During a recent Fresh Air review of the CBS series The Good Wife, I referred to it as one of my "go-to" shows whenever anyone asks me to name a drama series on broadcast TV that's as good as the ones on cable these days. Ever since, I've wanted to give equal time to my other go-to choice. That show, now winding up its fifth season, is NBC's Parenthood.
Jason Katims is the executive producer, and he seems to be a guy who specializes in adapting good movies and making them even better — and yet his own — on television. Right now, he's also producing an NBC sitcom, About a Boy, that was based on a movie. Before that, Katims was one of the main collaborators behind NBC's 2006 adaptation of Friday Night Lights, which managed to be one of the best and most emotionally involving series of the modern era. And that's without a high body count, or a life-or-death setting or premise, to heighten the weekly tension.
Parenthood, televised Thursdays on NBC, has the same handicap. It's a simple story about an extended family, the Bravermans, burrowing deeply into the daily problems and triumphs of each. Some scenes are intensely dramatic; others are cleverly comic, like the ones in another broadcast TV triumph, the ABC sitcom Modern Family.
Parenthood always has mixed comedy and drama. Its original incarnation, the 1989 movie, starred Steve Martin — and the emotional climax of that film was nothing more, and nothing less, than a protective father watching his young son try to catch a fly ball in a Little League game. NBC tried to make a TV spinoff version of Parenthood almost immediately, with Ed Begley Jr. in the lead, but it didn't catch on — not even with the eldest son played by a young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio.
But when NBC rebooted Parenthood in 2010, and handed the reins to Katims, he pulled off the same marvelous magic trick he had with Friday Night Lights. Whenever a husband and wife joked, or argued, all the good lines didn't go to one side or the other. Everyone in the show has a viewpoint, and often those viewpoints clash. And over the years, goals and dreams are attained or abandoned. Things change. Outside factors throw off even carefully conceived plans. And whatever happens, people just try to keep going, and, on occasion, to seek a little comfort or help from one another. Sort of like ... you know ... real life.
Fans of NBC's Parenthood have seen, over the years, romances and jobs come and go. They've seen characters fight to survive after a diagnosis of cancer, or venture into local politics and buy a recording studio. But they've also seen countless takeout meals, lots of loud arguments and silent ones, and everyday moments that resonate as honestly, sometimes painfully familiar.
What elevates all this is the quality of the acting and the writing. Peter Krause and Monica Potter, for example, are outstanding as one couple, Adam and Kristina. Kristina got cancer and ran for mayor. Adam gambled on buying that recording studio, and they have a teen son, Max, with Asperger's, whose development over the years has been one of the show's most unusual and poignant storylines.
One of Adam's grown siblings is Sarah, played by Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls. She works for a temperamental but talented photographer named Hank, played by Ray Romano, with whom she once had a brief romantic relationship. And their current relationship has provided this season's biggest surprise and best storyline.
For a long time now, the cranky Hank has befriended and identified with Sarah's nephew Max, putting up with Max's Asperger's and helping him channel his focused energies into photography. But in reading behavioral books to learn more about Max, Hank makes the startling discovery that all the symptoms of Asperger's apply perfectly to him, too. So he's sought therapy, accepted the idea, and begun to approach his life differently — including trying to communicate better with Sarah, whom he still loves. Their conversations are some of the best-acted, and most tender, on television. And for Romano, who comes from the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, his dramatic acting, and timing, are a really impressive midcareer shift.
It's not too late to dive into Parenthood for these last two shows of the season — or, after a taste, to do your homework and start at the beginning, watching them on DVD or streaming video. Just don't let it escape your notice. Family dramas always have been one of television's most difficult genres to do properly, without getting too sweet, too overwrought, or much too predictable. Parenthood, like Friday Night Lights, is as good as the family drama genre gets.