Tuned In

Parenthood Breaks Our Hearts Real Good

NBC's emotional drama, about how family can be your biggest problem and your greatest strength, is at its tearjerking best right now.

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Jordin Althaus / NBC

The big challenge for dramas about family life—your thirtysomethings, your Parenthoods—is that mass audiences, generally, don’t find family life dramatic. It’s a reasonable concern: shows like that do tend to do better when the family is also involved in politics, or crimefighting, or the mob.

It’s also, when you think about it, kind of ridiculous. Does your family life lack drama? You fall in love, people break your heart, there are wedding and financial crises and, bonus, it all ends with you and everyone you ever loved dying. Of course, a lot of that is what people watch TV to escape, which is why this sort of drama can either be a downer or end up ginning up the stakes unrealistically to keep the plot moving and maintain interest.

Parenthood has had to negotiate all these issues, and generate enough ratings to stay on air to boot. It’s always been a good show, but it’s had issues that kept it shy of greatness: a lot of Braverman storylines to juggle, characters getting lost in the shuffle or relegated to comic relief, and a tendency to be emotionally manipulative. Right now, though, Parenthood is the best it’s ever been. It’s mastered its tone, its fantastic cast is getting well-used, and it’s jerking tears (and laughs) honestly. (Parenthood comes from producer Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights—another show about the emotional entanglements of community—and it’s taken that show’s place as what I like to call “Daddy’s Cry Time.”)

This isn’t just because of Kristina’s breast-cancer storyline, but I’ll focus on that because so many of the other stories inevitably get pulled into it. Yes, giving a main character cancer is an easy way to boost the stakes, but it’s hardly an unrealistic one: if any family survives long enough, there are going to be health crises.

One reason the story has worked so well is that it hasn’t taken over or changed Parenthood but played off its central theme: the way family places you at the nexus of a web of competing needs and responsibilities, none of which magically go away because another one comes along. Kristina gets cancer, but there’s still Max’s election at school, and Haddie’s adjustment to college, and the baby, and Adam’s* business. Adam persuades Kristina not to postpone her surgery for anyone else’s sake, but the other problems are still there. (In fact, there’s just the barest hint, as she prepares for a terrifying surgery, that it’s a little bit of a blessing to be able to focus, through Max, on someone else’s problem for a moment, even as she prepares to miss his speech for surgery.)

But this isn’t the only way in which Parenthood has played out this theme. When the series started, I thought Julia’s was the weakest part of the story, a little too typically “Can women have it all?” But the way the show played out her being overwhelmed at work (making a huge error from lack of focus) and at home (with the adjustment to Victor’s adoption) felt more real and universal.

Parenthood is constantly reminding us of a simple fact that it would make us all a little better to remember: you have no idea the things that the other people around you—the people who screw up, annoy you, disappoint you—are going through. That same message was echoed in the conflict between Crosby and Adam over Crosby’s salary, Crosby unaware the entire time that Adam is coping with his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

All this came together a couple weeks ago in “There’s Something I Have to Tell You,” for my money probably the best hour the show has ever done. The episode went in fine detail through Kristina and Adam’s process of having to tell the family—Haddie, Max, and in a here-come-the-waterworks last scene, the larger assembled Bravermans. (The scene in which Adam breaks the details of the diagnosis to Haddie at college—composed, purposeful, but quietly breaking up—was an Emmy clip for Peter Krause if the Emmys starting giving this show recognition.) For all that’s going on, it’s time for Kristina to put herself and her treatment first. And yet there are other people to think about. There are always other people. Even as she readied to go into surgery in Tuesday’s episode, one of the last things she said to Adam was “Eat something. Please.” That impulse too, went into Adam and Kristina’s questionable decision to lie to Haddie that her mother was totally cured, to ensure she went back to college.

As with Julia’s story, this is something that could get into female-stereotype territory: the self-sacrificing mom who puts everyone else’s needs before hers. But again, it feels like something more universal about—well, parenthood, and family generally. Male or female, married or single, once you have children—once you have anybody in your life, period—your life doesn’t belong to you alone. Nor does your illness, or your death.

And just as you don’t belong to yourself alone, you also own the lives and problems of everyone you love as well, which is why the timing of Max’s speech, just as Kristina was going under, was so agonizing. I was reminded of a line from the same night’s Ben and Kate, in which Kate tells her brother that her daughter is like her own heart, outside her body, out in the world where she can never be entirely sure of protecting it.

A truism, maybe, but true anyway. It’s as true in a sitcom or a family drama like Parenthood as it is, say, in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was not just a drama about the apocalypse but a story about parenthood in its primal essence: a man trying to keep himself alive until his son is ready to keep himself alive.

All of that is why Max’s speech—just before the hammer-blow that Kristina will need chemo—was about more than Max (though it would have been moving enough in itself). After getting the thumbs-up assist from his sister, he improvs a talk about his Asperger’s, how he knows that it makes it hard for him to deal with people but also means he will focus on those vending machines like a laser beam. “I’m glad I have it,” he says, “because it’s my greatest strength.”

That’s what Parenthood is saying so well right now, and with such admirable subtlety, about family. It can be overwhelming, it can be a burden, it can make you vulnerable. But it’s also your greatest strength. To which I can only answer, like Haddie: thumbs way the hell up.

*Update: I corrected the earlier version of this post, in which I referenced Adam as “Nate,” which is of course Peter Krause’s character on Six Feet Under. I originally had a section in this review in which I compared those characters, and compared Parenthood’s low-key style to the heightened drama of SFU, so I clearly still had that on the brain. Also, I’m an idiot! Thanks for bearing with me.