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Farewell to the Stealthily Feminist ‘Parenthood’

Farewell to the Stealthily Feminist 'Parenthood'

Tonight brings the last-ever episode of NBC’s Parenthood, a show I have come to fiercely love in a way that’s difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t watch it: It’s about this big, pretty well-off family in California and, you know, their day-to-day lives.

Which, of course, is one of the brilliant things about the show: its refusal to buy into the usual gimmicky plots that nearly always eventually emerge on this kind of drama. The Parenthood writers, to their immense credit, have somehow resisted the pressure – or temptation – to force their characters into headline-grabbing plot contrivances.

In doing so, the show’s creators have stealthily, quietly carved out a cast of characters who defy gender clichés, on both sides. Men and women alike are strong sometimes, weak sometimes, and confused a good deal of the time. (Okay, it’s possible people don’t burst into tears quite as much as they do on the show, but I’m alright with that.)

And in a culture where complex roles for women are still the exception rather than the norm, Parenthood has given us several indelible female characters, played by a uniformly talented cast.

I love, love, love the marriage between Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter) Braverman. When the show started, she was largely a stay-at-home mom, taking care of the kids (Haddie and Max, when the show began) while he rushed to his long-hours job at a sneaker company. But the script flipped when Adam got laid off, sending Kristina back to her old job as a political consultant – a career she had substantially more passion for than Adam ever did his sneaker-finances gig. The ensuing years would see Kristina emerging as the focus of most of their storylines, from her bout with breast cancer to her run for mayor and, eventually, her starting a school for special-needs kids. Through it all, Adam supports her, makes her laugh, and tries to find himself a career he cares about as much as she does. The way these two characters talk to each other has an effortless equality that you don’t see nearly enough of in TV or movies, and Krause and Potter hit it out of the park every week.

Their daughter Haddie, who disappeared after a few seasons to go to Cornell, returned home in a recent episode with a female friend (Tavi Gevinson), who turned out to be more than a friend. It was a development I thought the show treated really smartly, culminating in a talk between Kristina and her daughter that reflected – as I’ve seen in some comments on it – how many people wish their parents would have reacted to their own coming out. It was just one of many, many family-related wish-fulfillment moments on this show.

The mother-and-daughter relationship between Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Amber (Mae Whitman) was also one of the show’s strongest relationships, showcasing two highly intelligent women who frequently refuse to make the choices their more straightlaced relatives wish they would. Sarah (who fulfilled many bereft Gilmore Girls fans’ dreams by playing essentially a distant relative of Lorelei) begins the series by moving back into her parents’ house as a single mom with her two teenagers. Her daughter Amber is a rebellious kid who can’t stop picking the wrong guys (a trait her mother shared in her younger years), even as she gradually realizes she’s too smart to be getting involved with them.

Amber is also an unrepentant weed-smoker (until she gets pregnant) and has a knack for politics, and although she’s ending the series as an employee at Crosby’s recording studio, I see a future for her as a progressive Congresswoman.

Meanwhile, Sarah has a bit of a wandering eye; even when she’s dating someone, she always seems primed to be distracted by someone else. It’s only when she meets Hank (Ray Romano), who actually seems on her level intellectually and age-wise, that she stops to focus. And Hank’s hardly the perfect man (though Romano killed with this role!): He’s dealing with the discovery that he probably has Asperger’s syndrome — he’s bad at emotions and looking people in the eye — and yet this doesn’t stop Sarah from loving him. I applaud the show for giving a voice to Asperger’s, and for showing that it’s not an impediment to relationships. I also love that flaky Sarah finally decides to settle down with a guy who’s the polar opposite of her last boyfriend, the affable, scrumptious younger man Mark Cyr (Jason Ritter). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or him – but it’s nice to see a show in which the smart woman goes for the more complicated romantic choice.

Julia (Erika Christensen), the control freak of the bunch, also has a pretty egalitarian marriage, to the sweet-natured Joel (Sam Jaeger) — except when it comes to her taking a backseat to his career for a stint. Derailed when she tries to be a stay-at-home mom after he’s been doing it for years, she falls apart — and their marriage subsequently does, too. Again, I like the gender-flip here; how many times have we seen the reverse?

Jasmine (Joy Bryant) and her son Jabbar (Tyree Brown) are the sole non-white folks in the Braverman clan, which I can’t ever recall being addressed as an issue (though I think it would have been in character for her outspoken personality to have pointed out just how very, very white the Braverman clan is). Could the show have done more to bring in racial diversity? Certainly; they did introduce Michael B. Jordan as a love interest for Haddie at one point, but he was pretty quickly moved along. Anyway, I like Jasmine and the fact that she stands up to the often-idiotic Crosby while also being supportive of his dreams. I would like to point out, however, that their second child very obviously changed race after the first season she arrived, and that’s just weird.

And then there’s Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), wife of Zeek (Craig T. Nelson, the one Braverman of whom I can get a teensy bit tired). She was there for many seasons as the nurturing family matriarch, but a recent storyline finally gave her some depth when she told her husband in no uncertain terms that she had supported the family for years and now was going to Europe to paint. In a “fan favorites” video, Bedelia mentioned how many women approached her to say how much they liked and related to that plotline, and I’m not at all surprised.

Finally, though she wasn’t a Braverman, the storyline involving Drew’s girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) getting pregnant was also an untouted step forward for portrayals of abortion on TV. Unlike the vast majority of plots like this, Amy chose to have an abortion, saying “there’s only one option, right?” Drew’s grief over the decision didn’t change that, and I thought these episodes were handled with a lot of realism and sensitivity.

And tears. Dear god, the tears. Where do we all go now for that weekly cathartic cry?

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