NBC’s Parenthood is not the most glamorous show on television. Its focus, charting the lives of a sprawling Berkeley, California family, might pale in comparison to, say, Desperate Housewives’ antics on Wisteria Lane. There are no murders, no swapped babies, and no satirical, over the top look at domesticity here.
What is on offer is a sensitive and realistic portrayal of family, one that manages to capture the cadence of real life, exploring the messiness that comes from marriage, child-rearing, and sibling rivalry long after you’ve moved out of your parents’ house. The show revolves around the Braverman clan, charting the multi-generational dreams and desires of this white, upper-middle class family, from the grandparents (who are often warring with one another), their four now-grown children, each with families of their own, and the teenage and pre-teen contingent, which includes a 10-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Developed for television by Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims and based on Ron Howard’s 1989 film, Parenthood hasn’t attracted a ton of viewers (now in its second season, it has averaged 5.4 million viewers a week), which is a shame. Those who aren’t watching are missing out on an often poignant and powerful show that celebrates the family unit itself. (It is also, unexpectedly, hilarious at times.)
The show, which airs on Tuesday evenings at 10 p.m., has found itself fighting an uphill battle in one of the toughest timeslots on television, competing against CBS’ The Good Wife and such cable shows as USA’s White Collar, FX’s Lights Out, and TNT’s Southland. It’s a crowded hour with a stable of compelling and interesting dramas that seem to be canceling each other out.
While other shows can rely on innate story engines to generate episodic plots on a weekly basis (whether that’s a creepy mystery island, a police precinct, or a hospital), Parenthood is more concerned with something both ephemeral and universal, asking its characters and the audience to consider the quality of their own happiness. It’s a big ask for a television show to make, and one that’s in keeping with the storytelling ethos that Katims and his writing staff—several of whom did double-duty on both shows—established on Friday Night Lights. The grandiose plots of nighttime soaps, or even of network television’s other big-family drama, ABC’s more histrionic Brothers & Sisters, have no place here; instead, the episodes focus on yet another week in the life of the Bravermans, the instances of joy and frustration that mark the role of modern parents, the attempts to instill in your children the ability to achieve their dreams, and the hypocrisy of perhaps realizing that you never actually accomplished the same.
Viewers typically crave escapism when it comes to television. Which might be why Parenthood hasn’t clicked the way it should with audiences. While the Bravermans are definitely living lives that far exceed the majority of most Americans, their polished suburban existence is a measured aspiration, because they don’t seem to flaunt their comfortable means. (It’s worth noting that the class distinctions between the relatively wealthy Braverman parents and Lauren Graham’s single mother Sarah, their daughter, were all but dropped over the course of the first season, as was a subplot involving the reduced finances of Craig T. Nelson’s pater familias Zeek.)
There’s a naturalism to the plotting and dialogue that’s familiar to fans of Katims’ Friday Night Lights: actors regularly speak over one another, seemingly ad-libbing lines at will, creating a realistic approximation of the messiness of conversations. The plot often advances at a slow-burn pace as unresolved issues materialize down the line. Arguments become catalysts for wounded hearts and egos, battlefields where old hurts can be trotted out again, and hard questions of commitment, fidelity, compromise, and friendship—at the heart of any marriage—are pondered and sometimes answered.
What we’re seeing on-screen here, more than most dramas, is ourselves.
It’s a show where an autistic child’s birthday party becomes a window into his possible future and an overt discussion about the nature of happiness between Peter Krause’s Adam and guest star Michael Emerson (previously of Lost), here playing a children’s entertainer who is himself autistic. How the show has dealt with the autistic Max ( Max Burkholder) and the struggles of his parents, stoic Adam and the often-brittle, though loving, Kristina ( Monica Potter), as they come to terms with their son’s neurological condition speaks to the care and sensitivity of the writers. (Katims himself has a son with Asperger’s, lending the exploration of Asperger’s more than a hint of autobiographical detail.) There’s the feeling here that, in life, happiness is achievable for everyone, even for Max.
Yes, this is a show that’s oftentimes brutally depressing in its honest depiction of family life, but it’s also at times joyously uplifting in its message to find pleasure in the small moments of domesticity: seeing your child’s happy face during a birthday party, a stolen moment with a spouse after a long day’s work, hearing your teenage daughter sing a song she wrote. And there is humor lurking in the corners as well, the sort of gallows humor—dirty diapers, masturbating 14-year-olds, or getting caught in compromising bedroom situations—with which parents can only too easily sympathize.
Additionally, there’s at least someone among the burgeoning Braverman clan to identity with, from ex-military, authoritarian Zeek and Berkeley free spirit Camille ( Bonnie Bedelia) to withdrawn Drew ( Miles Heizer) or sullen Amber ( Mae Whitman). What Parenthood reflects back are the patterns of everyday life. There’s a real sense of inclusive experience about the show, one that invites the viewer to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the family, remaining with them from the way they prep breakfast (chocolate chip pancakes at Adam and Kristina’s) to clearing the plates after dinner and bedtime. Squabbles and pillow talk are the norm here in a show that’s truthfully about the connection between family members. What we’re seeing on-screen here, more than most dramas, is ourselves.
Ultimately, Parenthood is the type of show that makes you reflect on your own life, perfectly capturing the way that time moves so quickly even when you’re trying to hold onto the preciousness of your children’s youth. (Or your own.) Uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure, it’s a show that shouldn’t be missed, whether you’re a parent or a child, or somewhere in between.
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.