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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Parenthood: “These Are The Times We Live In”

This does not fill me with confidence.
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Parenthood is a show that defines itself by its conversations. These conversations are full of many words that form many sentences, overlapping each other to form a sort of tapestry of conversation, filling scenes almost to their breaking point. It’s either a symphony or a cacophony, depending on your tolerance for the cadence. For a show that’s so consumed with the way people talk to each other, though, its specialty is exposing the way talking doesn’t necessarily mean communicating. “These Are The Times We Live In” is filled to the breaking point with people struggling to communicate with each other, despite saying so many words, and it is beautiful.

Joel and Julia’s relationship over the past two seasons has been a fairly decent example of Parenthood telling a story about how miscommunications can build up between two people until they form a sort of wall you can’t figure out how to scale. Certainly the story hasn’t been perfect all the way through, but it’s settled in an interesting place this season where the little miscommunications throughout their marriage—and more importantly, their separation—have snowballed into this thing they can’t get past, because neither of them has any idea how. Despite Julia and Joel’s strong marriage, they had issues they never discussed, and those issues led to small resentments, which built up into larger resentments, which fueled both of them to completely shut each other out. Any attempts at reconciliation came at a time when the other party wasn’t ready; first when Julia tried so hard to get Joel back, and now this season when Joel was ready but Julia had finally made the decision to move on.

This cavern between Joel and Julia—this hole they dug for themselves that it seems like neither of them wants but neither of them knows how to crawl out of, either—is why this story has remained so vital for so long. It feels so rare to see a marriage on TV fall apart like a marriage does in real life: Slowly and confusedly on all sides. Watching Julia and Joel navigate the last bits of their divorce mediation and then cry together on the elevator leaving the mediator’s office is devastating, because it’s the one time they’ve truly been on the same page for almost two seasons. When Joel quietly goes to Zeek to say goodbye to him and the Braverman family, and Zeek ends up giving Joel a pep talk instead, it’s Joel finally realizing that the only way he’s going to get his family back like he wants is to forcefully communicate all his feelings to Julia and see what happens. Parenthood has struggled at times in this story by vilifying either Joel or Julia in order to tell the story they want to tell at this moment, but in the end that’s okay. They’re both the good guy. They’re both the bad guy. And in the end they’re just two people who forgot how to communicate, trying to find their way back to it again. Joel’s final plea to Julia at the door might not work, but at this point what does he have to lose?

Also wholly unable to communicate in this episode is Hank, first with Sandy and then with Sarah. Hank figuring out how to communicate with people has been a fairly reliable story engine for the show but it plays out in a different way here, one that affects Sarah in an interesting way. The dynamics between Sandy, Hank, Sarah, and Ruby started out fairly cliché but appeared to quickly move beyond that when Sandy did a heel turn and accepted Sarah as part of Ruby’s life. That heel turn turns again here, as Sandy sees Sarah and Ruby getting along and gets defensive about her place in Ruby’s life. The good of this story is Sarah helping Hank realize Sandy is upset and then Hank figuring out how to deal with both Sandy and Sarah in this situation (hilariously doing it while pacing the Braverman kitchen with Max). Where things get trickier is Sandy’s behavior after Hank does the unthinkable and apologizes for being such a difficult husband all of those years, and tells her about his exploration into his potential Asperger’s. Sandy’s reaction is to almost immediately do something that obviously shuts Sarah out of the family by pointedly inviting Hank on an excursion and not Sarah, with Hank remaining completely oblivious to Sarah’s feelings about it all. It’s nice to finally see some contention between Hank and Sarah—their relationship had been going far too well for something that is undoubtedly difficult—and it gives additional shading to what was becoming far too much about Ruby and Sarah instead of Sarah and Hank. (But this story is on notice, as we really don’t need the Sandy Show here.)

One thing that feels different about this season (although I’m not sure it is actually substantially different) is how the show is using Zeek. His health problems have given them an excuse to have him mix with any character at any time for any reason, and it’s really great to watch Craig T. Nelson to get a lot of one-on-one screen time with so many different members of the cast. Part of this strangeness is certainly due to the fact that not every cast member can be in every episode, so scenes that other actors would have joined in the past are now pared down to two people, but it’s really opened up some interesting character dynamics in this last season. Zeek gets great moments with both Joel and Drew here, in particular Drew. Drew has really gotten a lot to do this season and it’s been surprisingly effective, and it’s all adding up to watching him come into his own and figure out how to be an adult. This week’s lesson is all about thinking about other people’s needs and not just your own, when Zeek wants to spend time with him but Drew gets frustrated because he needs to study. Natalie helps him realize Zeek just wants to share important experiences with his grandson, and although I’m kind of on Drew’s side about Zeek being pushy (hello, Drew needs to study!) it ends with a surprisingly heartwarming scene at a gun range. America!

Stray observations:

  • Braverman Of The Week: Sarah, for talking both Hank and Amber off the ledge, only to have Hank totally miss the point in the end. Poor Sarah.
  • Who goes to some lame Big Top Burger place where there’s In-N-Out to be had? C’mon, Zeek.
  • Speaking of Zeek, did he really expect a field that was there like 50 years ago to not be completely developed by now? And he thought he could just wave a gun around in public? C’mon, Zeek.
  • No matter how mad you are at Joel (and I know some of you are mad at Joel), Sam Jaeger is doing a fantastic job with this storyline. He makes you hurt for him.
  • Amber deciding to take Max and Nora to Alcatraz was not one of her finer decisions. That’s just asking for trouble.
  • “I’m doing a lot of things I’m not supposed to be doing. The system has broken down; It’s amazing.” Miserable Max going all-in on junk food and Child’s Play was fantastic, though.