After all of the mud-slinging, tense debates, and finally, the end of the political Super Bowl (those playoffs felt like they lasted forever, didn't they?), it's time we all had a big ol' cry just to let out the feelings we don't know what to do with, regardless of whether you rooted for the Fighting Packaderms or the Raging Donkeys. And who better to set the table for some bipartisan catharsis than our pals on Parenthood?
The show sure tried hard in its return; it's been a while since I've seen so many hack cliches in an episode. But they were given the Parenthood treatment, so it raised their game a little bit. Consider any one of this week's storylines: mother-in-law tries to help her son's sick daughter but just gets in the way until they realize they're closer than they think; Drew woos his ex-girlfriend into a sympathy lay by running through all the terrible things in his life (this, of course, after he learned he'd been replaced by a hunkier college guy); the whole putt-putt let-me-show-you-how-to-swing-this-club invitation to bedroom antics.
Without context, those are all sitcom plots. But Parenthood always finds a way to make you understand the pathos of the burdens sitcoms use for comedic effect. Amber and Ryan, for instance, started their story this week with a pretty basic entry, but turned out to have a fairly interesting (and a little bit scary) story. Obviously Ryan is doomed since he's involved with Amber, but he brought an extra special helping of disaster to the mix.
PTSD runs through Ryan's veins like gasoline coursing through C4 on an epsiode of Mythbusters. He's a time bomb and bombs aren't made not to explode. He's even got Zeek fretting about him, and lonely stares out the window usually hint that something dramatically awful is about to happen. That framing of the back of a person's head as he or she stares out into the night, all by his or her lonesome, is cliche to the point of possibly being a trope—but to his credit, Matt Lauria is doing a good job playing a loveable character destined to blow Amber apart. And they're cute enough together that as viewers we're both compelled by whether she'll be the one to save him and intrigued by what form of emotional massacre will befall this thing they have. Mental breakdown? Suicide? A new Braverman Apocalypse not caused by Crosby's weiner?
Because you know that even if Ryan survives his PTSD long enough for he and Amber to get really serious, he won't last in the Braverman clan. It takes a strong stock to make it as a Braverman-by-marriage, and you can see the defeat in the eyes of Kristina, Joel, and Jasmine somtimes. Ryan is just too fragile to handle it.
Speaking of Drew, how about his resurgence to relevance in the last few episodes? All he needed was to get Haddie out of the way so people would pay attention to Mopey McCaeserCut. Everything about this episode was so Drew. Prepared to make a grand romantic gesture but then getting scared off by a big dog at the door? That's so Drew. Getting out-masculined by a college jock with his car while carrying the by-the-book helmet for riding a wimpy little bicycle? Gah, so Drew. And how about laying the Braverman drama on thick to seduce your ex-girlfriend, the one who left you for a dude at summer camp, with a supernova of pathetic adolescent angst and struggle? The Drewest.
But hats off to the kid for seizing an opportunity. Possibly the most un-Drew thing Drew did was recognize that he had Amy in a sympathy-lay trap and keep feeding her the bait. Is that really the way Drew wanted to get her back? Probably not. But shy and scorned beggars can't be choosers.
Speaking of people who can't be choosers, is anyone surprised that Kristina's mother can't be bothered to come down to see her? There's only room for one matriarch in this family and that, my friends, is Camille. Her only competition has been Jasmine's mother, and we know how that turned out: a one-off episode where she played a catalyst to the religious conversation storyline for Jabbar, Crosby, and Jasmine.
Camille is the de facto mother of mothers, holder of all sage wisdom, and the consummate understander. It might been a little sitcom-esque for Kristina and Camille to struggle as they try to operate in the same household, but everything about Kristina's experience grounds common stories in a bedrock of pathos.
Here's what Parenthood is doing to make even the most tread territory feel fresh and the most callous viewers (me) get all misty: Monica Potter and Peter Krause are performing the heck out of their roles and Kristina and Adam are fed lines that honestly connect to a modern view of having this disease. It's the opposite of how Breaking Bad deals with cancer, where the disease is a firestarter to a much more gripping and destructive flaw (narcissism, megalomania, an id run rampant); Parenthood focuses on the drama of fear rather than the excitement of living.
Adam's line about seeing the women going through chemotherapy and comparing them to ghosts was a very honest moment. The fear of, even if his wife survives, will he and his love endure watching Kristina go through the various dehumanizing stages of treatment? "Ghost" is an important word because looking at the husk of the person you love is a test of that forever pact you made. Kristina going through a rebellion was another cliche, but she did it well. The scene between her and Max was just want you wanted to see. The difference is in the characters and how they deal with their problems. It's feeling like you're being set up versus going on a journey. And when we saw Kristina accept that seventh-generation cancer-patient blanket from her mother surrogate, we know all the pain melted away in those little tears.
There, there. It's all right. No more political ads for you. It's over now.
– I didn't talk at all about Julia and Joel's storyline. They're like some satellite orbiting this Kristina-centered season, in that they rarely get involved. Trying to commune with Victor was almost like comic relief compared to the cancer story. Julia wanting to be a buttinsky. Joel with the, "Are you lawyering me right now?" White people in the barrio. And, my favorite (because I called it early): Julia getting Rosetta Stone because she feels it's the language barrier that's getting between them and not the fact that Victor told her "gracias" like Julia was the affluent but generous neighbor lady who gave the two kids their ball back. I don't know. Learning Victor's second language could definitely be a wrecker of walls. I just think getting Rosetta Stone was a very Julia thing to do.
– Drew, you're regifting cancer baskets? Come on, bro. That's gross. That you're still going to get laid after telling Amy means you must have some sort of base, animalistic beta male charm that is physically irresistable. You have amazing pity pheromones.
– Amber really rocked that boy shirt, no pants look all episode. After getting dirty with the time bomb, did she wear pants again?
– Seriously, when I saw Ryan sitting in the dark, I heard "Time Bomb" by The Dismemberment Plan.
– The best part of Amber and Ryan getting together (which feels like it's gone from first date to the brink of engagement in the last few weeks) was Amber and Sarah's conversation at the door. My favorite Sarah is the one who isn't constantly trying to level her Braverman gene to make everyone an emotional disaster. I like it when she's goodnatured and prone to a giggle here and there.
– Go through the episode and try to find all the times the writers gave Matt Lauria a natural reason to bend down to Mae Whitman's height (like during the putt-putt game), or had him only lying down next to her. Compared to Amber, Ryan looks like a monster that's risen from the sea to attack her city. A single one of his pecs is bigger than her head.
– Scene with the Lessings: great. That Kristina had to take care of them is just right. Also, am I supposed to instinctively know to bring a roast chicken over when someone I know has cancer? Where does Emily Post weigh in on that?
– Are Drew and Amy going to do it at a teacher's house? That's way dirty.