TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The NBC series "Parenthood" is on its final two episodes of this season. Our TV critic David Bianculli says you should make a special effort to catch it, even though this is a time when popular cable series like "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" are returning for new seasons.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: 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. And 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 that 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 Jason 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 every-day 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 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARENTHOOD")
RAY ROMANO: (As Hank) You know, I've messed up. I've messed up in my life a lot but, you know, working with Pelican - and maybe it's Asperger's, maybe it's not; I don't know. The bottom line is, I push people away. People get close to me and I just, uh, uh, and I start acting like a jackass around them. And I just - eventually, I just - I wear them down and they go away.
(As Hank) You know, I hate that. I hate that about myself. But, um, I'm trying to change. I'm trying to get - trying hard. Because when I look at you, I see a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman. And, despite everything I've done, despite all the crap that I've pulled and stupid things that I've said, you're still here.
(As Hank) You're - you didn't leave. And that's shocking to me, you know? Just gives me hope. You know, you didn't go away. I don't want to push you away. I like being around you too much. Oh, you don't got to respond to that. That's - ugh. That's - I just - that's what I want to talk about. All right. So I'll see you - see you tomorrow, I guess. Right?
BIANCULLI: 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.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.