NBC’s Parenthood pulls off the impossible; compelling entertainment from emotionally healthy people1comment
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… TV is not the place to go to look for healthy relationship role models. There are many reasons for this. Breakups are entertaining. Unrequited affection is entertaining. Affairs and misunderstandings are entertaining. The push and pull of stifled sexual attraction and the will-they-won’t-they emotional tease so popular on every TV show ever made are crazily entertaining. Watching people communicate effectively and be emotionally supportive is not inherently dramatic or comedic, and is usually not particularly fun to watch. Making compelling drama out of healthy relationships is really, really hard. Which is why I am so grateful for this past season of NBC’s Parenthood.
Since the show Parenthood began I met, fell in love with and married a wonderful man. Just over a year ago I gave birth to my baby boy and my life, and emotional landscape, will never be the same.
Romantic love and mother love are so common as to be cliche, but they also change you the most, deepen and strengthen you and turn you inside out. Not to mention the fact that they suck out every free moment, leaving your ‘me’ time to be defined in seconds and minutes, not hours or days. As such, with the little free time I now have I don’t want to watch attractive women in leather jackets track down serial killers. I don’t want to watch someone bitch about how hard it is to make a pair of pants, even though I used to love that shit. Nope. If I’m going to sit down and watch something on TV, it better be such escapist fun that it literally makes me forget that I have a baby in the next room that might wake up screaming at any moment or be so damn moving and cathartic that I feel like a better person for having watched it. Tough criteria, and, as you can imagine, the shows I watch regularly have dwindled to almost none. Parenthood is one of the few.
Parenthood has achieved what few other TV shows have attempted let alone pulled off – an entertaining and compelling multi-season show about people who love each other and who, for the most part, treat each other well. It may be the hormones, but I’ve gotten weepy at some point during almost every episode of Parenthood this season (in a good way). There have been a few really standout moments, some of which are more risky and brave than most of the stuff on pay cable, the more so for being quiet and subtle.
The episode where a mother sits down and explains to her young child the history of slavery in the United States and it’s legacy of prejudice that he, as a person of color, will have to face, should be required viewing for all parents. Any show that includes an intelligent character articulating the validity of atheism as a part of the greater discussion of religious tolerance should get a freaking public service medal as far as I’m concerned. The subject of breast cancer was handled with honesty, dignity and humor, and it gave all men a wonderful role model of how to be a supportive partner in the character of Adam Braverman, as played by the wonderful Peter Krause. And who the hell would have thunk Ray Romano could be a complicated and compelling love interest?
All of the actors on the show did really good work this season, but for me the MVP of the entire 4 seasons is Mae Whitman’s portrayal of Amber Holt. The character of Amber started off as the prototypical messed up teenager, complete with bad grades, sullen attitude and a tendency to sneak out of the house to get drunk and have sex with idiotic young men who didn’t treat her well. Her character was, perhaps, the most changed from the pilot to the 4th season (and possibly series) finale; even the ‘grown ups’ of the show started coming to her for help and advice. Mae Whitman is one of the most emotionally honest and vulnerable young actresses working today, and I look forward to where her career takes her. But it was in her season 4 romantic arc, specifically the events during the Christmas episode, that she and the writers of the show gave the viewing audience a real and precious gift truly unique to TV.
Amber’s love interest this season was Ryan York, a young man recently returned from active military service struggling to find his place back in civilian life. Amber and Ryan fall for each other quickly and Amber tries to help Ryan get himself together. He continues to struggle, the culmination of which is when he borrows her car and disappears for hours, finally returning drunk and having dinged up her car, causing a big blow up between the two of them in a parking lot. All of this is pretty standard TV fare. It was what happened next that was so extraordinary.
A few days (or week?) pass and Ryan shows up at Amber’s family’s house on Christmas morning to apologize. This is also a fairly typical scene in romantic stories in TV and movies… a scene I’ve come to think of as the ‘grand gesture’. Like all good ‘grand gesture’ scenes, he speechifies very prettily, full of heartfelt regret and promises to do better in the future. Again… total standard. Except… his grand gesture doesn’t work.
Amber tells him that, no matter how much she loves him and she loves him desperately, she can’t fix him. She says that she watched her mom pour everything she had into her father and it didn’t make her dad better and it didn’t make her mom better. And so they need to take time apart. And then she walks away from him. Normally if a young female character breaks up with a love interest it is because she’s over him, or because he’s repeatedly put her through an emotional meat-grinder (often for several seasons or for the course of an entire movie).
This was one of the first times I’ve seen a TV show (or a movie, for that matter) portray a young woman making the healthy choice in love, refusing to accept less than she deserves from a man, despite the strength of her feelings for him.
For that scene alone the writers of Parenthood have my gratitude.