By: Aleks Chan
With its sprawling cast of familiar faces and its headline making production troubles, I was somewhat predisposed to like PARENTHOOD, NBC’s second remake of the 1989 Ron Howard film of the same name, which starred Steve Martin and Dianne Wiest. This version, headed by Howard, Brian Grazer and Jason Katims (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), has suffered a string of unfortunate setbacks: Programming executive Nora O’Brien died on the set from a possible aneurysm, and star Maura Tierney (ER) had to drop out after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The latter pushed the drama into midseason, with GILMORE GIRLS’ Lauren Graham taking the role in her stead.
The Bravermans are the kind of affluent, purpely-blue-tinged clan that has become standard in this type of show – an almost hierarchal adherence to placing all romantic and emotional entanglements in a tax bracket decidedly much higher than the bulk of its viewers. There are fine performances abound and though there is little to differentiate this show from the boundless other family melodramas currently on air or to have ever aired (BROTHERS & SISTERS quickly come to mind), it remains a likeable, if uninspired hour that easily outranks NBC’s current drama lineup. (A feat possibly made less impressive knowing that this includes HEROES and MERCY.)
Focus is directed towards Sarah (Graham), who’s packed up her teens in a broken-in station wagon and is leaving her deadbeat rocker husband to move back home for a fresh start. Her parents (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bodelia), as denoted by her discovering a secret stash of condoms in her father’s attached den, seem to be on the outs as well. Nelson’s character Zeek is the Sports Dad, so wincingly over-the-top in the quest for victory that he taints any sense of “fun” to be had. Thus is his approach to his grandson Max (Max Burkholder), diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the bane to his son and Max’s father Adam (Peter Krause, in a role that services his unique holier-than-thou style of acting). Adam is the eldest Braverman child and counsel to youngest Crosby (Dax Shepard), the “bohemian” commitment-phobe who fines a frozen container of another man’s sperm in his baby-crazy girlfriend’s freezer.
Erika Christensen’s character Julia, a highly successful corporate lawyer constantly yakking/tapping on her phone, and her respective story line is almost closed off from the remaining Braverman framework, though not for a lack of interest – it’s easily the strongest and most promising thread in PARENTHOOD. Julia’s husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) is a committed stay-at-home dad, happily assimilated to domesticity and to the cheeriness of the their daughter. And though the role reversal is nothing new to life or TV, few shows approach it as venerably emotional as it is here: Rather than draw her as an out-of-touch workaholic, she’s desperate to cut work out of her home life – an absent mother who struggles to reconcile wanting success at the cost of seeing her daughter grow up. And it’s truly Christensen who brings it to a emotional head: In the pilot, Julia rushes home just in time to read her kid a bedtime story and sing her to sleep, but is turned down by her daughter in favor of her husband, and within in seconds, you can see her smile hang with defeat, her big, expressive oculars nearly swelling in silent agony.
But it all comes back to Sarah, who Graham seems to just breeze through, which is a compliment. She isn’t playing a character as complex and realized as Lorelai Gilmore and so this role seems lightweight by comparison, as unfair a comparison it is. Part of the issue is that it seems the character of Sarah was conceived darker, and was perfectly embodied by predecessor Tierney, who brought a searing sense of realism to the role in the original, never-to-be-aired, you-probably-haven’t-seen pilot. Graham has interpreted Sarah differently – lighter, quirkier, funnier. And by this point of view, has also altered the interpretation of the show, tonally at least. When her kids act up under Tierney, it’s another instance of a harried mother’s hell; with Graham, it decidedly more kids these days.
Is this difference completely negligible? Yes and no. A performance doesn’t necessarily define a show, but it sure can help (or hurt).
As it is (and this was the case with the original pilot too), PARENTHOOD is like the print campaign (which featured coupled actors from their respective story lines) NBC rolled out: disjointed. The Bravermans’ moments together are out-shined by their quieter, emotional ones alone. It’s not that they don’t have chemistry (Krause and Graham are an especially believable brother and sister duo), but whenever the characters’ narratives arcs converge, however briefly, the show drags because it doesn’t know how to make them interesting together. The show gets no points of originality, but these dinner scenes leave it with a heaping deficit. What grand irony: a show with family issues. Grade: B
• We interview Erika Christensen