the beginning and end, as if Jason Katims and crew weren’t quite sure how to fill 22 full episodes with gentle conflict and moving family drama. But they now have two really great seasons under their belt, so surely everything will be all right, right?
Well, maybe not. “It Has To Be Now” is a much more disjointed premiere than last season’s, in ways that suggest the show isn’t quite sure how to come back from the triumph of last season’s “Kristina has cancer” arc. Yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff here, and it ends with the double whammy of a military homecoming combined with a surprise proposal, but it’s also an episode that features Kristina deciding to run for mayor in a moment that made me say, “What!?” Kristina running somebody’s mayoral campaign—perhaps Bob Little’s opponent, since Bob Little isn’t exactly Mr. Respectability—makes a lot of sense as an arc for her this season. It lets her recede into the background a bit but still get a major storyline. But Kristina running for mayor herself? It just seems to go against everything we know about the character, and you just know Katims and company are going to have her win and become mayor of Berkeley, and then where will we be? It’s as if he really wanted to make that American version of Borgen he almost got to a few years ago, so he backdoored it into this show.
One of the reasons season premieres aren’t Parenthood’s strong suit is because the show takes place in real time. So we left the Bravermans back in January of 2013, and we’re picking up with them in September of 2013, a gap of eight or nine months, depending on how the show fudges the numbers. It’s enough time for Jasmine to have a baby come fully to term and arrive a couple of weeks early, and it’s enough time for Hank to have moved to Minnesota, only to realize that he couldn’t get along with Betsy Brandt anymore and come back to San Francisco.
But it’s also seen other stasis in Parenthood land. Joel and Julia continue to struggle with where the money’s going to come from now that she’s not working (and has a vindictive former boss who brings up the case she ruined at every opportunity, probably with good reason, but still, this is television, and she is a protagonist). Adam and Kristina are taking it slowly after the cancer battle. Amber and Ryan are dating, but he also was called back to Afghanistan to better tug at our heartstrings. Drew is in college and has grown out his hair. Hattie has apparently ceased to exist.
Thus, this is an episode full of people catching each other up on things they already know. This is a mode Parenthood rarely works well in, though it handles it better than a lot of other shows. This series always works best when it comes down to grace notes and sweet little moments around the edges, and there’s not as much room for that when Crosby and Jasmine are telling each other about how the baby’s coming, and they really need a name for it, and her baby belly’s right there, and visual storytelling, God. To the show’s credit, it finds fun little ways to spice up some of these scenes, like having Sydney start talking about profit margins when her dad is telling us about the housing development that will be his plotline for several episodes this season. (Actually, that plotline probably involves some flirtations with Sonya Walger. It’s nice to see her on TV, and we’ll all have fun making “not Penny’s housing development” jokes, but Parenthood is on notice if this turns into some bullshit “let’s have an affair!” storyline just to give Joel something to do.) But it’s still an hour full of people catching an unseen audience up on things we didn’t get to see.
By far the best scene, the scene that reminds you almost instantly that, oh yeah, this is one of the best shows on TV, is the one where Max heads over to Hank’s photography studio because the camera Hank gave him is broken. (Max jammed the shutter. It takes Hank a couple of minutes to figure that out.) The rapport between Ray Romano and Max Burkholder was one of the highlights of last season, and I’m glad the show is bringing Hank back into the show in this fashion, rather than having him immediately start pining for Sarah again. When Adam shows up to tell Hank not to try to use Max as a way to get back together with Sarah, I like how the scene turns on a dime once Hank mentions Max is good at photography. Peter Krause is so good at just acting with his expressions, and a whole range of them play across his face here, culminating in this sense that maybe this is something Max could turn into a career, into a life he and Kristina would never have dreamed possible even a few years ago. The Max storyline has always been the closest thing Parenthood has to a spine, and it’s nice to see the series hasn’t forgotten about that.
It’s also exemplary of what this episode’s theme is: Parents think they have perfect understanding of their children at every age, but they almost never do, because their kids are separate human beings. In fact, it’s often the case that parents can find those kids incredibly irritating and hard to deal with. Crosby’s waiting for that rush of love that will accompany his new baby daughter being in his arms, but it hasn’t come yet. Adam sees his son tromping over to Hank’s studio as another mess to clean up. Sarah waits for her son to text or call or e-mail, but she doesn’t get anything outside of some emojis. It’s not a brilliantly developed theme or anything, but it’s there, and it shows another thing that unites all of the characters on this show: They’re all learning to let go of their offspring, bit by painful bit. Crosby’s daughter may be brand new, but she’s already growing into a person who will be completely independent someday, while Max is finding his own path to that independence and Drew is reveling in it perhaps a bit too much. To be a parent is to already miss someone you see every day, just a little bit, and in its best moments, even with all of the messy process of getting caught up, “It Has To Be Now” remembers that.
- Welcome to the family, Aida Braverman. Hopefully, your Wikipedia profile is as enthralling as Nora Braverman’s someday. Speaking of which…
- Keeping up with Nora Braverman via the “Nora Braverman” section of Wikipedia’s “List of Parenthood characters” page: Nora doesn’t just enjoy playing with colored rings and being with her mother now. She also enjoys “drumming on cooking pots,” which is irritating to all around her.
- Bonnie Bedelia spends her time: Hey, Bonnie Bedelia got a paycheck to wander into a scene with a casserole dish and hold a baby. Not bad, Bonnie Bedelia. Not bad.
- I didn’t mention this even in passing above, but the tenant in Sarah’s building where she’s now the super was just a weird plotline, seemingly only there to foreshadow that he and Sarah are going to sleep together because he blatantly tells her he doesn’t sleep with women over 30. Side note: Who does that? If it’s between Hank and this guy, it’s not even going to be a contest.
- Matt Lauria hasn’t been made a regular yet, but dammit, I don’t think I can take it if he breaks Amber’s heart. That final scene with the homecoming and the proposal nestled up against each other was one of the best things in the episode, right down to a solid music choice.
- Speaking of music choices, did you notice how every single scene with Jasmine in it was introduced by either Motown or the blues? That’s… a little on the nose, Katims. (Also: Way to hang a lampshade on how Aida’s got lighter skintone before the audience could.)
- Braverman of the week: Sydney. She explains profit margins to everybody, then immediately starts sword fighting with her brother. I’m excited to see how this show gradually evolves into one about Sydney’s training as a genius business consultant/deadly assassin. Sydney Bristow? Sydney Braverman? If this was the Breaking Bad credits, you’d all see what I was talking about.