Parenthood Catch-Up: “Rubber Band Ball,” Bouncing Around

I’ve been watching an enjoying “Parenthood,” and as of last night (thanks, Hulu!) I’m all caught up.

To recap for those who’ve never seen the show: It’s about the Braverman family, a set of parents and their four children and their children’s children, all living in Berkeley. Each sibling has his or her own parenting issues: Adam (Peter Krause) has a son who’s just been diagnosed with Asperger’s; Sarah (Lauren Graham) is a terrible mother who’s starting to pay the price through fights with her obstinate daughter; Crosby (Dax Shepard) just found out he has a five-year-old son at the same time his current girlfriend is trying to get pregnant; and Julia (Erika Christensen) is a workaholic lawyer who feels guilty for not spending enough time with her kid. The parents of this brood, Zeek (yep, that’s how it’s spelled) and Camille, are having their own marital and financial difficulties. So everyone gets some drama in the Braverman clan.

Of these conflicts, the most interesting by far happen within Adam’s family, as he and his wife, Kristina (Monica Potts) struggle to deal with Max’s behavior and treatment. Adam is the sort of substitute patriarch in the family, the guy who all of his siblings turn to in a crisis — and, yes, they’re all in crisis every week. Luckily, Krause is a genuinely good actor, and it’s easy and often entertaining to watch his character stumble through awkward discussions (for instance: having to talk to his nephew about masturbation. Not quite the classic scene from “Weeds,” but strangely more accurate). He’s not the comedian that Steve Martin is, but he doesn’t try — he just plays it out, usually with a half-exasperated, half-patient look that’s perfect for this character.

I thought this last episode was particularly strong, in part because Sarah was mostly sidelined. Adam and his father took an overnight road trip to check out some property Zeek bought at the height of the California real estate boom. The lovely part of this was the use of Craig T. Nelson — he shines in any situation where Zeek gets to be the “crazy Berkeley old guy.” He offered a string of wonderfully awkward conversational prompts along the way, then tried to pass the entire trip off as a favor and compliment to his son. When the hammer came down, which it must in every episode, it fell in an awkward hotel conversation: Zeek needed to sell the property, and hoped Adam’s company could buy it, because if he didn’t, he might lose his house.

Is that a real threat? Man, I wish it was. We’ve only heard, briefly, about Zeek and Camille having marital problems; there’s no doubt in my mind that if Zeek admits they’re about to lose their house, and if they actually do lose the house, that those problems will expand exponentially. As a viewer, I would love this. It’s not that I want to watch a show about people’s lives exploding, necessarily — it’s that I’d like to see the problems of the financial crisis made real on television. If the upper-middle-class Braverman patriarch loses his house, it’s a nice reminder that this not only can, but did, happen to all of us.

I doubt, though, that the show will be that bold.

The other major conflict this time involved Julia’s daughter, Sydney, who began acting out at school (by making and becoming attached to, and possibly weaponizing, a rubber band ball). Julia rushed to Kristina, worried that perhaps her daughter was edging onto the autism spectrum, and Kristina, after sending Julia to the family’s child therapist, admitted to Adam that she’d felt a little relief, almost eagerness, to have the therapist find there was something also not normal about Sydney. (Spoiler: Sydney is fine). It’s interesting to watch the reactions to the news of Max’s diagnosis — there’s a constant, awkward, kind of awful outpouring of sympathy among relatives and friends, yet very little understanding of exactly what’s going on.

The show specializes in the awkward. Every week there’s a scene that makes me want to turn away, and every week, the characters have to do it anyway. That’s a compliment. Parenting, after all, is full of those moments, and family is full of those moments. Life is full of those moments. I like the show for that.

I’ve been watching the show in chunks, via Hulu, and I think that’s not the best way to go. The seven-day pause between episodes would allow one to deal better with the show’s biggest weakness, which is the one-note character of Sarah Braverman. I blame this mostly on the writers, but Lauren Graham is culpable, too. Sarah, at 38, has moved her two kids back in with her parents to start a new life away from her sex-drugs-rock-n-roll ex-husband in Fresno. The show offers her only three kinds of scenes: 1). Conflicts with her daughter over what a screw-up said daughter is; 2). Conflicts with her siblings when she feels they’ve slighted said daughter by assuming she’s a screw-up; 3). Scenes where she’s dating or being courted. Once, there was an episode where she tried to get a job, but that was over very quickly. I think in this last episode, the writer’s caught a clue about the annoyingness of Sarah’s behavior, and they might be preparing to scale it back. I tell myself this so I’ll keep watching.

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