TV Preview

NBC's 'Parenthood' isn't all it's cracked up to be

ALL IN THE FAMILY: From left, Mae Whitman, Lauren Graham and Miles Heizer in the painfully over-promoted new series on NBC.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: From left, Mae Whitman, Lauren Graham and Miles Heizer in the painfully over-promoted new series on NBC. (Mitchell Haaseth - Mitchell Haaseth -- NBC Universal, Inc.)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The first thing to say about "Parenthood" is a word of sympathy to NBC's faithful Winter Olympics audience, who suffered through interminable commercials for the new series with "Tuesday, March 2, 10/9c" burned inside their eyelids with a soldering tool, and who by now would probably prefer to drink paint than watch it. (I'll toast to that.)

The next thing to say about the show is to admit that there's not much to say about it, but plenty of material to puzzle over:

There's Ron Howard's 1989 movie, which starred Steve Martin, Jason Robards and Dianne Wiest and has had a nice, long afterlife on cable movie channels.

Two decades later, there was a dreary "Parenthood" pilot that circulated among critics last summer but was pulled from NBC's fall lineup when cast member Maura Tierney was diagnosed with cancer. (Also, an NBC Universal vice president for drama dropped dead during a shooting break on the show's set last year.)

So they reshot chunks of the pilot, replacing Tierney with "Gilmore Girls" actress Lauren Graham and sprucing up some of the patter. After re-watching the movie (still enjoyable), I watched both versions of the pilot, an exercise that took on the grim pall of an autopsy. The dramatic parts don't move and the funny parts don't laugh. Packed with appealing actors (Peter Krause in the Martin role; Craig T. Nelson in Robards's paterfamilias role), this new "Parenthood" is boring, disorganized and weirdly missing the tender texture of its original source.

Anyway, it's not as though the world lacks for heartfelt, madcap stories about raising a brood in upper-middle-class environs, amid all that Stickley mission furniture. In the two decades since "Parenthood" the movie, parenting itself has allegedly become more fraught with hyperactive worry, aptitude tests and social status cues that perpetually torment career moms and overzealous dads on the Little League field.

But those things were also being comically observed in 1989, because the packed minivan of our family-first culture is always about to veer out of control. (Raising kids: It's just so crazy!) To this epic struggle, we've added helicopter parenting, designer fertility treatments and a cacophony of vicious mommy blogs to sound the alarm on poison plastic and epidemic outbreaks of Asperger's syndrome. We've killed ourselves getting children into elite kindergartens.

Or so the story goes, which is why "Parenthood" is back again as a sprawling ensemble TV drama (executive-produced by Howard) that hopes to reboot the premise in an updated and relevant way.

But the first episode merely mimics the movie: Krause is Adam Braverman, the oldest and seemingly most secure of the four Braverman siblings. Graham is Sarah, mother of two sullen teenagers and so broke that she's had to move home to live with Mom (Bonnie Bedelia) and Dad (Nelson). Erika Christensen is Julia, a success at her law firm but too busy BlackBerrying to pay attention to her husband (Sam Jaeger) or cute daughter ("I want Daddy to sing me to sleep; I want Daddy to cut my meat" etc.). Finally there's brother Crosby (Dax Shepard), who is having commitment issues with one girlfriend and has just learned from an ex-girlfriend that he's the father of a young boy named Jabbar.

"Like the basketball player?" Adam asks Crosby, while the audience at home all too ably recalls that the child was named Cool in the movie version.

That's the problem. Unfairly or not, the superiority of the old "Parenthood" looms over this endeavor. Same as before, Adam and his wife, Kristina (Monica Potter), worry themselves sick over their socially inept son Max's difficulties in sports and at school. Back in 1989, he was just odd; in 2010 he's placed on the autism spectrum, which quickly sends the show on a path to becoming an adult-focused, after-school special.

On today's television schedule, "Parenthood" is socially awkward itself, caught between an outdated "thirtysomething" earnestness and a yen to stir some soap into its drama: You mean they don't murder one another or wake from comas, as on "Desperate Housewives"? Then what do they do?

Gather for dinner, that's what -- at a long table and in mismatched chairs in the Braverman family's lushly immense Berkeley, Calif., back yard, which is aglow with Italian wedding lights and where wine glasses are always abrim and frank talk pushes the plot along. These unattainable environs of the quirky-rich (think "Rachel Getting Married" or "It's Complicated") exist mainly to sell viewers an idea that familial bliss is as simple as real estate and a good pinot noir.

"Parenthood" looks right but feels empty. While dragging through the finished pilot, I realized there's already a better and much more funny and sparky show on right now that's about a well-off-but-off-kilter clan of relatives: It's called "Modern Family," and it's on ABC.

Parenthood (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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