The Bravermans of NBC's new series Parenthood spend a lot more time together than most families.
Parenthood, the new series on NBC that premiered last night, feels very close to home for me, literally. It's about raising kids in Berkeley, where I live with my family, and it was shot in a lot of familiar places. The crucial confrontation between father and son happens at the park where my kids go to birthday parties. Peter Krause gets ejected from his post as baseball coach right where my daughter lines up for kindergarten every morning.
The fictional Braverman family has a laundry list of typical problems: an overbearing grandfather, multiple rebelling teenagers, a mother distracted by her career. I see that stuff all the time, and that's exactly what the show is after. It wants people in families — that is, everyone — to identify with it.
But there's one big difference between the Braverman kids and most of the children in the well-off families who live in the houses between the familiar school and the familiar park: Most of those kids have to get on an airplane to see their grandparents.
How most of us really experience our families, and why hardly anybody texts on television, after the jump.
It's a phenomenon not limited to Berkeley. In many, many families all over the country with parents who are professionals, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents are distant presences you have to make a special trip to see. My kids visit my in-laws in Pennsylvania in the summer, but for the vast majority of their lives, their grandparents are just voices on the phone.
Of course, relationships based on the phone don't make interesting television. I could come up with a great sitcom episode based on my wife's wrangling with her parents face-to-face, but one where she talks to them on the phone would be boring. For the too-real conflict that Parenthood is trying to make into striking drama, the characters have to interact in person. You have to see their body language, the way they just walk into each other's houses or get a little too close when they argue.
Sure, the Bravermans in Parenthood call each other on the phone, but what's really important happens in person. The slacker grabs a burger with his responsible older brother to hash out girlfriend issues. When the teenaged cousins get picked up by the police, the clincher is the long look their parents share; it's the sibling clashes of their youth playing out again as each silently accuses the other's kid of being the one with the marijuana. The audience knows that the baseball game at the end is transformative because the aunts and uncles and cousins all show up. You can't base good drama on the phone calls and e-mails that make up so much of our long-distance extended family interaction these days.
You can't base a sitcom on it, either, and that's why this fall's wonderful new Modern Family on ABC is also about an extended family that lives close by. Those great characters — the emotional and sincere stepmother, the new dad, his sister the nervous mom — they bounce in and out of each other's houses all the time. They babysit each other's kids and take them out shopping. It's funny TV when the adult children work out their ancient issues by awkwardly recreating their childhood pairs figure skating routine in a parking lot. It would be terrible TV if it happened the way it would in real life, with somebody posting cheesy old figure skating pictures on Facebook.
Family life is more personal on television much the way work life is — much the way the best cubicle comedies, The Office and Better off Ted, spend so little time on the stuff that most of us office drones do for most of the day: sit at computers and send e-mails. It's just not possible to make it funny for long. The clumsiness of the office romance, the awkwardness of staff meetings, even the corporate soullessness — those things make us laugh on TV, because we see the characters' faces as they swoon and squirm. The laugh line delivered with relish will always be funnier than a joke that's been forwarded to your inbox.
For TV shows to work, they have to capture something real about home or work, but increasingly, in order to capture it, they have to suggest something unreal: far more face-to-face contact than most of us actually have. People text each other all the time in real life, but hardly ever on television. When they do, it's just shorthand for a teenager's distraction, not an important part of the plot. Texting doesn't have the dramatic power of a confrontation that ends with an emotional resolution and a hug. E-mail chains don't have the same resonance as sisters showing up in each other's living rooms.
Even as we spend more and more time in front of screens every day, the screen we watch the most — the television — still depends on people, family and friends, who look into each other's eyes with anger or love or desire. And however sophisticated technology gets, that can still only happen in person.