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TV Tonight: Parenthood

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Tolstoy, were he alive today, might have said this: Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; and all quirky-but-loving TV families—well, they vary, but within a defined range.

So it should probably not be surprising that you see many of the same conflicts and dynamics on NBC’s new dramedy Parenthood as on ABC’s Modern Family: the competitive, old-school grandpa; the rebellious teen daughter; the younger son with something slightly off about him. Indeed, one of NBC’s billboards for the show even has a scene–two parents trying to dislodge their son’s head from between the spindles of a staircase–that was a gag shot in Modern Family’s pilot.

But if you accept that there are only so many family stories out there, then the proof of a show is how it tells them. And in its pilot (tonight at 10 p.m. ET), Parenthood shows a funny, affecting, distinctive voice that you’ll want to keep listening to.

The subject–which you already know thanks to NBC 5,000,000 Olympic promos, but humor me–is, well, parenthood, as expressed through the sprawling, sparring but supportive Braverman family of Berkeley, California.

Divorced Sarah (Lauren Graham) has moved back to town, with her two troubled teenagers, to get her life back together. Sis Julia (Erika Christensen) is a high-powered lawyer worried that her career has made her the second-string parent to her young daughter. Brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) is a bachelor with a serious girlfriend begging for a baby. And the load-bearing fulcrum of the family is Adam (Peter Krause), who is not only the unofficial counselor of each of his siblings, but is also discovering that his young son’s quirks (awkward on the ballfield, obsessed with Legos and wearing a pirate costume) may point to a more serious condition. Hovering over the four siblings are their mother Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) and meddling dad Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), an overcompetitive sports nut. (This being Berkeley, I might have expected him to obsess more about coffee or yoga, but that would probably not have been so relatable nationwide.)

There are, obviously, a lot of problems, but what the show is really selling is an almost utopian fantasy: the idea of a big, supportive family, all situated in the same city, offering physical and emotional support and available for heart-to-heart lunches, ball games and big outdoor meals with ping-pong. (One of the many little things this show gets about parenting is that its dearest fantasy is the availability of multiple free babysitters.)

A lot of such shows about family lack confidence in their subject: they assume that viewers will get bored and tune out, and so immediately load up the melodrama and over-the-top crises. To its credit, Parenthood (pilot written by Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims) doesn’t. Oh, there are plenty of problems: drug issues, love issues, and a couple twists I won’t spoil. But in the grand scheme of TV, it’s pretty small, real stuff. (The story about Adam’s son is especially well-observed in its details.) Katims simply trusts that some strong performances, the right casting and winning dialogue will keep your interest.

It’s the writing, and the serious-comic tone, that manage that. Parenthood occupies a place on the comedy-drama spectrum somewhere between Modern Family and thirtysomething, and it’s a daring place to go, requiring actors who can sell the comedy while showing that their characters are joking as a way to deal with things that seriously matter to them. (Twenty years ago, NBC bombed with another Parenthood, also a series inspired by the Steve Martin / Ron Howard movie of the same name.)

Katims got lucky there with Graham, brought in to replace Maura Tierney, who left the show with health issues. As on Gilmore Girls, Graham is infectiously winsome, even as she deals with a daughter more troublesome than Rory Gilmore, while also getting back in the dating pool. When Sarah’s set up on a date with a guy she knew in high school, they have an exchange that gets at the show’s playful, heartfelt spirit. He hands her a ring: “You sort of threw it at me,” he reminds her, “the night you broke up with me?” “Oh!” she recalls, delighted. “I hit you right in the eye!” Graham nails the role, and in fact you get the feeling that Sarah’s being built up to match; NBC seems to be promoting her as the ensemble lead, even though Krause’s Adam, the family consigliere, is functionally the central character.

Like Adam, the pilot itself is juggling an awful lot of responsibilities, telling the multiple stories of essentially five families. (Note: I haven’t yet seen the second episode, which NBC sent to critics but I didn’t receive in time for this review.) Some elements suffer for it: Camille is a generic bastion of support, Sarah’s daughter could be the Rebellious Teen from a dozen other shows and Julia’s career/mothering anxiety is mostly shunted off to the side.

But a pilot that has so much going on, and introduces well over a dozen important characters successfully, deserves some patience. If it can maintain the quality of the pilot, Parenthood will, to paraphrase Tolstoy, make you happy in its own individual way.