From Hero to Zero: The Sudden Decline of Parenthood's Joel Graham
I've often been accused of being too hard on Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen). For years, I thought of her as a harpy with a heart of gold, someone who wasn't necessarily one-dimensional or incorrigible, but definitely unaffectedly selfish and quick to minimize the feelings of anyone who wasn't her. I want to believe that it's because she's a Braverman, because she's part of the Bay Area clan whose members are no strangers to jackassery, and not because she's some kind of conditioned misanthrope with hackles raised, a byproduct of being a career-minded, type-A woman in an occupation dominated by boys.
But the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to realize that my opinion of Julia probably wasn't so much a result of my crippling male gaze as it was her husband, the superhuman Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger). Standing next to him must be like understanding what martyrdom is about. Though everyone who's married into the Bravermans can be described as long-suffering—you know, since they don't have the blood of Zeek running through their veins and can't understand the innate self-importance that comes with living for years on the family's Berkley compound—Joel managed to rise above the rest of the rabble. He was a realized domestic demigod, someone who listened, who was compassionate, who ran a home with such alacrity, competence, and sensitivity that it was hard not to love everything he did and marvel at the unending patience he had for a wife who tended to make appearances rather than participate and a daughter whose goal was to be every kid you ever hated in elementary school. Why don't you tattle some more, Syd? Let's really make some friends.
For so long, Joel was a rock in constantly troubled waters, staunch in principle and consistent in action. Even when a statuesque and crunchy mommy from down the street desperately tried to ensnare him for a roll in the granola, he didn't budge. After all, Racquel's advances were simply a moth attracted to the glowing and invulnerable loyalty Joel possessed; sure, Julia had stabby eyes for her at every turn, but I never felt that Yoga Juice Bar Mom really had any sort of power over Joel. To sleep with the neighborhood bendy straw would be unconscionable, and Joel is nothing if not devoted and consummate.
So why is he being such a dick all of a sudden?
Parenthood's fifth has embarked on the long, difficult journey toward an arc that hasn't yet been attempted on the show: honest-to-goodness, therapy-worthy problems that lead to an actual trial separation. It's been a mountain to climb: Julia leaving her job, Victor struggling so much in school that he's being held back, the stress of Joel's business. The Grahams have experienced their fair share of troubling circumstances that culminated when Julia, amidst an emotional (not physical) affair that was relatively amok, got kissed by Roy from The Office.
Julia didn't invite the advances of David Denman's Ed Brooks (though the case could be made that she led him on), didn't show up at his house wearing a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, didn't even offer any signs that she wanted any piece of that. A miscommunication, that's all. It ate her up inside, and—eventually—she confessed to Joel what had transpired. Ed kissed her. It happened.
Everything we've ever known about Joel led me to believe that the Joel thing to do was chuckle, poke a little fun, and then move on. Unconditional forgiveness seems to be one of those lofty traits only superhumans like him could possess. But it wasn't like that. Joel. Flipped. The eff. Out.
What's more, he basically blew up everything around him. The lingering kiss led to an unrecognizable coldness in Joel, to a pettiness that was unbecoming. And while we might be able to understand his feelings of jealousy and anger, the extent to which he acted on them—by moving out of the house—seemed desperately disproportionate to the supposed catalyst. Even though we saw the man deteriorating over the course of multiple episodes, when he came to that decision, I said myself, "Wow. That escalated quickly." And why is that?
Joel amassed an amazing amount of capital over the years as the touchstone to reality the Bravermans could certainly use more of. There are few characters on television today who have the Superman problem, where they're so invulnerable to the whims of humanity, so steadfast in principle, that they come off as bland and boring. Joel is trustworthy and confident in who he is, so what more development could there be? What flaws exist within him that we can see in ourselves? He's basically been dehumanized, like a figure in a myth.
I can't really argue that he's turned heel, because he's not so much a villain as he is a completely different person. Over the years there have been slights to his manhood, like Zeek trying to teach Joel—a construction supervisor—how to tile a roof. It was funny, but also very telling of Joel's position in the family as a house husband. He played second fiddle to Julia's alpha-dogging for so long, mostly without complaint. So it's not like he doesn't have a reason to be mad about his station. But does this have to be why?
Maybe my concern stems from seeing this sort of thing play out on other shows, but with a different result. Staying in the Katims-verse, Friday Night Lights' Tami Taylor accidentally strung along that poor science teacher for basically forever, and he did just about everything for her. Then he planted one on her outside of teacher's karaoke. Did Coach Taylor threaten to blow up the marriage? Did he move out of the house to a sad bachelor pad? No. He laughed it off. Of course, it wasn't without a stern warning to the man who would try to seduce Tami, but it was no big whoop. And Eric Taylor is a far more violent and prideful man than Joel Graham and his bruised ego.
I suppose that's the most disappointing aspect of Joel's decline: how petty and sad he's become in the wake of a great big nothing. The result is a dramatic disconnect between the man we've understood to always put family first, and this passive-aggressive douche who sits in therapy with his wife who wants to reconcile and says "I don't know" about whether he can possibly get over this indignity. If to be a cuckold is to grow horns, Joel would barely have a headache. And yet, he's continuing this weird charade of a man who's had to make some tough decisions after a betrayal. It's like watching a rock wither.
This is frittered capital; Joel's significance is being sacrificed for the sake of a quasi-divorce story. It's rare to see Parenthood execute a storyline without properly setting the table, but maybe the reason this escalation seems so sudden and foolish is that Joel had such a long way to fall before he could even find himself tangled in the problems of a mortal. People have started looking for other reasons why this could be happening. Did he react so dramatically because he's also involved in an emotional, and possibly physical, affair with his boss (Sonya Walger's Meredith Peet)? Is Joel hiding something dastardly? It's doubtful. But the alternative is that one of the few people associated with the Bravermans who hasn't become a sobbing, beta mess at their feet is suddenly so very whiny and so eye-rollingly committed to a doomed path that it almost seems like he's doing it just so that Julia—who's looked downright charming since Joel has started working petty—will chase him a little. It's pathetic to watch. And it seems like we've lost that hero character for good.
What are your feelings on the current Joel/Julia situation? Did Joel overreact? Has your opinion of Julia changed after seeing her struggle to keep it together in that empty house?
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