Free TV at its Best

I usually like Parenthood and have been liking it more and more as time goes on – it’s one of those shows that sneaks up on you and makes you suddenly realize you like it, rather than a spectacular show that blows you away. But the most recent episode, “Road Trip,” was pretty spectacular in its own way. I was about to say it’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year, but then I looked at the calendar; you know what I mean. It was really good. I love a good standalone episode that builds on the characterizations we’ve seen in the earlier, more arc-centred episodes (and, maybe, leaves us knowing the characters better by the time the arcs really get going again). And this episode, mentioned a couple of months earlier by creator Jason Katims as their most stand-alone of the season and “a fun one,” did almost everything right.

 Parenthood is one of the few dramas on TV, maybe the only one, that can tell moving, exciting stories without becoming melodramatic – in fact, based on the failed murder plot from Friday Night Lights, you could argue that Jason Katims’ shows are at their least exciting when they are at their most melodramatic. Anyway, because Parenthood tries to be a more or less realistic, relatable drama, it has a style that hasn’t been seen all that much in U.S. TV drama in a long time, maybe since the ’70s or ’80s. It is a drama that tells relatable family stories from a somewhat objective point of view. The point of many of the great realistic TV dramas of recent years, like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life (which Katims worked on) is to make us feel what it’s like to be young; even if not everything is seen from a teenager’s point of view, the overall feel is subjective. (Friday Night Lights is sort of in between, though leaning more toward objectivity.) Parenthood is an ensemble drama, not as big in scope as Friday Night Lights but still going for the feel of a big sprawling indie movie, rather than a carefully controlled and planned movie like Ron Howard’s original.

And it wants to shock you not with plot twists, but with recognition: that either seems like the way people behave in real life, or even if it hasn’t happened to you, you feel like it could be real. The road trip episode may not have been realistic in every way, but it incorporated all kinds of realistic or recognizable things – the boredom of a car trip, a man snapping at his family when he’s really concerned about a situation with his mother, the chaos of a family trip to a restaurant. Things that you mainly see in comedy shows, but are here liberated from the need to be funny all the time. (The show can be funny, but if it were a comedy it would have to find a funny angle on every realistic thing it takes in.)

This is where the style of the show is most effective. A number of shows are trying to go for an improvised feel lately (which is not at all the same thing as actually being improvised). Sometimes, as with Up All Night, I feel like it has its drawbacks. But the quasi-improvised style of Parenthood, people repeating their words or overlapping their lines, is an asset. It helps break the show away from the slick style of the original and push it closer to Robert Altman than Ron Howard. (The shaky-cam is also justified in Katims’ stuff because it keeps them from feeling too slick or contrived; that would be death for the subjects he deals with in his shows.) The show is basically rooted in the mix of comedy and heart-warmth that Howard, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel came up with; it just lets it breathe a little more and tries to find the reality in it, and the naturalistic performances are part of that. And because the dialogue tries to sound like it could be improvised, avoiding poetic language and one-liners alike, it doesn’t feel like the characters are being forced into reconciliation scenes and touching moments by the writers. Some scenes would feel fake coming from a bunch of impossibly eloquent people.

A perfect show it’s not, and maybe it’s a sign of something odd that a light-on-plot, change-of-pace episode works better than some of the regular ones. But it’s definitely a lovable and touching show, and “Road Trip” was an example of what the 22 episodes per season type of network show can do that cable dramas can’t always do. Those shows are frequently heavy on plot, or heavy on theme, and can’t “waste” a single episode; a show with a lot of episodes can almost move at the pace of life, examining little moments in lives that have gradual changes rather than huge upheavals.

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