There’s a popular saying that the mark of a great TV show is that it dares you to reject it. The most ambitious dramas repel their audiences or confuse or give them nightmares about bodies dissolving. But if you hold too tightly to that bias, you’ll miss out on an equally delightful television—the talky, heartfelt, yet surprisingly nuanced style of a show like Parenthood. A sprawling, multigenerational ensemble series, Parenthood might look, to someone who had seen only flashes in passing, like a soap opera, suspiciously overstocked with sequences of family members dancing in the kitchen. Yet it’s one of only two great dramas on network television. Week after week, Parenthood, risks corniness, tiptoes up to the edge of conventionality, then delivers real emotion. Its strength is arguably as valuable as the ability of other series to agitate their fans: it manages to be warm, even sentimental, without being dumb. In this respect, the show is not alone. There’s a quiet a lot of similar sitcoms on network television, the best among them being Parks and Recreation. But Parenthood, since it’s a one-hour drama, can go deeper with its characters, mixing humor and pathos with a free hand. In 1996, there was the short-lived “Relativity.” Parenthood is still hanging in there on the network, but its season order was cut from twenty-two episodes to eighteen. (Etkin, Jaimie) If it gets cancelled, I may never recover. The show has become stronger with each season, and ever more adroit at handling an ensemble so big and baggy that even the Waltons might have been intimidated. Parenthood focuses on the Braverman family, sixty-something Zeek and Camille and their four adult children: Adam, Julia, Sarah, and Crosby. There’s also Adam’s wife, Kristina; Julia’s husband, Joel; Crosby’s ex, Jasmine; plus seven children, ranking in age from a newborn baby to an eighteen-year-old girl. The show is best known for the groundbreaking treatment of eleven-year-old Max, Adam and Kristina’s son, who has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. But that story is just one of many: Julia is adopting a child from her barista at work. Crosby is starting a business, Amber—Sarah’s teen-age daughter—is living in a rat-infested loft. Some plots misfire, and a few veer close to wishful thinking, but little of this matters, because the structure feels so confident. The show takes its time, like Sarah’s reaction when her younger boyfriend tells her that he can imagine them having a baby. The two are curled up on a sofa when he blurts this out. As he begins to backtrack, she jolts upright, stares back in shock, then in mock shock, shifting in subtle increments until she smiles, lets her face go blank again, and leans back into his arms with relaxed panic, a twenty-sided facial expression that should earn Lauren Graham a special Emmy. Parenthood is at its best when finding odd, fresh sources of emotion in hackneyed stories. In a recent episode, Max ran away from home—a standard network sucker punch. Kristina, who had recently given birth, had returned to work. Adam also needed to work on the weekend, which meant that the couple cancelled a museum trip with Max. Haddie, their teen-age daughter, was pressured into babysitting, and everyone was resentful, particularly Max, who struggles with any changes to his routine. When Max left to take the bus to the museum by himself, many shows would have dug in for maximum drama: father blaming daughter, father screaming at mother for not answering her cell phone, Max melting down. Instead, the Bravermans acted as they always do. They argued, but they kept the lid on the pot. The grownups remained grownups. There was a frightening scene in which Max—who has trouble gauging social environments—asked for directions from a homeless man, but mostly he just rode the bus in circles. And yet sadness leaked through. In the episode’s climactic sequence, the police brought Max home. As his relieved parents steered him...
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