It probably shouldn’t be so amazing to me that Parenthood is so much better when it’s about, well, parenthood, but there you have it. Tonight’s episode was the best of the season so far, moving with the quiet confidence the show has at its best, and that’s probably because the mayoral campaign was entirely sidelined, while the family stuff came front and center. Even the “Adam decides that he and Crosby should own a music label” plot was less about the mechanics of their business and the deals Adam was cutting and more about how he’d just forged ahead with this plan without consulting his brother, really, and the frequent gaps in communication that open up between them. The Luncheonette stuff was my least favorite plot of the week, but at least it felt like it vaguely belonged in the same show as everything else. And most of the other stories either dealt with things that have been building all season or returned the show to its strengths of small-scale stories about these people quietly living their lives. Plus, Crosby and Joel hung out drunk in a supermarket. What more could you want than that?
Perhaps surprisingly, the best thing about tonight’s episode was Kristina, who apparently just stopped running for mayor for a week so she could have a storyline about something else. (Not that I’m complaining.) Max has joined the yearbook staff, and he’s been going around taking pictures of kids having “authentic moments,” which mostly means that he’s been taking pictures of them when they’re not terribly excited to have their pictures taken. The last straw ends up being when he snaps a photo of a girl who’s crying about the death of her dog. She and her parents understandably freak out. Max and Hank try to pass the buck along to the gods of photojournalism, but the school’s having none of it. Max is going to have to stop being a yearbook photographer, and that sucks.
Max has always been the one character that makes everybody else on Parenthood snap into focus. You put him into a scene with just about anybody else, and you know that scene’s going to ring true, which is not something you can say for all of the other Bravermans. The show’s most compelling plotline in the occasionally spotty first season was about Max’s Asperger’s diagnosis, and every time the series returns to that story, it finds new angles to take. He’s growing older now, and he has ambitions and hopes, but he doesn’t always understand how to approach those ambitions while making accommodations for other people, which tends to get him in trouble.
By pulling Kristina into the storyline, the show does a great job of undercutting what’s been the problem with her this season: She always gets her way. Here, she doesn’t. She gets frustrated, and she gets mad, but she can’t get the school to reverse its decision. Max doesn’t have to stop taking photos; he just won’t have his photos in the yearbook, and he’ll be doing layouts instead. In the process of finding this out, Kristina learns about all of the problems the school staff had dealing with him when he was student body president, how his rigidity and inflexibility could lead to problems in that setting, and she starts to realize how out of the loop she’s been because she’s been fighting cancer and running for mayor over the past year. Max’s Skittle shower was a hugely goofy moment, but it was a definite win for the kid. But it’s good that the show hasn’t forgotten that he was student body president for a while and probably got involved in some difficult conflicts in that time, even if we didn’t get to see them. The story concludes with Max and Kristina, realizing there’s nothing they can do, simply deciding to be mad together, and it’s a really sweet ending. I love how this show lets you see the little ties between kids and parents, and this scene does just that for Kristina and her son.
Now that Camille is wanting to sell the house, the show can finally start to get into stories about how kids eventually have to help out their parents as they age, how that relationship reverses as the decades draw on. Tonight, that falls to Julia, who heads over to the rambling Braverman manse to discover that while her son might be having a great time helping his grandpa with the car, her mother isn’t in such good shape. Camille’s had a realtor over to look at the house, but Zeek essentially chased off said realtor and now refuses to even discuss the prospect of simply finding out how much the two could get for their elaborate compound (which we’ve never even seen the entire exterior of, if I’m not mistaken). Zeek’s intractability about this has been sort of portrayed by the show as this weirdly heroic stubbornness, but tonight, it thankfully reminds us that he’s being kind of an asshole. Julia ends up having to chew him out over how he’s not letting Camille have a say in their future, and that’s another great scene. Of all the Braverman children, Julia’s probably the best equipped to handle this, and it’s a good way for her to deal with some of her feelings of powerlessness in the wake of losing her job and being unable to find another one.
Of course, she’s also dealing with troubles at home, which continue to feel tacked on. Should she be worried about Joel having long-running dinners with Pete at which he gets drunk enough to try to walk it off in a grocery store across the street? Because this is television, yes, but I still don’t entirely buy this plotline on either side. I know the show wants us to be worried about Pete or Ed sweeping either Joel or Julia off their feet, but the characters have so obviously been introduced as obstacles that it’s hard to take them seriously. Maybe if the show had sidled up to these sorts of storylines this would work, but instead, Joel got jealous of Julia’s time with Ed a couple of weeks ago, and now Pete’s subtly driving wedges between him and his wife, before the two drink too much together. It’s got all of the red flags of a TV character being tempted by infidelity, and it’s really clumsy so far. I almost wish one of them would just cheat on the other (if that’s where we’re going) so we could get to the aftermath, which this show has the potential to handle terrifically. Fortunately, this led to that great scene of Crosby and Joel running into each other at the store, a reminder that there’s no dumb plotline on this show that can’t be improved by throwing more Bravermans into it.
Finally, we come to Sarah and Ryan, a story that doesn’t get as much screentime as you’d expect it to from the promos, but one where the two come to a kind of understanding after he learns that Sarah has her doubts about his impending nuptials with Amber. He admits that he did some shady stuff during his first relationship with Amber, and he admits that he’s got a troubled past. But he also tries to help her see that all of the stuff that led him to that place also led him to the Army, a place where he grew up much more quickly than he might have with a more stable home life. (He also says that not everybody has a family like hers, and it sure seems like the Bravermans are the only functional family in the entirety of the Parenthood universe, doesn’t it?) It’s a nice scene, but I hope this story doesn’t just go away. Sarah’s doubts about her daughter getting married are actually pretty well-founded. Even if Ryan didn’t have a troubled past, Amber would still be so young. Sometimes, Parenthood realizes that these sorts of conflicts can’t be easily swept under the rug, and sometimes, it grabs a broom and whistles while it tries to make them disappear. Let’s see what it does in the weeks to come. For now, this is a nice step up for a season that’s been running in a lower gear until now.
- Braverman of the week: Julia handled the situation with her parents with tact and grace and all of the things we’d like to have if we had to tell our father he was being a complete dick to our mother. Also, when she asks if she needs to be worried about Pete and Joel says she doesn’t, she doesn’t sound entirely convinced, but she also doesn’t press the issue. Nice daughtering and wifing, Julia.
- As mentioned earlier, I thought the business mechanics of the music label thing were kind of dumb, and I especially rolled my eyes at the way it all concluded with a big, rousing speech from Crosby. But it was nice to see Jabbar again, no matter how briefly, and I have this insane notion in the back of my head that maybe the twin pressures of a new music label and a mayoral campaign, as well as paying off medical bills, probably, and paying for Haddie’s college, will drive Adam and Kristina into serious economic problems, and then I remember Adam gets everything he wants.
- Speaking of that, it’s nice of Adam to just get Crosby into a situation he’s clearly not wanting to be in, then insist that he handle all of the messy conflict of that side of things. Crosby simply leaving the studio at that point was another fun moment.
- I liked when Ryan called Sarah “Mrs. Braverman” while coming by to fix her toilet. Mrs. Braverman is her mother, dude!
- Every episode is better with a mild smattering of Hank being intractable, and him insisting that photography is about capturing real moments, not manufactured ones, while Kristina tried to explain what was going on, was fun.
- Also: That attractive guy who lives in Sarah’s building is back. I’ll bet you forgot he existed.
- Did anyone mention the existence of Haddie Braverman, even tangentially?: No.