It’s easy to be critical of “Parenthood.” The show is unoriginal, unrealistic, and ambitious in all the wrong ways. It’s also easy to watch “Parenthood” without being critical at all: It’s intriguing, light, and often enough, poignant.
“Parenthood” is a generic attempt at the family drama, which, aside from its grating moments, is cozy and effortless to watch. It won’t impress viewers, but it may nevertheless attract them. For those in search of a homey, 43-minute vacation, the universe of “Parenthood” will be a pleasant place to settle.
“Parenthood” is the story of three generations of the Braverman family. (Think “Modern Family” turned nighttime soap.) It is anchored around the clan’s second generation, 30-something-year-old siblings Adam, Sarah, Crosby, and Julia. Each has a family of his or her own, all oozing with current and potential drama. Each has a complicated relationship with his or her own parents, Zeek and Camille, and the siblings have complicated relationships with one another.
Cue the incessant (melo)drama.
Initially, “Parenthood” is overwhelming. There are too many characters (14!) and too many plot lines. Viewers are thrown vigorously into the Bravermans’ chaos; to appreciate the vantage they’ve been provided, viewers must first acclimate to the commotion.
The show’s writers have also had to adjust to it. In the show’s first several episodes, plot lines are teased, dropped, and reintroduced. As the season progresses, the writers appear to be figuring out which plot lines to pursue and which to let evaporate. With each episode, “Parenthood” begins to feel more comfortable and focused.
Nearly all of the main characters can be irritating, though it’s hard to tell whether it is the script or the actors causing the problem. For example, the eldest sibling, Adam (Peter Krause), is supposed to be the rational, wise anchor of the family and the show, but his whiny impatience makes him ripe for a whack in the noggin. In the swirl of the quick-paced drama, it is difficult to discern whether it is Krause’s lines or dopey facial expressions that are most irritating. Krause can also be gentle and believable, particularly in cheerful, non-dramatic scenes with his character’s children, niece, or nephew.
Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) and her teenage daughter and son counterbalance the show’s annoying players. Graham cannot single-handedly give “Parenthood” the oomph it lacks, but she is energizing to watch. Perhaps she is so comfortable as Sarah because the character is similar to Graham’s former alter-ego, Lorelai Gilmore of “Gilmore Girls”—if Lorelai had married Christopher at 16 because she was pregnant, divorced him at 25, and been hardened by the big, bad world ever since. Sarah is 38 and single, and in the show’s first episode, she is forced to move back in with her parents (sharing a room with her 16-year-old daughter) because she is out of money. Her children are none too happy about it and plenty happy to let their mother know that she is ruining their lives.
Sarah’s relationship with her daughter, Amber, played by the versatile Mae Whitman (think Rory Gilmore gone angsty), is particularly engrossing. Her 14-year-old son Luke’s strides toward manhood are also touching and humorous to watch.
Families are intriguing, and the Bravermans are no exception. But the characters in “Parenthood” are a mush of clichés: the once-working-now-stay-at-home-mom who struggles to feel valuable (Kristina), the high-powered lawyer who battles social and personal demons about failing to fulfill her traditional role as a mother (Julia), the former ladies’ man who is putting his days as a player behind him to raise his child (Crosby)—and so on—14 Bravermans strong. Every character has been engineered to be the “everyman” or “everywoman” of their type. Rather than making them relatable, however, the generalizations pull the characters into the realm of caricature.
Many of the story lines are compelling—a daughter’s first boyfriend, a teenage boy’s yearning for a father, an Asperger’s diagnosis—but the characters’ actions and reactions are so unrealistic that one might presume the show’s writers were raised by wolves in caves. How Adam and Kristina deal with their daughter’s first boyfriend (hacking into her Facebook and snooping around outside his house) and the way they handle the discovery that their son has Asperger’s (telling him he is going to the doctor so the doctor can “fix his problem”) reflect dull parenting skills and a weakness on the part of the show’s writers.
Overall, “Parenthood” is lacking in depth, which makes it both uncomplicated and frustrating to watch. While some of the flatness may be due to “Parenthood” being so new—characters will develop and deepen over time—it is also in part the result of a core reliance on caricatures who are underwhelming and sometimes even aggravating. Watch “Parenthood” with mediocre expectations, and the show may suck you in. But watch it expecting a unique, high-quality drama, and you’ll be ranting before the first commercial break.
“Parenthood” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.