Now in its third season, NBC’s Parenthood has settled comfortably into its role as a safety blanket. Depicting the trials, tribulations, first kisses, midlife crises, self-discoveries, developmental disorders, small fights, big fights, runaways, reconciliations, love lives, secret shames, breaches of trust, and impromptu dance parties of the Braverman family, the series tells us that any problem can be resolved within the space of a three-episode arc. From I Love Lucy to The Sopranos, family has been the subject of many great television shows, and it’s comforting and more than a little voyeuristic watching this big messy family compulsively hurt each other and then fix everything week in and week out.
It’s also encouraging to see the same care and attention given to family dynamics—not to mention improvisatory dramatic acting—familiar to viewers of showrunner Jason Katims’s previous series, Friday Night Lights. If Parenthood lacks that show’s electricity, it’s no fault of the excellent ensemble cast, but rather a consequence of lower stakes. The sense of anxiety that shot through every episode of Friday Night Lights, not to mention the extraordinary meditations on class and obsession, is largely missing from the bourgeois world of the Bravermans.
This season, however, shit has gotten relatively real, and this injection of realness has met with varying degrees of success. Last season, for instance, we were introduced to Alex (Michael B. Jordan), an upstanding, recovering teenage alcoholic who just so happens to be African-American and in love with Haddie Braverman (Sarah Remos). The initial arc of that storyline brought Haddie into conflict with her folks, Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter), who felt Alex was too “adult” for their daughter. The show handled the racial undertones with characteristic grace and a lack of opportunism, and the Bravermans’ ultimate acceptance of Alex into their lives proved to be one of the most affecting turns the show has taken to date. This season, after Alex got into a scuffle with a fairly privileged white friend of Haddie’s, however, more of the character’s sordid past was revealed. The young actors have handled these episodes with poise, but the whole plotline felt a little too forced and predictable. The same can be said of other capital-S serious plot excursions like Adam’s brushes with unemployment and infidelity and Sarah Braverman’s (Lauren Graham) controversial support of her ex-husband (John Corbett) through rehab. These scenarios have all been handled decently well by the writers and actors involved, but Parenthood‘s sweet spot has never been high drama. The show is far better working with a smaller scale than it is trying to grapple with weighty issues like alcoholism, racism, and the economy.
Still, season three has delivered plenty of good storylines, from Asperger’s-afflicted Max’s (Max Burkholder) adjustment to life in public school to Crosby’s (Dax Shepard) awkward adjustment to life as a single dad, many of which smartly make use of the staggeringly talented ensemble of young actors who play the Braverman children. Particularly effective was an extended set piece in which Amber (Mae Whitman) gives her cousin Max a tutorial about empathy. The schoolyard conflict that sets off this tête-à-tête reads as a bit of a contrivance, but it’s one that ultimately paid off, if only because of the strength of Burkholder and Whitman’s performances. Burkholder has been a revelatory screen presence since the series premiere, turning what could easily have been a Screech-like parody into one of the most genuinely soulful characters on the show. Whitman, for her part, has been quietly constructing a complex and fascinating television character, flitting effortlessly between comic relief and dramatic lead, and she’s better than probably anyone else on Parenthood at conjuring the easy naturalism that made Friday Night Lights so watchable.
Parenthood‘s large ensemble hasn’t really grown since the series debuted, but this season finds the writers increasingly, and unfortunately, dividing the cast into distinct groups. Often this has the disappointing result of relegating the younger actors to the figurative kiddie table. Amber and Haddie, for instance, have spent entire episodes off screen, while an undue amount of space has been allotted to the silly logistics of Adam and Crosby opening a recording studio. But having too many compelling directions to take a series in is far better than having too few, even if the writers make a wrong turn every once in a while. They’ll pull it together in a couple of episodes. No sweat.