About a year ago, a friend told me I needed to be watching “Parenthood.” She told me it was payback (in a good way) for convincing her to watch “Friday Night Lights,” and she has successfully paid it forward. The two NBC critically-acclaimed darlings share a showrunner in Jason Katims, and there’s a lot of actor overlap between the shows. If you liked “Friday Night Lights,” there’s a good chance you’ll be into “Parenthood” — especially if you’ve lost a parent. Or unless, depending on how you’re dealing with it.
“Friday Night Lights” was not a show about football but a drama about teens in Texas, many of whom also played football. Its best assets were its true-to-life characters and authentic writing (and its soundtrack choices). Dillon, Texas was almost a character itself, a town where, when I listen to certain bands highlighted on that show over the course of its five seasons, I still feel a strong yearning to visit. (Editor’s Note: Upon arrival into Dillon, I assume one is automatically greeted by a fanfare from Explosions in the Sky. I just feel that this this a thing that happens. – Travis)
“Parenthood” takes place in the less dreamy, more grounded-in-reality Bay Area, but Katims plays to his strengths in the creation of realistic, flawed, but endearing and lovable characters. The show centers around the four adult children of matriarch and patriarch Camille and Zeek Braverman, and those children’s children. It’s absolutely an ensemble cast and some characters are more interesting and get more play than others (Haddie Braverman’s disappearance from the show has become an on-going joke on the AV Club; I personally rarely care what’s happening with the grandparents or college-age Drew).
But what I love most about “Parenthood,” and what I watch it for every week, are the strong, albeit at times strained, mother-daughter relationships. My mom died when I was 21, and sometimes I feel like I got cheated out of knowing her as a fellow adult and as a friend. I was barely a grown-up myself when she died, and we’d only just exited our embattled teen daughter vs. oppressive, nay-saying mom years.
This show lets me imagine what our relationship might have looked like over time. No matter what is happening on this show, at least one scene each week will make my tear up, whether it’s a fight between Lauren Graham and Mae Whitman or a painfully honest and realistic fear expressed by Monica Potter to her mom, played by Bonnie Bedelia.
That said, I’m not alone in this, dead parent complex or not. I follow the show on Facebook and whenever there’s a new episode in any given week NBC promotes it there by basically saying, “You are gonna cry soooo hard you guys” alongside a picture of a sad Mae Whitman. So it’s not just me — it’s just that kind of show.
I loved me some “FNL” and I’ll watch at least a little of anything starring a Gilmore Girl-like Graham as Sarah Braverman on “Parenthood.” Here, she plays what almost seems like a dark, alternate universe version of Lorelai Gilmore: one who didn’t pull herself up from her bootstraps and work her way up at an inn as a young mother, but instead ran off with a hot, but alcoholic, rock star. Or, instead of raising Harvard-bound Rory, she had a daughter the same age who struggled with addiction. She’s playing a different enough character to keep me from saying she’s been typecast, but there are definitely some similarities.
An alum from “Six Feet Under,” Peter Krause, plays Adam, Sarah’s older, more-together brother. While I only saw the first two seasons of “Six Feet Under,” I suspect Adam Braverman has almost nothing in common with Nate Fisher. Adam has three kids, a supportive wife, and most of his crap together. He’s full of unsolicited, elder-brotherly advice, mostly directed at Sarah and younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard).
Shepard annoyed me at first as the baby of the family who can’t get anything right yet faces no consequences, but he’s probably had the most growth as a character throughout the show’s run (it’s wrapping up season five).
Julia (Erika Christensen), the fourth sibling and other sister, is Type-A like Adam, and a friend I sometimes watch the show with swears she’s a robot (she has not aged, according to that prom picture of her they show in the opening credits). She doesn’t always get the best story lines, but she had a really complex one in season three while undergoing an adoption process.
Sometimes this show is a little corny, it’s just true — but for the most part it’s the most genuine thing I see on TV today. The women on this show are strong, raw, and independent: they do their own thing, and they talk to each other about real problems and plans. They connect on a level I can appreciate. I don’t know if my mom would have liked this show or not, but it makes me think of her and miss her just the same.
There’s definitely some flat-out sadness on the show, whether it’s illness, trauma, or loss, so viewer beware. But it’s worth watching, and it’s worth taking the time to get to know these characters. They are really proud to be Bravermans, and they won’t let you walk away without knowing it (or without knowing their last name, which is constantly stated for some reason, lest viewers forget it). They’re at times blunt, selfish, and awkward. But they’re also loving, accepting, and happy for each other.
Don’t we all know a family like that? Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in one.
This show is poignant, emotional, and honest. I care about it more than I ever thought I’d care about a family drama on NBC, that’s for sure. And if you watch it and find that you love it too, I hope you’ll give your parents a call while you’re thinking about it.
“Parenthood” is on NBC Thursdays at 9 p.m. Central.