How long, oh, Parenthood fans, have we been cursed to wander in the darkness, far from the smiling, shining faces of our beloved Bravermans (Bravermen?)? First, there was a hurricane. (And even before that, there was a two-hour edition of The Voice.) Then, there was an election that apparently wasn’t to elect Max Braverman student council president. Also, I feel like it’s been longer because Myles reviewed the last episode, and I just caught up with it this afternoon, so, for me, the last episode I watched was back in early October somewhere. Lives have changed since then! Tectonic plates have shifted! We have the same president! But on Parenthood, lives stubbornly move forward. Kristina is entering chemotherapy. Amber’s still not sure what she’s getting into with
Luke Cafferty Ryan. Drew got a storyline! Okay, that last one was a little different.
Here’s why the “Kristina gets cancer” storyline has been so effective, both for me and other fans of the show: It gives both Monica Potter and Peter Krause some great stuff to play. Now, we all knew Krause could do this, and the writers did, too. Every season, they give Krause at least four or five episodes where Adam bugs his eyes out and tries to do everybody’s work for them, and then the other Braverman family members stand back and sort of chuckle at his enthusiasm. It’s a card the writers play because it always works. Krause is great at playing tightly wound, and Adam’s like a freshly wound Tik-Tok man in that regard. (Yeah, we’re making some references to obscure Oz books in this column. Deal with it.) So it’s not a surprise to learn that Krause’s going to nail the moments where he’s upset about Otis peeing on the floor or where Crosby has to all but physically drag him and his desk down to the bar for a beer.
What is a surprise is just how this storyline has opened up Monica Potter. She’s a fine, fine actress, but there’s an unapproachability to her that occasionally hurts her performances. She feels always a little cold and aloof, standing back from everything else and daring you to come to her. The most successful movie and TV stars usually come off the screen as gregarious, reaching out to you, even when they seem to be playing it cool. (Think of how Humphrey Bogart could seem like he didn’t give a damn about anything, but he was so great at wrapping the audience into that sentiment.) Potter holds back. She’s a little cagey. She takes her time. I like that about her, even as I think that lots of writers turn her characters into hyperactive basketcases to overcompensate. The thought is that if she’s going to hold back, making her more active will keep the audience engaged. This is why Monica Potter ends up playing so many annoying characters. And, trust me, I’ve seen every episode of Trust Me.
Parenthood writes Kristina Braverman as fairly similar to these previous Potter characters, but it’s also found a way to make that weakness a strength. Kristina can be a little standoffish. She may not always want to be with friends (like the annoying couple that dropped by tonight). But she’s got a fierce sense of loyalty deep down somewhere, and her version of tightly wound complements Adam’s constant state of mind well. The two characters might be unbearable on their own, but together, they make more sense, and it’s a more successful portrayal of the way a long-running marriage will slowly turn both participants into one half of a whole, instead of separate individuals, than the portrayal of the Zeek and Camille marriage, which remains one of the show’s bigger issues. In her fight against cancer, then, Parenthood has found a way to keep Kristina recognizable as herself, even as it’s slowly worn down her defenses. And she doesn’t respond by making constant, tearful proclamations about how much she loves everybody, nor does her husband. The two of them seem to be attempting to beat back a pernicious disease through solid scheduling, exactly as you’d expect them to. And in the moments where Kristina cracks just a bit, where you can see through to her true thoughts about things, where she goes to get ice cream or goes to pick up her son from school, Potter’s found a weird soulfulness that fits the character imperfectly, as if it’s an old coat she’s not used to wearing. It’s great work, and I’m guessing it will only get deeper and richer as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, I was pleased with the way the show acknowledged that, yeah, Victor might not be fitting in as well as Julia and Joel might like because he’s someone who was unexpectedly uprooted from his life and placed into a new one. The show has yet to really do anything with this, and I, sadly, am pretty rusty in my Spanish skills, so I wasn’t able to pick up if Victor and Miguel were badmouthing his new life over the constantly present acoustic guitars, but I liked that we at least got an idea of where Victor came from originally, that the show is acknowledging that for all Joel and Julia’s kindness, this is a place they just can’t travel, a point-of-view they won’t really understand. They’re good people, but their son has a whole past and a life that’s now bifurcated between two polar opposites. It will take time for him to be comfortable in his new life. At least Julia’s going to apply her pluck and know-how to learning Spanish. I’m still leery about where this could go, but the nicely offbeat way the storyline is playing out is keeping me on my toes.
The third and fourth storylines in “Together” are turned over to Sarah’s kids. The relationship between Amber and Ryan is turning serious, so now, of course, is a good time for Zeek to start worrying about whether she’ll be able to handle the serious issues of helping a veteran re-adjust to life in these United States. This has the potential to be good, and I like the easygoing chemistry between Matt Lauria and Mae Whitman—but then at the end, he opens a pill bottle and takes a pill, and there’s an outside shot it’s just a thing he needs to do, but I think we all know where this is going, and I hope I can speak for all of us in saying that a prescription drug abuse storyline is a little too after-school special for right now. We’ve already got a surprisingly exemplary cancer arc, show. Stick to Ryan’s alienation from the world, and you’ll be good.
Also, Drew wants to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, even though she was apparently dating someone who was the rough contemporary of Mr. Cyr. He accomplishes this by acting even more concerned about his aunt’s cancer than he actually is. It’s surprisingly funny, and I liked that, for once, Drew’s awkward stumbling through adolescence pays off. Good on you, Drew!
- Braverman of the week: It can’t just be Amber every week, can it? All right, I’m going to give the title to Adam for being so supremely good at freaking out that he even freaks out at some guy at the bar. (Somebody’s going to go through these and realize I’ve given this to Adam every week, and then I’m going to be embarrassed.)
- There’s a really nice Camille moment when she gives Kristina that sweater/robe. I also liked the way the episode subtly implies that Kristina’s mother being unable to come is coloring so much of her reactions to Camille’s over-helpfulness. (Also: I can’t wait to find out just what the deal is with Kristina’s family. Also, also: Would you have thought Adam and Kristina were a good match at first?)
- Sarah turns up to be good-natured and amused about the fact that her daughter has hooked up with one of her father’s friends. Granted, this is all above-board and non-creepy, but on a lot of other shows, that would be much more salacious.
- Keeping up with Nora Braverman via the “Nora Braverman” section of Wikipedia’s “List of Parenthood characters” page: “She enjoys playing with colored rings and sharing her snacks with her mother.”
- I know I promised more Oz references, but I couldn’t work them in. Here’s a free one: Polychrome.