I have never been a Ray Romano fan.
That seems like a good place to start. I couldn’t stomach Everybody Loves Raymond, Romano’s long-running CBS sitcom and, despite the coaxing of many critic friends, I never got into his short-lived TNT drama Men of a Certain Age. Romano has always seemed far too nebbishy and whiny for my liking. While that’s worked for him, I had never fallen for the comedian’s charms.
That has changed irrevocably with Romano’s fantastic turn on Parenthood, which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Thanks to his performance on the Jason Katims-created drama, I now count myself as a member of the Romano faithful.
For those not watching, the brilliant but underrated Parenthood—very loosely based on the 1989 Steve Martin film of the same name—follows the highs and lows of the Berkeley-based Braverman clan. Now in its fourth season, viewers know to watch Parenthood with a box of Kleenex nearby, since engaging with this bittersweet melodrama—a mix of laughter, heartfelt sighs, and outright sobbing—is perhaps the most cathartic experience on television.
No other show (or not since Katims’ previous weepy, Friday Night Lights) produces so many tears, or so much sentiment. By handling its characters with such painstaking realism and earned—rather than manufactured—emotion, Parenthood creates a window into a family that may or may not be like our own, but resonates.
Which is why I initially reacted so strongly to Romano’s casting as grumpy photographer Hank Rizzoli, who would serve as the employer to Lauren Graham’s floundering Sarah Braverman. Hired to photograph the Bravermans for a family photo, Hank reluctantly takes Sarah on as an assistant, despite the fact that she knows nothing about photography, and is clearly intended to drive a wedge between Sarah and her fiancé, Mark (Jason Ritter), this season.
When the casting was first announced earlier this summer, I wracked my brain to try and picture Romano and Graham together and came up short. Just how would Romano fit into the world of the Bravermans, and why on earth would Sarah have any inner debate about whom she would choose?
I was entirely wrong to discount Romano. His integration into Parenthood has been so well handled, so seamless, that it feels as though he were made for the role. As Hank, Romano isn’t whiny but world-weary, a potentially Weltschmerz-afflicted misanthrope who keeps his emotions tightly bound within his stolid exterior, and doesn’t seem too concerned about the feelings of others. He’s sharp, ill-tempered, and socially awkward, making him an ideal foil for Sarah’s easygoing nature.
In last week’s episode, Sarah convinced Hank to shoot a wedding, which he never does, and the two opened up about their own failed marriages, displaying an unexpected wounded quality to Hank. In another installment, Hank seemed to bond with Sarah’s nephew Max (Max Burkholder), both ill at ease in crowds, both seemingly in their own bubbles. Max has Asperger’s, and Parenthood has dealt with his autism with grace and heartbreaking realism; I can’t shake the feeling that Hank is also somewhere on the autism spectrum. Their unexpected kinship was a tiny but defining moment for the character, displaying a rare tenderness and honesty that belied the true man beneath the grumbling façade.
As Hank and Sarah, Romano and Graham’s dynamic isn’t currently based around sexual tension. Their screwball-style repartee—intellectual rather than romantic—reveals not a sexual chemistry, but a winning comedic one. Romano’s presence gives the supremely talented Graham a worthy partner with whom to toss off rapid-fire lines of dialogue, each scene a crescendo of comic force. It’s also rewarding to see Graham so challenged; she’s back in madcap dialogue mode in a way that she hasn’t been since the glory days of Gilmore Girls. There’s a sense that these two are evenly matched and Romano’s subtle performance allows both of them to shine in their scenes, which over the last three weeks have become a highlight of the season so far.
The fourth season of Parenthood has already put strain on the audience’s tear ducts, delivering plotlines about college-bound children, the stress of aging, and the typically even-keeled Kristina (Monica Potter) being diagnosed with breast cancer. With Kristina and her husband, Adam (Peter Krause), reeling from the life-changing news, Romano’s entrance seems particularly well-timed. Hank’s presence within the season lifts the individual episodes from straying too far into depressing territory; the writers have done a canny job at keeping the series balanced between humor and pathos, and Romano’s Hank allows for some levity to enter the mix.
Whether Sarah will decide to not marry Mark—who has been really patient with Sarah, considering her irritating tendency to complain endlessly about Hank—or choose the cranky photographer remains to be seen, but I’m hoping that Hank sticks around for a while. (Romano is signed for a multiple-episode arc, but just how many of Parenthood’s 15 episodes he’ll appear in this season remains unclear.) There is something magical about seeing Romano and Graham together on screen, a rare alchemy that recalls a meeting of minds rather than of hearts.
I’m curious to see what hidden layers within Romano’s Hank these subsequent episodes will unearth and how that shifts viewers’ perceptions of him. In a series as blatantly poignant as this one, there’s something refreshing about a character who doesn’t overtly express his feelings, but instead sublimates them into a surliness that is shocking both to the more touchy Bravermans and to an audience that has grown accustomed to seeing emotionally actualized characters.
My takeaway from Romano’s performance is likely markedly different than many others. While Parenthood’s writers have made me cry on numerous occasions, they—and Romano himself—have also done the impossible: they’ve converted me into a Ray Romano fan. There is not enough praise for the humanity he imbues into Hank, nor for the pleasure one gets from witnessing such a gifted performance. Ray Romano, I’m sorry that I ever doubted you.