Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Parenthood Sets the Bar Early for Great TV in 2013

Season 4 Episode 13 - "Small Victories"

Now that's what I'm talking about. This is the Parenthood I put at #4 on my top shows of 2012, the Parenthood that making-you-cry-with-television warlock Jason Katims has somehow stuffed full of pure Friday Night Lights-era magic, the Parenthood that leaves all other pure human dramas on TV (and yes, that includes your precious Mad Men, internet) bowing at the feet of its effortless superiority.

Yeah, I thought "Small Victories" was a damn good episode.

This post is pregnant with spoilers.

What's funny about this episode's greatness is that it marks a complete focus shift from the Kristina breast cancer and Amber/Ryan stories I highlighted when I discussed the show in my best of 2012 list – in fact, it is by some margin the most cancer-light episode since Kristina's diagnosis – and instead swings the spotlight onto Amber's little brother Drew and Kristina's son Max, the former of whom in particular has been almost aggressively stuck in the background this season.

You wouldn't be entirely wrong to suggest that my appreciation of the Drew and Amy abortion story was compounded by it largely reflecting my own worldview*, but, like the pretty similar abortion story Jason Katims told a few years back in Friday Night Lights (coincidentally also near the end of that show's fourth season), it deserves praise for the way it isn't about abortion at all, but simply about these characters.

Parenthood has no interest in "taking on the abortion issue" or Sorkin-esque political grandstanding – it's just interested in this family and the people their lives touch, their joys and their heartaches, and having a political debate doesn't enter into it any more than I imagine it would for actual knocked-up 17-year-olds. It treats abortion as just a thing that exists and happens, period, end of story, and this approach is wonderfully understated and in its own way actually more daring than typical TV histrionics.

* (I've read a couple people online saying that Drew's hesitancy and Amy crying and being too embarrassed to talk to her parents felt like the show throwing a bone to the pro-life crowd, or even just the episode as a whole being stealthily pro-life, but honestly, I don't know how anyone could possibly watch "Small Victories" and come away with the notion that Katims is opposed to a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion. Depicting something being stressful is not the same as being against it. By that logic Knocked Up is strongly pro-abortion, because it makes pregnancy and childbirth look pretty awful.)

The writers, Peter Krause's direction, and Miles Heizer and Skyler Day all deserve credit for the way they avoid overplaying any of this, with very little of characters raising their voices or capital-E capital-A Emotional Acting! (until the last few seconds of the episode between Drew and Sarah, anyway, when it felt earned and cathartic). Parenthood can pull a hell of a screaming match out of its hat and has done so many times throughout its run, but that wasn't what this story called for and I'm glad they took a subtler road. (In that way it was actually more understated than the similar Friday Night Lights story from a few years back, which did break out into at least a little screaming between Becky and her mom.)

"Small Victories" was rich in its character work and achingly emotional, but it didn't get there through any kind of narrative cheat – it was television that demanded discussion and respect by not being loud, flashy television, and by not trying to be "controversial" in any obnoxious, pointed way. It was just a story of two people dealing with something kind of painful and difficult, and in that vein, it truly excelled.

On a final Drew/Amy-tangential note, I expressed frustration a few weeks back that it felt like the show had rid itself of Mark Cyr very, very quickly after he and Sarah's breakup, which seemed disrespectful to the character's four-season run. But turns out I should have been patient and trusted in Parenthood playing the long game and searching for a way for Mark to reenter the narrative that wasn't just straight-up "ok, I want Sarah back now," which turned out to be trying to help Drew. The Sarah-Mark-Hank love triangle is still the weakest thing this generally superlative season has going for it, but this is nevertheless a huge improvement over Mark just vanishing into the ether.

The relative heaviness of the abortion plot (and, well, the majority of this season) was expertly counterbalanced by the kind of hilarious Max story, where puberty starts doing a number on the kid's odor, forcing Adam and Kristina into forcing him to shower and into at least taking the first steps towards "the talk." The scene at the kitchen island where Max starts telling his grandparents about his pubic hair, to their amusement and Kristina's horror, was, Bob's Burgers aside, as hilarious as anything I've seen on TV in a month, and "I washed my armpits, my butt and my balls with soap like dad said." was a pretty perfect line to cap things off. Just completely entertaining.

I'm curious but will likely never get an answer as to whether the ominous white-text-on-black "the following program contains mature themes" warning before the episode started was there on account of the abortion or on account of all of the talk of boners/chubbies/popping wood from Kristina or if it was a little from column A and a little from column B (or if Katims knew on account of the abortion that there'd be some kind of warning so he just went nuts with the erection jokes, figuring it couldn't hurt at that point).

But really, that mature themes warning spoke to what's so good about Parenthood – it doesn't contain "mature themes" in the same sense as an HBO drama or Spartacus or something, there's no boobs or blood or people saying "fuck," but it is a genuinely mature, serious-minded show for adults, or at least the adult-minded. It's not the only relatively small-scale, non-life-or-death-stakes drama on television, but it explores the serious, messy topics of real lives in a thoughtful, sometimes even profound way sans cartoonish hysterics (The Newsroom) or a need to choke things with forced symbolism (Mad Men). Parenthood is just such a good show, and "Small Victories" is Parenthood at its best.

(And lastly, let me mention real quick that the Victor and Crosby stories were well-handled too. I especially liked the way the Victor plot isn't afraid to go dark and highlight some of the less comfortable realities of adopting an older child from a rougher background. It's a great conflict where no one is fully in the right – except for Joel, of course, whose "Ok, you know what? That's my wife. Don't talk to her that way." makes him an insta-hero. But both the Victor and Crosby stories are ongoing and inconclusive in "Small Victories," so I'll offer more extensive thoughts when I review the season finale in just two short weeks.)

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