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Notebook: Fearless 'Parenthood' impresses with intimate moments

NBC

By Radhika Menon, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 30, 2012

Need I express my love for “Friday Night Lights” for you all? Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t say enough about the show — literally, I won’t shut up about it. With its gritty and sincere storytelling coupled with its magnificent cast’s acting chops, executive producer and head writer Jason Katims created something truly spectacular, even though it was only enjoyed by a handful of people. But this isn’t an article about “Friday Night Lights.” Rather, it’s about Katims’s next project: the equally impressive “Parenthood.”

I stumbled upon “Parenthood” completely by accident. Caught in deep depression after my beloved “Friday Night Lights” ended its fantastic five-season run, I was looking for something, anything to get me over this loss and to fill the void of Coach Taylor and Dillon, Texas. Enter “Parenthood,” the Braverman family and sunny California.

Thank God for Jason Katims.

Though geographically miles away from his first show, “Parenthood” is a welcome twin to the “Friday Night Lights” legacy in the television landscape, melding Katims’s distinct style with honest acting by another extraordinary cast and gripping storylines. Using the same, patented handheld style, “Parenthood” takes the intimacy of “Friday Night Lights” and applies it to the broader family drama.

Being so closely connected to “Friday Night Lights” and sharing a large portion of its audience, “Parenthood” drops many Easter eggs for lovers of both shows, most clearly in the form of crossover actors: Thus far after three and a half seasons, the count is six. These aren’t just cameo performances, with Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) or Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) stopping by for an episode or two. No, these are long arcs with characters that are intricately involved in the central Braverman story. The most fun crossover so far is Lauria’s addition in season four as Ryan, Amber’s (Mae Whitman) love interest and a soldier who has returned from Iraq — a nice nod to viewers of both shows about Luke Cafferty’s fate.

“Parenthood” is fearless in tackling life’s difficult obstacles: There are no second thoughts about delving into the difficulties of living with Asperger’s Syndrome, being laid off from your job or facing a life-threatening illness like cancer. In fact, the writers of “Parenthood” welcome these hurdles and subsequently write a perfect story arc that is complemented by truly moving performances from the cast.

Take, for example, the burgeoning storyline in the current fourth season. In the second episode, “Left Field,” Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) finds out that she has a cancerous tumor growing in her breast. Cancer arcs can often be overly dramatic and trite, but “Parenthood” writes it in a way that truly captures the emotional toil of both those immediately involved and those on the periphery.

While Kristina is battling her illness, her son Max (Max Burkholder) is working at living day-to-day with Asperger’s Syndrome. In the sixth episode of this season, “I’ll Be Right Here,” Max speaks honestly about his autism, highlighting the ways in which he struggles and succeeds at everyday tasks. It sounds like an after-school special, but it’s not: It’s an eleven-year-old enlightening us about a very real disorder.

Hidden in these intense moments are treasures that depict an extended family that will always have each other’s back, even though they usually aren’t on the same page. There are family road trips, spousal spats and times of young love and heartbreak, all of which is so beautifully acted and filmed, it feels as though these events have really occurred; that we too are members of the Braverman family.

I could go on and on about poignant moments in “Parenthood,” but I think the point is clear. Unlike many other shows, it doesn’t exist to cause controversy or be soap operatic in any sense of the phrase. But it takes similar concepts (romance, heartbreak and adultery to name a few) and discusses them on a more humanistic level. A fundamental aspect of “Parenthood” is its ability to convey ordinary familial activities as just that, without the flare that television usually adds.

Take it from me: It’s the best show you’re not watching.