'Parenthood' And The Strange Case Of The Missing Family Drama
NBC's Parenthood, loosely based on the 1989 Steve Martin film, returns Thursday night for its final run of four episodes. Produced by Jason Katims, who's beloved by critics for helming television's version of Friday Night Lights, the show ran for six seasons and leaves a curious question behind: What happened to the network family drama?
I got into a discussion the other day on Twitter with Vulture's Margaret Lyons, who was watching old episodes of the drama Once And Again, which aired on ABC for three seasons, from 1999 to 2002. Starring Sela Ward and Billy Campbell as single parents dating and dealing with their teenage kids, it won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for Ward, along with a Humanitas Prize for the show. Created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick — who also worked on My So-Called Life with Winnie Holzman and made Thirtysomething — it isn't available on the major streaming services, so while the first two seasons are on DVD, the thing is largely lost. Granted, it's not as lost as Relativity, the other really good and really underrated family show Zwick and Herskovitz produced, which ran for 17 episodes in the fall of 1996 and spring of 1997 and was created by ...
It says something that the latest Katims creation is NBC's sitcom version of the film About A Boy. He's still loosely adapting films, but he's turned his attention for the moment from dramas to comedies, as television's treatment of families has largely done the same. And those My So-Called Life shows, those Once And Again shows, those Family and even The Waltons and Little House On The Prairie shows — which is not to say those shows are all of similar caliber or even type, but they are all emotive family dramas — are pretty much gone for the moment, at least on broadcast television.
While digging around in all of this history, I came across Entertainment Weekly's review of Relativity back when it was new, written by the fine critic Ken Tucker. Here's his opener:
"Basically, there are two kinds of TV drama: the drama of action, which includes all genre series (cop shows, doctor shows, sci-fi shows, Westerns), and the drama of emotions — tremulous programming like Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, plus all non-sitcom family shows, which for some reason tend toward the one-word title: Family (1976-80) or Sisters (1991-96) or now Relativity (ABC, Saturdays, 10-11 p.m.). The latter is the most recent effulgence from executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, who took television's drama of emotions to high levels with thirtysomething and My So-Called Life."
Wow. Spot-on, right? That's spot-on. And as I read it, this is what I realized: The "golden age of television" has been brilliant for the growth of the drama of action, but has struggled to support the drama of emotions to nearly the same degree. As Tucker later says in that review, "To enjoy drama such as this, you must be willing to have your emotions tugged and your mind blurred. Which is not to say that such programming is stupid, but rather that you must look at scenes like Isabel [the female romantic lead played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley] dancing in the bar or breaking her parents' hearts by moving in with Leo [played by David "Mr. Ghost Whisperer" Conrad], without dismissing the emotions on display as being merely melodramatic."
I think he's on to something. I think when I lament inwardly the ubiquity of shows where people are shot in the face and raped and beaten and generally made miserable, it is not those shows themselves that are weighing on me, but a certain loss of balance. Network still makes plenty of dramas of action — The Good Wife would qualify in that category, as would the avalanche of police procedurals and spy shows, your Laws And Orders and your NCISes and your Flashes and Gothams. There's plenty of emotion in these shows and plenty of them are really good; that's not the issue. The issue is that the emotion is approached from the side rather than from the front; it's hung on a frame of twisting plots that originate and resonate outside the life of the mind. It's in part a division between workplace shows and home-based shows.
Family shows still exist, particularly on ... well, on ABC Family, where The Fosters has some of these same elements. But they don't get the same heated next-day analysis as their hipper cousins on FX and Showtime and HBO, nor do they get the same awards recognition. And that's sad.
But I ask myself this, too: Why am I part of the problem?
How did I remain out of the loop on Parenthood, exactly the kind of show I miss, through the majority of its run? I loved My So-Called Life, I loved Once And Again, I loved Relativity, I loved Friday Night Lights. (And I loved Sisters, which also featured Sela Ward and was visited by Ashley Judd, Paul Rudd, and a fresh-off-of-nothing-in-particular scruffball named George Clooney.) But I never stayed with Parenthood. It's one of those shows I pick up at times, watch a little, and put back down. I've never kept up with it, in spite of liking just about everybody in the cast and in spite of lots of people I know being very into it. It was easier for me to keep up with the brutal run of Breaking Bad than it was with the closer-to-home drama of Parenthood.
Perhaps that's exactly what it is. When people I know talk about how much they love Parenthood, they talk about things that are so intimate — cancer, death, breakups, sad kids, people you don't know how to help, people who don't know how to help themselves — that despite the fact that "the drama of emotions" can seem like the softer of the two, it's the less escapist. Walter White's problems are ones I will never have. Don Draper's problems are ones I will never have. The Bravermans' problems, on the other hand, whistle uncomfortably closely past my ear. The older I get and the more I have on my mind, maybe the more I need the escapism of the drama of action, and the less I can tolerate the bracing idea that's shared and shared with me about Parenthood, which is, "You're gonna cry!"
The funny thing about the Tucker review of Relativity, which is interesting for lots of reasons, is that it sounds throughout like it's a bit contemptuous, like he's so aware of the manipulative nature of any direct application of emotion that he's about to dismiss it out of hand. And then at the end: "A-." Maybe that's what I miss. Maybe I miss hearing from critics, "Manipulative. Touchy-feely. Soft. Direct. Unironic. Often sweet. Wants to make you have feelings. A-."
It's not as simple as the drama of action having sophistication and the drama of emotions lacking it. We often salute the bloodiest television for its realness, for its unflinching look at the dark human soul and so forth. But which, truly, has the greater capacity to cause flinching: a husband and wife arguing over his meth business, or a husband and wife arguing over money and parenting?
You're gonna cry, indeed.