Parenthood "Keep On Rowing" Review: Sneak Attack Ninja Sadness

By Nick Campbell

Jan 02, 2013

Parenthood S04E12: "Keep On Rowing"

So we're dancing. We're boozing. We're having a good time. This dive bar is hopping with coordinated, well-dressed young people who are willing to acquiesce that whatever the Braverman women are doing on the dance floor is also dancing and not drunken flailing. The girls' night out is a raging success. Kristina, Jasmine, Julia, and Sarah are having fun. Schlong talk is always a check in the "good time" column. And then a clump of Kristina's hair falls out.


Bet you didn't see that coming so quick. Before the title sequence, here's this gut-wrenching scene where Kristina shaves her head. It's a range of emotion as she smiles gleefully with the liberation and cries for all the understandable reasons that a cancer patient without a meth empire would cry for at the loss of her hair. If Monica Potter's portrayal wasn't enough, the show also soundtracked the whole thing with "AWOL Marine" by Perfume Genius, which is essentially synthesized weeping and a tinkling piano. All the sadness.

Since the last episode of Parenthood ("What to My Wondering Eyes") was one of Planet Cancer's most exemplary outings, where the storyline pulled all satellite storylines into its orbit, a heavy teaser like this might've made you think "Keep On Rowing" was going to be an extension of that. Instead, we got a relatively balanced and even mostly comedic effort where Julia was the only one in a hopeless position by the end. I mean, even Kristina's new Alien Nation head arc ended with some humor.

Before we get to Julia's crisis, let's talk about the rest of the lighthearted episode.

First, let's note how loose the script felt—like, Season 1 loose. As Parenthood has aged, the Robert-Altman-esque scenes first became limited to just the Braverman siblings talking over each other for one scene in each episode and then even those were been far and few between. This week (I'll point to the conversation in the bar during girls' night, Adam and Sarah shopping for wigs, and the scene where Crosby blamed Adam for Renee moving in) felt almost entirely outlined and not specifically scripted. Whether they were or not is unimportant (I'm sure David Hudgins turned in a fine, fully fleshed-out script) but, with Dax Shepard's direction, the dialogue seemed messier. That's a plus for me.

With that, "Keep On Rowing" had a couple of missions. One was to make sure we're okay with this Hank and Sarah situation. Last episode, we talked in the comments about how Sarah's jumping from Mark's bed to Hank's might have been organic to her character but felt too quick for us as an audience. I'm not sure I needed time to mourn Mark Cyr, but I needed time for Sarah to mourn him. With date night, Hank and Sarah smoothed things over with us. What felt melodramatic, bothersome, and even grating before was quirky, sweet, and charming here (I'm sure the long break between episodes helped). Lauren Graham used that charm that gets her so much television work because she can create chemistry with almost anyone and Ray Romano—I'm pretty sure he was just trying out material at times.

The point is to get past Mark and to see that these two have a chemistry you'd hope to see in people who are going to be together forever. Put their barbs and banter into the mouths of two septuagenarians with crooked backs and you'll see the essence of what they're driving toward. These are the people you hope end up together at the end of their lives because they seem to have an understanding. Although Sarah will totally Lorelai this relationship (that is, run away from happiness—poor Max) if given half the chance.

The other date night was with Kristina and Adam, who struggled in the first half of the episode as Potter delivered yet another strong performance as a woman dealing with being a spectacle for the wrong reasons (though she was totally in the right for reading Adam the riot act about that wig—it was truly awful). But the latter half was all tenderness and humor as Kristina tried to make up with him. Ryan Hansen (!!!!) showed up for a funny cameo as a bro (with a flight of wine?) hitting on a red-wigged Kristina and, good lord, Adam getting ready for Funkytown was pretty fantastic. It was a good way to give us some relief from the heft of Kristina's story while also reminding us that she's still going through it.

Crosby and Jasmine's storyline is barely worth mentioning except to say that I don't mind their sitcom premises lately. They've had some tough episodes this season ("The Talk" comes to mind) but I say let those other Bravermans practice crying for a while. I'm not sure if it's their relationship (a proud man-chiild trying to grow with the guidance of a strong, stubborn woman) or purely the situations (really? The mother-in-law is coming to stay?) but I like the Crosby and Jasmine comedy relief.

And that's why Julia and Joel's storyline stuck out like a sore thumb. There weren't any moments of levity to be had, no releases for the tension, just heavy language and rash actions. It was the show's other mission to establish their adopted-son situation as more dire and serious than even previous weeks. There were no punches pulled when Victor said things like, "You (Julia) aren't my real mom" and "Why can't I be friends with her (his biological mother)?" It was intense and set the tone for the rest of the storyline. The dialogue was more raw than usual: Julia shouting "Shut up!" to Sydney, Sydney's choice of bait while Victor practiced his batting, even Julia rephrasing of the situation to Joel by separating one kid from the "other" kid.

The culmination of this talk was the shattered pane of glass after Victor threw his bat at Sydney. Everything about the scene strayed from rom-com (Sarah/Hank, Adam/Kristina) or marriage sitcom (Crosby/Jasmine) genre elements and moved in the direction of a thriller. There was a metronome provided by Victor hitting the ball, creating a rhythm to the scene. He broke that rhythm of expectation, bridging the dropped beat with his plea to "leave me alone," followed by the shocking glass shatter. The bat itself headed toward the camera and smashed the door in the audience's "face." The zoom on Sydney screaming (which soundtracked what remained of the scene), combined with the matched zoom on Victor preparing for confrontation, added adrenaline and suspense.

What we're left with was the shattering of stasis for the Graham household. While Victor has given Julia and Joel trouble since the beginning of the season by denying assimilation, now Victor feels the same trouble. He's been involuntarily transitioned. Although I don't recall feeling like anything like this was coming to a head during the bulk of the season (especially not in the same way we all saw what was going down between Mark, Sarah, and Hank), it certainly broke here and it'll be a development to see, with only three episodes left in the season, whether we get some catharsis by season's end or if it gets spackled over in the next episode or two (like Julia surrendering her carefully constructed legal career did) in favor of other storylines.


– As good a job as Potter has done this season, some of my favorite scenes with her have been while she's under the influence. "He's a MAN." Kristina gets tipsy and it's all schlong talk.

– Generally, the teasers this season have been relatively lighthearted affairs, with set-ups that might leave for drama but aren't nearly as heavy as the one we saw this week. There's good reason for that. The transition from "AWOL Marine" to the title sequence was jarring. It's like if Damien Rice sang you all his songs and then started playing the banjo.

– "Max loves it. He thinks I look like Bane from the Batman movie." Sometimes it's better when Max is talked about and not seen.

– Does that underwear theory, where you contend that you can't have a house guest because you want to be able to walk around in your underwear, ever amount to a worthwhile defense? I feel like that only comes up on television. Is your desire to move around the house in your underwear ever that important?

– Was this episode sponsored in part by Kiehl's?

– "Think you can locate the Johnson file?" If I had to guess which Braverman would sexily sidle up to his wife and pose that question, I would answer Adam nine out of ten times. The tenth time, I would have to ask whether Jasmine had gotten a job as an office clerk; then I would say Adam.

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  • Fallon21 Jan 14, 2013

    I'm sorry, but everytime I saw Kristina sans wig I just kept thinking 'My God--what a big head!' and 'Is that a bald cap or...'

  • KayliaMetcalf Jan 10, 2013

    Wait.... Victor wasn't aware that he was being adopted? I was 8 when I got adopted and you bet your ass they explained it all to me, I was even given the chance to tell the judge what I wanted... now I know my exp isn't going to be everyone's but the fact that they had to explain what adoption was to Victor just seems wrong.....

    Poor Sydney.

    There are too many characters on this show that I just don't like. I need to get over myself I guess.

  • lyokophantom Jan 03, 2013

    Her head did look abnormally big. Joel and Julia's was my favorite storyline this week. Looks like next week we add a storyline, with Drew. He hasn't gotten much attention.

  • txgirl75 Jan 05, 2013

    Drew will be getting a good storyline.

  • ElisaDiaz Jan 03, 2013

    Our head is much bigger than we think (it shows when we try to draw it, we usually make it flat), but I think it is even bigger because she didn´t cut her hair, so it is there below the latex skin they put to cover it LOL. Just a silly theory :)

  • SokkaAppa Jan 03, 2013

    I think for emotional episodes like this, they should cancel the title sequence and just have cold opens with just the parenthood title flashing and then back to the show for one more scene or off to commercial. The title sequence is just too happy for some of the episodes.

  • NicholasCampb Staff Jan 03, 2013

    The title sequence here was definitely jarring. But where do you draw the line with "emotional episodes" of Parenthood? I don't know that this episode was any more of a tearjerker than other episodes this season (beyond the teaser, this episode was actually more comical) and shortened, quieter credit sequences both (a) have the connotation of a Very Special Episode and (b) decrease the running time of the episode. I didn't like the segue but a truncated sequence might give the wrong impression. Or maybe I'm overthinking it (as I'm wont to do).

  • SokkaAppa Jan 04, 2013

    Yea I agree with you about the line being hard to define, but I can think of two episodes where they should have used a quieter opening. Last episode of 2012 and the last episode of season 2 I believe where amber had just gotten into a car accident with her stoner boyfriend.

  • Interestingtv Jan 03, 2013

    And Sarah needs to get her mess together, it's season 4, why hasn't she gotten her own place by now? what happened to her play? Just why?

  • txgirl75 Jan 03, 2013

    Oh yeah I forgot about her play. The writers need to find a guy that has cemistry with her. Raymon why him?

  • Interestingtv Jan 03, 2013

    I must have a small brain 'cause i wasn't able to focus on anything other than that HUGE head!

  • NicholasCampb Staff Jan 03, 2013

    Giant, wasn't it? I've read in other places that it might have been a professional decision to not shave her head since Parenthood's future is uncertain. As hard as it is for female actors of a certain age to get worthwhile parts, Monica Potter may not want the extra obstacle of trying to get jobs while her hair is in an awkward stage.

  • Interestingtv Jan 04, 2013

    Giant is an understatement...I actually didn't really expect her to shave her hair 'cause I (randomly) feel like that would have been too much of a commitment. I just think that there was too much emphasis put on the shaved head as a canvas for the writers to convey all these sad emotions that are attached to having/surviving cancer; but because of the enormousness of the head it was just distracting for me. I liked the dance/ girls night out scene leading into the scene in which she is shaving her head and into the one in which she shows her husband her head, but outside of those I kind of wanted to see a more nuanced form of shame, frustration, desperation and fear of the loss of attractiveness. That people were staring at her huge head is not surprising to me, I would stare, but if the show would have dealt with more subtle ideas of self-worth they could have achieved a perhaps more realistic portrait by using hats instead of bandanas and trying to cover her head until the husband takes her hat/scarf/wig off and tells her she's beautiful before the bold walk out of the hotel...or something (I'm saying all this to say that other than the beginning sequence and the march out of the hotel there was no real need for "the head")

  • juan137946 Jan 03, 2013

    Another great episode, if Monica potter doesn't get an Emmy nomination that will just be sad, she has been increadible and her cutting her hair was just amazing. I'm so conflicted with mark and hank cause I really like both and after the episodes date I really can't decide

  • MarieH11 Jan 03, 2013

    Monica Potter didn't actually shave her head. That's not to say that the scene wasn't good, though.

  • BeSweet Feb 04, 2013

    I WANTED Monica Potter to shave her head, and I am upset she didn't I am sorry if it's a big commitment, I am sure she makes enough for a good wig, what do you think she spend on extensions. I even watched that part about 10 times trying to convince myself she had really done it. But the huge head after was a dead givaway, I still tried so hard to believe she did it until I got on here and you guys confirmed, thanks for the let down.

  • ch0c0nutz Jan 02, 2013

    amber is the best thing on the show... even tho she has lil on screen time, she's such an important character and she's so strong! omg i love her!...

    will it be its last season?

  • sunnysfunny Jan 02, 2013

    When you undergo Chemo treatments your immune system is irregular so you're not supposed to go out into the public as you may catch something. I know it's TV but there should still be some accuracy. I thought the red wig was pretty and I was thrilled to see Ryan Hansen.

  • docspector Jan 03, 2013

    This may surprise you, but it turns out that people don't always do what their medical professionals tell them to.

  • sunnysfunny Jan 03, 2013

    When it comes to cancer... you do.

  • bkyle2429 Jan 03, 2013

    actually Chemo treatments affects individuals in different ways ,my mother had breast cancer and was on Chemo and it knock her on her ass, at the same time I know people that it affected in the total opposite and some half/half their fine the all of a sudden a brick wall bottom line it depends on the individual!

  • sunnysfunny Jan 03, 2013

    I know it affects individuals in different ways but with all of the germs out there you're bound to catch something while your immune system is shot...

  • BJoe24 Jan 02, 2013

    As a member of a family that contains both adoptions and foster children, I really appreciate the Victor storyline. I think it's a topic that's either glossed over or made light of, if included at all, in most shows, and while, yes, on Parenthood it is a little dramatized, the core of the issues surrounding Victor all season have hit close to home, and ring with truth. The show has handled it very well thus far, and I have confidence that they will continue to do so.

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