Infidelity. Divorce. Absentee fathers. Interracial dating. Teen sex. Teen drug use. Asperger's Syndrome. Office romance. Drinking and driving.
When you run down the topics covered over the course of the second season of the NBC drama Parenthood, it sounds like a soapy slog, an intolerable compendium of weighty issues and family melodrama. But as they say, it's all in the playing. As Harlan Ellison once wrote, "Moby Dick is only the story of a vengeful man after a big fish, if you want to make it a reductio ad absurdum," and Parenthood is fast becoming the Moby Dick of hour-long issue-oriented family ensemble comedy/dramas.
The show premiered as a mid-season replacement in March of 2010, based loosely on the 1989 Ron Howard movie (which had already begat a previous, failed NBC series in 1990). That abbreviated first season began with some stumbles, as the show struggled to find not only a voice, but a methodology for smoothly handling both its heavy subject matter and its large and potentially cumbersome cast--there are something like 15 regular cast members, and that's just staying within the extended Braverman family.
We have patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and matriarch Camille (Bonnie Bedilia), tentatively reconnecting after a brief separation in season one. Oldest son Adam (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) are continuing to cope with the difficulties of raising their son Max (Max Burkholder), diagnosed in the first season with Asperger's Syndrome; this year, they go through a rough patch with daughter Haddie (Sarah Romos) when they refuse to allow her to date Alex (Michael B. Jordan)--because he is a twentysomething recovering alcoholic and not, not, they stress, because he is black. Eldest daughter Sarah (Lauren Graham) is still casting about, looking for a career or at least a satisfying job, landing as a design intern at the shoe company where Adam is a senior executive, embarking on a possibly risky flirtation with his boss (William Baldwin). Her son Drew (Miles Heizer) is reconnecting with his absent rock-star dad (John Corbett); daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) wants nothing to do with him. She's got problems of her own.
Younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard), a ladies man who finally showed signs of settling down in the show's first year when old girlfriend Jasmine (Joy Bryant) reappeared with his heretofore unknown son (Tyree Brown), finds himself scratching desperately to save that relationship when a giant lapse in judgment not only jeopardizes his life with Jasmine, but his familial ties. And hard-working career woman sister Julia (Erika Christensen) and her stay-at-home husband Joel (Sam Jaeger) decide to have another kid.
Good lord, when you run all that down, Parenthood really does just sound like a terrible, terrible program. And there are moments throughout the second season where the show succumbs to the temptations of weepy bathos and soap opera mush; the "Do Not Sleep With Your Autistic Nephew's Therapist" episode, for example (written and directed by show-runner Jason Katims, who is usually one of the show's stronger writers), degenerates into a steady stream of people yelling at each other. But those moments are fleeting, and they pass. For the most part, the show's able writers keep the theatrics on the down-low and approach these admittedly pat situations sensibly and realistically.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have one of the best ensemble casts on television at your disposal. As he has done on so many shows before, Krause continues to provide a solid center; if Graham has ever played a false note, I haven't seen it. Shepard's dramatic skills continue to impress, while Christenen and Jaeger's easy, comfortable marriage is one of TV's most believable. Mae Whitman is just shockingly good, transcending the "troubled teen" tropes to create a character that is compelling and sympathetic. And Craig T. Nelson gets two of the season's best moments: the delicate way he handles the discovery of Drew and his buddies raiding the beer fridge, and the stern but sensitive speech he gives Whitman's Amber in the season closer (she matches his power with a startling outpouring of raw emotion). The entire cast--but especially the four siblings--have learned each others rhythms and styles, and they key off each other with grace and ease; their conversations seem so convincingly real that they help keep the show from becoming a writer's construct.
The second season's 22 episodes are presented on five discs, with bonus features (such as they are) spread across them. As with the first season set, the presumably exorbitant licensing fee for use of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" as the opening theme does not include home video rights; the international theme, "When We Were Young" by Lucy Schwartz, is used here.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is clean and nicely saturated; skin tones are natural, color temperatures are strong, black levels are thick. For whatever reason, it seems a much sharper image than the season one set; it's a good, strong video presentation.
The dialogue-heavy drama doesn't really make full use of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix--most of the action is in the center channel, with fronts engaged for music cues and backs barely heard, even in immersive environments. But the dialogue reproduction is strong, and that's what's important anyway.
Bonus features are a little slender, frankly, with just a smattering of deleted scenes and commentaries. There is a single featurette, "From Page to Screen" (14:20), which looks at the process of assembling the show, focusing on a single episode ("New Plan"). Several members of the cast and crew are interviewed; behind-the-scenes footage is plentiful. It's a pretty good little feature.
Deleted Scenes are included for the episodes "The Booth Job," "A House Divided," "Do Not Sleep with Your Autistic Nephew's Therapist," "New Plan," and "Hard Times Come Again No More."
Audio Commentaries are included for three episodes. Actor Peter Krause and director Allison Liddi-Brown provide commentary for "If This Boat Is A Rockin'"; actress (and your author's secret girlfriend) Lauren Graham and executive producer Laurence Trilling discuss "Just Go Home"; and executive producer Jason Katims comments on "Do Not Sleep with Your Autistic Nephew's Therapist."
Parenthood was, as they say in the biz, "on the bubble" for most of its second season, as its mediocre ratings may not be sufficient for the expensive-looking program. But NBC executives are sticking with it, picking it up for a third season, and good for them; it is developing into a wonderful show, one that will hopefully find an appropriate audience amongst the increasingly barren television landscape. It's a good series, and worth a look. You just have to trust me on this one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.