Back in early March, I reviewed the premier episode of Parenthood and gave it a generous B+. In my summation of the the pilot episode, I said that the biggest thing Parenthood had to do was avoid falling into the trappings of any other family drama on television. As I said in March, it had potential to be a really great show, or one that wouldn’t make it through its first season.
Now that Parenthood has wrapped it’s first season, I think I can say it fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The pilot episode was not bad, but the show got off to a rocky start in its first string of episodes. For the most part, the members of the Braverman clan established in the pilot stayed the same for a while: Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) were super uptight parents that were dealing with their son’s recently diagnosed autism while largely ignoring their daughter, Hattie (Sarah Ramos). Adam’s younger sister Sarah (Lauren Graham) had moved her two teenage kids Amber and Drew (Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer) from Fresno and was struggling with her own lack of ambition, Amber’s propensity for trouble, and Drew’s shy nature, not to mention the trials and tribulations of moving back in with her parents. The next sibling was Crosby (Dax Shepard), who awoke from his slacker lifestyle upon the discovery that he had a son, Jabbar, with a dancer, Jasmine (Joy Bryant), that he had a one night stand with several years prior. Last was Julia (Erika Christensen), a workaholic lawyer who found it hard to spend time with her husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) and their daughter. Of course there were also parents Zeek and Camille (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia), who appear to have some problems of their own that weren’t really addressed until the end of the season.
For the most part, the first few episodes felt like they couldn’t really find their footing. The acting was decent enough, but the cast didn’t quite seem comfortable with each other or their roles, and the writing either was tonally off or just lazy. In a lot of ways, the first 6 episodes were two warm and fuzzy, too melodramatic, and too cheesy. Sure it’s nice to see Max, the autistic son, catch a fly ball and get accepted by his team, but it played out like a bad After School Special. Adam chasing a possum that he just can’t catch wasn’t the funniest thing to begin with, but it didn’t fit in the rest of the episode at all. Julia has a feud with another mother at her daughter’s school, but it’s largely based on this other woman’s affection for Joel and an constant reminder that Julia works all the time. The girls were largely dismissed to fairly dull plots too. Amber’s grades aren’t good! Adam doesn’t like Hattie’s boyfriend! Who’s pot is this?
Those first six episodes were heavy on establishment, which is fine, but we were kind of bludgeoned over the head with it. We got that Sarah didn’t live up to expectations, we get that Adam and Kristina are uptight and struggling with Max’s autism, we get that Crosby has to grow up now that he has a son, and on and on. All of this repetition came at the expense of some other, more interesting plots that were either rushed or never really touched on. Sarah falls for a teach that Amber also has a crush on, but it’s basically done in three episodes. Zeek and Camille show up sparingly (especially Camille), and there are hints they’re having problems, but they lead nowhere.
The cast made up largely for some of these narrative faults. Though at first Adam and Kristina were annoyingly high strung, Peter Krause and Monica Potter played off of each other really well, feeding off their characters’ anxiousness. Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman were perfectly in sync with one another, and their scenes were always the highlight of the episode. I was surprised at the acting chops of Dax Shepard, who previously had made a career out of playing the stupid guy in a slew of bad movies. He revealed himself to be kind of likable, and ably played the role of the lazy, dependent slacker that grows up.
I think it’s important to note the show’s odd way to the air. A pilot was picked up with Maura Tierney playing the role of Sarah, but she pulled out of the show when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This lead to the pilot being re-shot with Lauren Graham recast in the role, and the premier was bumped from the fall to the spring. I’m not sure what the actual impact of this was, and Lauren Graham has been quite good, but I think it’s fair to note that there was a big layoff for the creative team behind the show in between the pilot and the actual start of production of the series.
So despite how hard I’ve been on the show so far, something happened around its seventh episode where it started to get better. The cast seemed comfortable with each other, and the writers largely abandoned some of the repetitive themes they wanted to hammer home in the first half of the season. Adam and Kristina, while still pretty uptight, loosened up and the chemistry between Peter Krause and Monica Potter helped turn them in to two of my favorite characters. Every story about Julia ceased to be about how hard she works and how disconnected she was with her daughter and she became a much more likable character. The chemistry between the siblings themselves got better, their scenes together no longer seeming forced. Lauren Graham and Peter Krause especially seemed to work well together, and the writers ran with it, giving them more to do together.
The stories got more interesting as a result. Rather than just struggling with how to be be a dad and a grown up, Crosby struggled with Jasmine over why he didn’t know about Jabbar and the two became his family. Hattie broke up with her boyfriend at the advice of Amber, only to have Amber sleep with him, a plot that not only played out between the two cousins, but between Amber and Sarah, but Sarah, Kristina, and Adam. The biggest development was the reveal that Zeek had made a bad investment and cheated on Camille, which lead to the two separating. It was interesting not just for the predictable elements of how Camille got back at Zeek or his anguish over it, but the ways in which the siblings dealt with it.
Thought it definitely improved, the second half of the season still had some weaknesses. Joel and Sydney were more or less non-existent characters towards the end of the season, and the bits between Crosby and Jabbar seemed to have one note. Camille remained a largely unexplored character until she and Zeek split, and even then, I don’t think we really got a sense of who she was. There were still moments that felt to warm and fuzzy (especially the last scene of the season which had the family cheering on Drew at his baseball tryout), but they weren’t all quite as tacky as they were earlier in the season.
After last night’s finale, I went back and read my old review, and found it interesting that at one point I said, “A dramedy about the lives of four grown siblings, their parents, and their kids is not going to set the world on fire based on its premise alone, but more in its execution.” With that in mind I think Parenthood had a decent first season. The show’s cast really carried it. Week in and week out, Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman really impressed me, and as I said, I had a lot of fun watching Peter Krause and Monica Potter.
The show can’t function on a great cast alone however, and I’m looking for next season to step up its game in the narrative department. If Parenthood can better compromise between the melodrama and the humor, it will be an even better show. Right now, it doesn’t hold a candle to shows like Mad Men for the depth of its characters, and largely, that’s due to the fact that they haven’t been given a chance to how that depth. I will definitely watch Parenthood when it returns in the fall, but I can promise you I won’t stick with the show if doesn’t continue to grow.
Ultimately, I think the first season of Parenthood didn’t blow me out of the water or make me countdown the days until it returns, but I looked forward to watching it each week and enjoyed watching it improve. It’s definitely on the right track, so I’m interested to see where season 2 takes us.
Episodes 1-6: C
Episodes 7-13: B+
Michael’s Score: 67
TUiW Grade: B