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

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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