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Critic's Notebook

'Parenthood': The adult in the TV family

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
'Parenthood' was about a family facing true-to-life situations, making it the rare grown-up in TV today

"Parenthood" understands the frustration of the quiet achiever.

It's an issue Jason Katims' family drama has often addressed directly, whether through teenage Haddie (Sarah Ramos) lashing out at her family's complete focus on the needs of her brother Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger's syndrome, or her father Adam's (Peter Krause) continual surrender of personal desire to family responsibility. Even as the series goes into Thursday night's series finale, Adam has agreed to continue the struggling music business he started with his lovable but immature brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) because it makes Crosby happy.

It's also something the show and its fans have experienced for almost the entirety of the six-season run. As critics and viewers gather to celebrate "Parenthood" and mourn its passing, it's difficult not to lament, once again, that this show has so often been overshadowed by the new, the loud, the showy and, often, the short-lived.

Not that "Parenthood" hasn't been recognized, by viewers and critics, as the relevant, resonant, often funny and deeply moving show that it is. In recent years especially, it has landed on "Best" lists, been lauded for specific (its chronicle of Max and his growth, of Kristina's (Monica Potter) fight against breast cancer) and general excellence. The cast is amazing, the writing always smart, but the series continually struggled for survival and never received the kind of wildly passionate-to-the-point-of-obsessive praise that we have come to expect from "important" television.

Partly that's because "Parenthood" never bowed to time or trend. Though it has recently become an altar of catharsis, with its own tear-duct-based rating system — pooling tears, falling tears, choked sob, full sob, hysteria — "Parenthood" was never built to go viral. There are no OMG moments, and it's hard to live-tweet when both hands are full of tissues.

Born determined to celebrate function over dysfunction — modern narrative heresy! — "Parenthood" miraculously stuck to its guns, which is one of the most admirable feats in current television.

And also probably what kept it on the bubble for all those years.

Debuting on NBC in 2010 just as television was moving from strategic shelling to shock and awe, "Parenthood" seemed intentionally retro. Based on the wildly popular 1989 film, it was as much drama as comedy, though far too sunny and sentimental to fit in with the era's emerging dramedies.

Though none of the three-generation tribe of Bravermans was perfect, neither was any of them an abusive alcoholic who somehow also saved lives or a morally tortured drug dealer who still "loved" his children. It was not a costume drama or a monster-riddled fantasy. No one was frequenting, or becoming, pole-dancing prostitutes with Pilate bods or struggling with special powers, intellectual or otherwise.

They were just a big, mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class family living in the Bay Area and trying to cope with the problems of ordinary life. Often by having family dinners during which everyone talked over everyone else.

But only after they all showed up.

People got mad, got sick, made mistakes, said stupid things, fell in love, fell out of love, but everyone acted their age, more or less. Which, ironically, wound up giving "Parenthood" a revolutionary edge.

Increasingly, American television has outsourced adult maturity (not to be confused with sexuality) to historical and post-apocalyptic drama. If you want to see adults acting like adults, watch "Downton Abbey" or "The Walking Dead." In contemporary television, anyone over 20 is far more likely to be just neurotic and narcissistic enough to take pride in having never grown up. Because grown-ups are responsible and responsibility is boring.

On television, particularly among the "important" shows, order is synonymous with repression. Moral ambiguity, that's where the action is. The razor's edge between self-discovery and self-destruction, between survival and brutality. In the sweat and blood and muck, that's where the truth lies.

And sometimes it does. Some truths, anyway.

But others can be found in slightly messy but invariably well-appointed Craftsman homes where parents learn to accept that their child will never express his love in the way they would like him to because he simply can't. Or a park where a wife must accept that her husband is just too tired to face another heart surgery even though it might extend his life. Or a parked car in which a reuniting couple realizes that commitment isn't just hard, it's painful and there's nothing to do about that pain except endure it.

Or, most important, in our living rooms where viewers were reminded every week that tears are just as important as OMG moments, that ordinary life is quite dramatic enough without murder and mayhem, and that art, like people, shouldn't always have to scream to be heard.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Parenthood'

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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