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Jane Espenson

Jane Espenson - "Husbands" Web Series - Newyorker.com Review

Wednesday 4 January 2012, by Webmaster

There’s a popular theory that the mark of a great TV show is that it dares you to reject it. The most ambitious dramas repel their audiences (“The Sopranos”) or confuse them (“The Wire”) or give them nightmares about bodies dissolving in acid (“Breaking Bad”). The most admirable comedies, such as “30 Rock,” crackle with cynicism. On certain nights, one might imagine that “Seinfeld” had stamped its motto all over the TV schedule: no hugging, no learning.

But if you hew too tightly to that bias (something I’ve done at times) you’ll miss out on an equally delightful realm of television—the talky, heartfelt, yet surprisingly nuanced style of a show like “Parenthood.” A sprawling, multigenerational ensemble series, “Parenthood” might look, to someone who had seen only flashes in passing, like a soap opera, suspiciously overstocked with sequences of family members dancing in the kitchen. Yet it’s one of only two great dramas on network television. (The other is “The Good Wife.”) Week after week, “Parenthood,” on NBC, risks corniness, tiptoes up to the edge of conventionality, then delivers real emotion. Its strength is arguably as valuable as the ability of other series to agitate their fans: it manages to be warm, even sentimental, without being dumb.

In this respect, the show is not alone. There’s a quiet crest of similar sitcoms on network television, the best among them being “Parks and Recreation.” But “Parenthood,” since it’s a one-hour drama, can go deeper with its characters, mixing humor and pathos with a free hand. The series, which is based on the 1989 movie, was created by Jason Katims, whose first TV writing job was on Winnie Holzman’s “My So-Called Life.” That show’s one perfect season was produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the creators of “thirtysomething.” And, really, for as long as I have been an adult, someone in the Herskovitz-Zwick orbit seems to have had a show on the air, generally on the verge of cancellation. In 1996, there was the short-lived “Relativity.” It was followed by three seasons of the low-rated “Once and Again”; the promising “Huge,” which was cancelled midseason last year; and, of course, Katims’s gorgeous Texas football-and-family series, “Friday Night Lights,” the one such show to be fully embraced by TV snobs. After getting bumped from NBC, “Friday Night Lights” ended its run, this summer, on DirecTV. “Parenthood” is still hanging in there on the network, but its season order was cut from twenty-two episodes to eighteen.

If it gets cancelled, I may never recover. The show has become stronger with each season, and ever more adroit at handling an ensemble so big and baggy that even the Waltons might have been intimidated. “Parenthood” centers on the Braverman family, sixty-something Zeek and Camille and their four adult children: upright Adam, uptight Julia, screw-up Sarah, and hipster doofus Crosby. There’s also Adam’s wife, Kristina; Julia’s husband, Joel; Crosby’s ex, Jasmine; plus seven children, ranging in age from a newborn baby to an eighteen-year-old girl. The show is best known for the groundbreaking treatment of eleven-year-old Max (Max Burkholder), Adam and Kristina’s son, who has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome (as does Katims’s own son). But that story is just one of many: Julia is adopting a child from her barista (long story), Crosby is starting a business, Amber—Sarah’s teen-age daughter—is living in a rat-infested loft. Some plots misfire, and a few veer close to wishful thinking, but little of this matters, because the structure feels so confident. The show takes its time, letting small moments unfurl, like Sarah’s reaction when her younger boyfriend tells her that he can imagine them having a baby. The two are curled up on a sofa when he blurts this out. As he begins to backtrack, she jolts upright, stares back in shock, then in mock shock, shifting in subtle increments until she smiles, lets her face go blank again, and leans back into his arms with relaxed panic, a twenty-sided facial expression that should earn Lauren Graham a special Emmy.

As this scene suggests, “Parenthood” is at its best when finding odd, fresh sources of emotion in hackneyed stories. In a recent episode, Max ran away from home—a standard network sucker punch. (“The Good Wife” used the same gambit, very effectively, a week later.) Kristina, who had recently given birth, had returned to work. Adam also needed to work on the weekend, which meant that the couple cancelled a museum trip with Max. Haddie, their teen-age daughter, was pressured into babysitting, and everyone was resentful, particularly Max, who struggles with any changes to his routine.

When Max left to take the bus to the museum by himself, many shows would have dug in for maximum drama: father blaming daughter, father screaming at mother for not answering her cell phone, Max melting down. Instead, the Bravermans acted as they always do. They argued, but they kept the lid on the pot. The grownups remained grownups. There was a frightening scene in which Max—who has trouble gauging social environments—asked for directions from a homeless man, but mostly he just rode the bus in circles.

And yet sadness leaked through. In the episode’s climactic sequence, the police brought Max home. As his relieved parents steered him into the house, Haddie blew up at her brother, who was chattering about his lizard. “Do you care? No, you don’t,” she began, and then, as she tried to state her case, she broke down, her voice cracking, until she got to “It’s so hard. It’s not fair. We try so hard to make things normal, and it’s just not.” The family froze, and yet the rupture felt real. When her father went to talk to her afterward, the two mended things simply, in the manner of those who are close enough for emotional shorthand. “I guess it’s not fine, but it is the way that it is, right? So . . .” Haddie said, trailing off. “I know it’s not his fault, but it just sucks a little.”