NBC's Parenthood ended its fourth season last night. Unfortunately, we're all caught up, but the majority of you are not watching this show (we know this because a healthy network series does not have a January 22 season finale), and that's a mistake. You really should be, and now is the time to marathon through its 68 episodes. Binge-watching Parenthood is a lot more like having a heroin habit than you think it is: You gorge yourself in a daze, lose all sense of will, and completely succumb to a foreign substance. You are ashamed by your consumption but can think of nothing else but getting more. Your emotions become frayed, you try to reach the apex that you felt at first by doing more, but doing more just leads to
doing more. Next thing you know, it's 6:27 a.m., you can’t sleep, you can’t cry, and you can’t stop. Here’s the good part, though: Watching Parenthood won’t turn you into a homeless prostitute. The worst thing that watching Parenthood will do is make you cry so many times that you completely abandon all attempts to maintain any sort of steely, unshakable manliness. Parenthood makes you feel, and goddammit, isn’t that enough reason to binge-watch alone? No? Fine then, we have eight more.
The Joy of Dax
Jacoby: Remember Ashton Kutcher’s hype-man/partner/bro bro from Punk’d? The dude who made Justin Timberlake cry? Yeah, that guy, Dax Shepard. He disappeared for a bit after Punk’d, confessing, “Mostly my love was Jack Daniel's and cocaine,” then popped up in tabloids for getting super swole, and dating actresses and stuff. Since then, he has gotten sober, gone vegan, stayed swole, and gotten engaged to Kristen Bell. Now he is absolutely bodying the role of Crosby Braverman on Parenthood. Crosby is far and away the most intriguing, entertaining, and dynamic of the Braverman clan. When Juliet, Simmons, and I made the Braverman Power Rankings, we put Crosby at the no. 1 spot and went straight to no. 2 without even discussing it. (By the way, Braverman Power Rankings is something that we do at the office.)
While I realize that Dax Shepard basically is playing a Berkeley version of himself, his ability to showcase his inner loving, concerned parent and husband while remaining the irresponsible, likable, super-fun baby boy of the family is some of the best TV acting I have seen. None of us will ever meet our child at 5 years old, marry a chick who was sleeping with a doctor a couple weeks ago, and go into business with our brother. But somehow Dax Shepard shows you exactly how to handle these super-awkward, potentially nervous-breakdown-inducing events, just in case. Oh yeah, he also slept with Minka Kelly. Did I not mention that Lyla Garrity is on this show? I would make that its own reason for binge-watching but, ya know, that would be a little pervy.
Litman: You forgot lovable. Crosby Braverman is completely lovable. If you don't love Crosby, you have no soul.
Amber Holt, World's Best Hipster
Litman: I guarantee you've seen Mae Whitman in something before. First she was everyone's daughter — George Clooney's (One Fine Day), Sandra Bullock's (Hope Floats), and the President's (Independence Day) — and then she was television's most forgettable girlfriend, Arrested Development's Ann Veal (her?). She may have achieved cult status by way of her AD association, but now she actually deserves it for her role as Amber Holt, the hipstery, existentially lost daughter of Sarah (Lauren Graham). Amber might be one of the least realistic characters on the show: She managed to live in a Berkeley studio on a barista's salary, she applied to only one college (not early decision), and her hairstyle changes every third episode. But none of that matters. Mae Whitman sells Amber as a wise older sister so well that you never question the guidance she gives to her brother and cousins. Even though she didn't go to college and is sort of a mess, you keep watching her, constantly expecting her to break out. Amber is a star. She just hasn't been discovered yet. She's the most compelling singer-songwriter since Jewel whipped out her guitar in the bathroom stall, and with her black plastic glasses, Mae Whitman as Amber Holt gives a good name to hipsters everywhere.
Jacoby: There is good reason that we had Amber second on our power rankings: She's the sister/daughter/bestie that we all wish we had — caring, present, and extremely fashionable. Crosby is one affair away from relinquishing the top spot.
The Cry Moments
Jacoby: This show is going to make you cry. This show is going to make you call/text/hug someone in your life and tell them you love them. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Let the tears flow, let the snot drip, and let your face crumble into rubble like a toppled building. You are powerless over it, so enjoy it. I swear that in the writers' room where they have those corkboards with colored index cards on them, they have a special color for “cry moments” and put two of them in every episode, one at the end of the fourth segment and one at the end of the fifth. The equation works like this:
Major Character Disappointed + Revelation + Long Reaction Shot + 1970s Easy Listening Folk Jam = Cry Moment
There is something about being moved to tears that makes you feel alive, makes you remember what is important, and makes you want to make changes in your life. Yeah, Parenthood will do that for you, no bullshit.
Litman: There is only one true way to judge a Parenthood episode. Yes, you will cry every time, but how many times and at what intensity? The show has spoiled me so much that I'm only satisfied when I tear up once and sob a second time. Preferably in that order.
Jacoby: The people who make this television program have written in a plotline, a character, a scene, or a set for everybody. Only child? Joel and Julia only have one, too. Wait, you don’t have any parents at all? Season 3 is for you. Have a brother? Wait until Adam and Crosby open The Luncheonette. Have a sister? Juliet already told you about Amber. Have a mean dad? Check out Adam and Zeek. Have a nice dad? Check out Crosby and Jabbar. Have a dad-at-large? Seth and Drew. The writers have so flawlessly incorporated impressive family, professional, and sexual dynamics that you will undoubtedly relate to at least one relationship, struggling along with the characters. I want to rewatch the whole damn thing right now.
Litman: I can already anticipate the objections coming from people with small families. Remember this: We all have parents, and the show covers many permutations of parent-kid relationships: overbearing parents, absentee parents, single parents, alcoholic parents, teenage parents. There will be something for you.
It's Less Predictable Than You Think
Litman: Since cable has become the domain for television's "prestige" and "cool" shows, network series have remained in a stasis of melodrama and predictability (I think; I mainly watch reality TV and British soaps). Sure, Parenthood can't escape the melodrama, but at least it resolves its story lines in ways you wouldn't expect. Since the show started, very few recurring characters got the promotion to regular status, and the characters usually make choices with consequences that reverberate through it. (WARNING: If you are a spoiler-phobe, look away now.) In this most recent season, Drew and his girlfriend make the type of very realistic decision that is hardly seen on television, especially network television. Before that, Haddie gets mad and frustrated with her younger brother, whose Asperger's syndrome dominates the family's choices. She yells at him and storms off. Who hasn't wanted to do that?
Jacoby: This is important for the binge-watching public. Remember, season-long story lines are not meant to be consumed in a binge. And often when consumed so, they show their flaws. Even in a binge environment, Parenthood will keep you on your toes. But be prepared to see Sarah in like 14 love triangles over a 24-hour period. I never got over that.
Mastering the Details
Litman: Parenthood's investment in believable family dynamics and contoured characters is evident in even the most minor elements of the show. Kristina Braverman's (Monica Potter) mom-hair is my favorite example. She has wavy blond hair that's long enough to be styled, but usually it's just pulled back in a ponytail, with various bobby pins to help keep it out of her face. It's attractive but completely practical. Kristina has three children, two of whom are very demanding, and she even tries to work. Of course she doesn't have shiny, flowy Kate Middleton hair! The supposed doctors of Grey's Anatomy and every other workplace drama should really take note. It's a small touch, but it adds dimension.
The second-most noteworthy aspect of Kristina is the syncopated rhythm of her speech. She rails off a string of words at one volume before landing on the end of her sentence, and, somehow, her TV daughter Haddie speaks exactly the same way. It's as if she's really her daughter and she picked up the mannerism. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to find more frequently on television, but it's actually fairly unique. This level of detail suffuses many of the show's relationships, and often I forget this is not a real family (probably because I wish it were).
Jacoby: Full disclosure: I've never really thought about this. But isn’t that exactly the point? Sure, they do wild shit, like have Jasmine get engaged to Crosby hours after sleeping with someone else, but the little things never bother me. Good point.
The Opening Credits
Jacoby: Every show starts with the entire Braverman clan in the backyard of the grandparents’ house, having dinner to the sound of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” under the glow of well-placed string lights. If there were ever a better advertisement for “love your spouse, have a bunch of kids, and everything will be fine,” I've never seen it. Binge-watch this show and I promise you will tell your significant other that you love them more often and spend an extra five minutes on the phone with your mother. If that doesn't seem like reason enough to get onboard, this show isn’t for you.
Litman: Everything Jacoby said about feelings is true, but more importantly, WHERE HAVE ALL THE OPENING THEME SONGS GONE? When did television shows get too cool for a 30-second intro? Friends was defined by its theme as much as anything else. In my mind, the Cheers theme song is as iconic as the bar itself. Parenthood respects and refines this important television tradition.
Ray Romano Is Waiting for You in Season 4
Litman: I never thought I'd say this, but I truly love Ray Romano. His character on Parenthood is the perfect blend of jerk, curmudgeon, and charmer. I already explained that guest stars rarely get promoted, but I haven't wanted that to happen more than with Ray's character. Watching him with Lauren Graham is so entertaining that it's worth getting all the way through the season just to see him. Seriously. Ray Romano! Who knew? It's worth watching to simply understand this Romano phenomenon.
Jacoby: I have no idea if Ray Romano is actually a dick in real life. However, after watching his run on Parenthood, I can tell you with confidence that he is either a dick in real life or a truly talented actor. I choose to believe the former.