You can sort of sense the desperation leaking out of the NBC Parenthood promos. Every single one of them tries to play up some giant conflict that either doesn’t happen or takes up all of a scene or two. This week, the idea was supposed to be that MAYBE JASMINE AND CROSBY WOULDN’T GET MARRIED. Of course they’re going to get married. They’ll probably have some cold feet along the way on both parts, but the show is guiding them nice and safe toward a season finale wedding in May, a finale that just might end up doubling as a series finale if these ratings continue. (Oh, who am I kidding? NBC is going to end up renewing everything because it’s less a network and more a T.J. Maxx that’s decided to get into scripted programming and will take what it can get.) But every week, NBC is all, “THIS EPISODE OF PARENTHOOD WILL FEATURE SOME PRETTY MIND-BLOWING STUFF WHERE THESE CHARACTERS MAY DESTROY EACH OTHER” complete with the irritating finger-snapping music. And every week I fall for it.
But here’s the thing I really should have realized by now: Parenthood is the mythical TV show I’ve always said I wanted about the fact that functional relationships have fights and disagreements, yes, but also find ways around the conflict and are, indeed, stronger for that conflict. This shouldn’t surprise me. Showrunner Jason Katims’ other series, Friday Night Lights, returning on DirecTV tonight, features the strongest, most realistically depicted marriage on TV in a long time, in Eric and Tami Taylor. Katims is dedicated to making shows where the conflict arises from people discussing earnestly what they want, but he’s also dedicated to making shows where people work these conflicts out and not every fight has to be a world-shattering thing. I don’t feel like Parenthood would do a storyline where, say, Adam cheats on Kristina or something just out of the blue. It’s a show that’s very deliberate in its conflict-management scenarios, like the whole thing takes place in a marriage counseling session.
This is one of the things I like about the show. It’s also one of the things that makes it enormously hard to write about. For as much as we talk about the awesomeness of our modern TV criticism era, where critics are able to respond to shows on an episode-by-episode basis and churn out thousands upon thousands of words on these shows, this era is best suited to one type of show: heavily serialized prestige dramas featuring antihero male leads. These shows tend to thrive on plot twists that the audience doesn’t see coming, and discussing what will happen in the fallout from those twists is the bread and butter of this game.
Parenthood just doesn’t do this. Katims is resolutely interested in telling stories about good people, who try to do the right thing. Sometimes they fail, but what they aim for is being the best person they can possibly be. “Seven Names” is a great episode of Parenthood because it boils that idea down to its ethos, but it’s also sort of defeats coming up with crazy stuff to talk about. Was there anybody out there who doubted that Adam was going to find the seven people to fire and then was going to take the burden of firing them off of his boss? He’s always been the steady rock, the guy that his crazy family and crazy co-workers can turn to, and that means that he’s going to do his best, even if hurts the hell out of him. I love this character type. It’s a type you don’t see on TV a lot. But it’s not exactly like it’s an unpredictable one, though I do like the ways that the show is examining what seems to be a bit of a martyr complex on Adam’s part this season. (By and large, Adam and Kristina’s family has been the one to intrigue me most this season, especially with the way the show is subtly playing out how similar Haddie and her mother are.)
It’s the same deal with Sarah, who finally gets a nice, meaty storyline with Amber. The Sarah and Amber relationship was the lifeblood of season one, and while I see why the show has steered clear of it for the most part this season (gotta keep that large ensemble fed), it’s nice to see the show still remembers how to write for these two together. But at the same time, no one’s doubting that Sarah is going to tell Kelsie’s mom what went down at the frat party, no matter how much Kelsie thinks she needs more time. There are some lovely scenes here where Sarah asks her parents for advice, and there’s a great scene where Amber tells Sarah how disappointed she is in her (way to turn it back in her face, kid). But at its base, this is a storyline about people struggling to do the right thing in the face of how hard that is.
Or take Julia and Joel. A lot of other shows – ahem, Brothers and Sisters – would have taken something like the fact that both of these crazy kids want to WORK?! but also want to take care of their KIDS?! and turned it into some sort of marriage-defining crisis. Instead, Julia and Joel talk the situation out and stumble their way toward an understanding that will keep both of them happy AND allow for the best possible upbringing for Sydney. Parenthood, if nothing else, really believes in the power of compromise to keep families running along smoothly, and this is a tailor-made example of how a couple can come to this sort of agreement without having a big blow-up about it. Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger are quietly building one of the most realistic young marriages on TV, and it’s fun to watch. (That said, I want more of their backstory. Julia can’t be more than 30, right? So she had Sydney at 24, and she’s still a high-powered lawyer? Impressive.)
Crosby and Jasmine, then, were going to be the BIG, DRAMATIC STORYLINE for the week, but the episode mostly boiled their engagement down to Jabbar not seeming as excited as he should about what happened. But it all ended with a nice scene where they announced their engagement, and everybody was happy. Similarly, Haddie got into an obviously flirtatious series of arguments with a guy at a local charity organization, played by Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordan. (And what is it with Katims and doing storylines where underage girls are wooed by charity workers?) I like the show finding another storyline for Haddie, but there’s not a lot to this. Just two people working through their conflicts and talking about their feelings.
But here’s the thing: Talking about your feelings and working through conflicts is pretty great. It’s just hard to talk about without delving into a lot of plot summary, ultimately. I’m not saying I’m giving this show up or anything (far from it). I’m just intrigued by what it is that the show is becoming and clearly what it is that NBC wishes it had to sell. Parenthood thrives on quiet and people getting along. Those two things should be antithetical to good drama, and yet every episode figures out a way to turn all of this into a tiny little consideration of how to build a better life in these United States. Would more dysfunction make the show easier to write about? Probably. But I’m not sure I’d like it as much.