This post about NBC’s Parenthood has been in my to-write queue since last summer and I realized that I better get it done before it goes off the air (but lives on forever on Netflix and in my heart). Julio and I watch the show together a lot. I had to convince him to try it, but there was baseball and Bob Dylan in the first episode and he was sold. While he doesn’t quite understand how emotional I get about the show (“They’re actors, Kasey.”), it has been a springboard for a number of serious conversations over the past year.
One of the aspects of the show that I love most is the way the adult characters negotiate parenting together and with their kids. Specifically, I am fascinated by the moments in which different parenting styles clash or when otherwise good parents make questionable decisions because of their own issues. Thanks to that dynamic, the show has some really great moments depicting girls and their parents in complicated and/or great ways. Here are some of my favorites. They stop after mid-way through the series, as the older girls grew into women, but continued being wonderful characters. (Although, every other episode, Julio asks me, “Remember Haddie?” because of how she just disappeared.)
Learning to Swim
Julia is the Parenthood character who I relate to most (A personality test, however, told me that I’m Zeek, which is spectacular.) “The Deep End of the Pool” (1.3) is one of my favorite episodes for Julia, because of how it shows her balancing parenting and her career. She wants to be there for her daughter’s swim lessons, because she was a champion swimmer and she thinks blowing bubbles in the pool isn’t really teaching Sydney how to swim. We see her come on too strong, but ultimately teach her daughter something that Sydney gets really excited about. I think it’s a beautiful episode because it not only takes a different approach to the working mother storyline, by showing Julia’s all-around intense, competitive personality rather than just pegging the job. It also shows that Sydney is tougher and more resilient than the little kids’ swim classes allowed for.
The Amber-Haddie Showdown
I have watched Parenthood since the pilot, without the benefit of bingewatching, which means I had time to stew between episodes. The first season of Parenthood ended with a storyline that had me steaming because it felt so gross and cliched. Haddie’s boyfriend, Steve (or “Yo-yo”), was pressuring her about having sex, so she dumped him (Go, girl) only to have him turn around and sleep with Amber. I had not yet learned to trust the writers’ instincts, and so the story looked like it was going to be endless cat-fighting between the archetypal “good girl” (Haddie) and the slutty “bad girl” (Amber). Then their parents got involved after Haddie’s friends started bullying Amber at school. So, we had the “good parents” (Adam and Kristina) against the “bad” single mom (Sarah). To a point, this all still bothers me, but I was impressed by the switch that the show flips when Amber runs away in “Lost and Found” (1.13). When Sarah, Adam, and Kristina go to find Amber, sulky Haddie snaps out of it, going with them to talk to, and make up with, her cousin on her own. It’s one of those moments on the show that cuts through the bullshit plots that television gives us and shows a realer story. Amber and Haddie aren’t a good girl and a bad girl. They’re cousins and teenagers, and they love each other and fighting over a boy wouldn’t become the definition of their relationship.
In “Orange Alert” (2.6) Sydney tells Julia that she wants to be Miss California for Halloween. Successful, feminist, opinionated Julia is not thrilled. Given all the uproar about “pink princess culture” in modern parenting, it’s a storyline that is ripped from the zeitgeist. Yet, the show handles it adeptly and humorously as Julia tries to use feminist argument with an eight year-old.
Julia tries to dissuade Syd from the costume by telling her about the 1963 Fair Labor Standards Act that “gave equality to women in the workplace.” Like a first grader might, Sydney replies, “I like it because it’s pink and that’s my favorite color.”
Julia counters, “Yeah but it kind of goes against everything that we women have struggled for for the last fifty years. You know, it’s. It’s uh….” Joel tries to explain that the outfit is too cold for October, but Sydney, her mother’s daughter, won’t relent. Eventually, Sydney gets to dress Miss California, even as Julia continues to talk to her with feminist commentary on beauty pageants. Sydney is allowed to be Sydney and Julia (dressed as Amelia Earhart) is vocally Julia, simple as that. I have seen feminist moms with princess daughters and I like that being a girlie-girl isn’t inherently put down in the situation. (Later, Sydney is Marilyn Monroe in a school play about California history (2.13) and Julia notes, “Our daughter is dressed as a sex symbol.”)
Haddie Having Sex
Season Two’s Haddie-Alex coupling provided some intense, complicated issues. It was an interracial relationship between a teenaged girl and a grown man who’d been homeless and a alcoholic. The show adeptly/weirdly side-stepped racism by giving Adam and Kristina plenty of pragmatic issues to worry about with the relationship. Then Haddie runs away and so on and so forth. The plot broke Haddie out of the dutiful daughter archetype without throwing her into the bad girl archetype. Eventually Haddie and Alex have sex, but not until she’s ready. Then in “Slipping Away” (2.21), Adam and Kristina get a butt-dial that results in them hearing their daughter doing the deed. It’s such a painfully awkward scene that opens the door for a sex-positive episode in which Kristina talks to Haddie about sex and Adam has to cope with his pained response to his daughter having sex. The show is realistic in how the characters react while also giving space to push back against narratives about losing one’s virginity as a fall, a sudden transformation, etc. It’s so awkward, but in a way that provides teachable moments, mostly for the parents.
Amber’s Car Accident
I love Amber. During the second season, Parenthood shows Amber strive so hard to turn her grades around and get into college. When she doesn’t get in, she slides into self-destructive behavior leading up to a drunk driving-related car crash. After Amber recovers, Zeek takes her to look at the totaled car and talks to her about the value of her life. It sounds like an after school special, but the way it’s played is frank and beautiful. This speech from Zeek (which Craig T. Nelson ad-libbed) is one that I think about from time to time when I think about family.
“I know you’ve had some bad breaks and you’re not feeling good about yourself. You didn’t get into Berkeley. Well, boo frickin’ hoo. You’ve got to suck it up girl. You’re a Braverman. You’ve got my blood in your veins. You ever do something like this again…You even think about doing something like this again, I will personally kick your little butt all the way from here to the Golden Gate Bridge. You do not have my permission to mess with my dreams.”
And after making Amber, and anyone with a heart, bawl, he takes her out for a burger. Zeek is a warrior. A Vietnam vet with a brash, bossy, domineering personality. But he’s also very loving and nurturing. What I love about this speech is the way that Zeek honors and calls-out the warrior in Amber, too. I think this scene marks a transition in the show in which Amber starts to emerge from a pretty static bad-girl to Haddie’s good-girl and evolves into one of the wisest, most compelling characters on the show. I love that Parenthood gave Amber a range of plots in which to succeed and find her way. Teenaged girls are often stuck in the false good girl/bad girl dichotomy. Parenthood doesn’t do that with Haddie or Amber and it resulted in some interesting, fully-realized characters and stories. In Amber, the show creates a young woman who doesn’t follow a clear path, but learns to define success and family on her own terms, struggling to do so, but learning so much along the way.
(Thanks, Buzzfeed: “Parenthood” Gave The Perfect Ending To One Of Its Most Beloved Relationships)
Syndey, Vegetarianism, and Learning to Lose
As a mouthpiece for modern, feminist parenting, Julia comes at odds with her parents from time to time. “Do Not Sleep with Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist” (2.17) and “Sore Loser” (3.9) provide two such moments. They also, however, show Sydney negotiating how to assert herself in interesting ways. In the former, Sydney decides that she’s a vegetarian and Joel and Julia support her. Zeek and Camille, however, encounter issues when babysitting Sydney, as she refuses to eat both the vegetarian dinner and the non-veg option she is offered. So (like my folks would have) they tell her she can eat what she’s given or nothing. Julia worries that Zeek is trying to “crush her spirit.” The scenario provides a look at different generations of parenting in conflict, but it also shows Sydney asserting her own identity and learning the limits to the demands she can make. I think it’s great that she is allowed to be vegetarian, but I also love how that decision came with consequences too.
In “Sore Loser” Sydney has to learn about losing graciously after Joel and Julia discover they may have spoiled her. Consistently on the show Sydney is aggressive and opinionated and even sometimes mean. I appreciate that the show gives space for this type of behavior from a girl character without limiting her to “mean girl” or “bossy stories.” Learning how to manage aggression, frustration, and self-assertion are important lessons for all children.
I think another important aspect of the depiction of girlhood on the show is the depiction of boyhood. I love the way that the boys on Parenthood are allowed to be sensitive and to have different facets to their boyhood. Jabbar enjoys taking ballet class with his mother. Drew is very sensitive and caring. Victor is often angry and rebellious, but he also is vulnerable and needs affection. Max has to learn how to express his feelings appropriately. Just as the girls on the show are complex and have stories that push against stereotypes, the boys are taught about masculinity in a range of expressions and the writers show them crying and sharing tender moments, as well as playing baseball and such.
What are your favorite Parenthood moments? There are so many to choose from!
Bonus: Listen to this duet of “The Circle Game” by Sarah and Amber: