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'Parenthood' review: Secrets and fibs and a rubber-band ball

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Although I watch it every week, Parenthood isn’t a show I’ve written about a lot here, primarily because of the Tuesday night pileup of good shows I’ve mentioned frequently. When Justified and The Good Wife are competing in the same time-period for attention, Parenthood — a modest but artful series — can get lost. If it was scheduled on a different night, I’ll bet it would already have a more ardent following and a lot more media attention. I’m glad NBC has renewed it for a second season, but the network clearly hasn’t a clue how to program Parenthood for maximum effectiveness.

Last night’s episode may have seemed at first like a tangle of story lines. Adam (Peter Krause) and dad Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) taking a road trip; Crosby (Dax Shepard) and Jasmine (Joy Bryant) organizing a birthday party for their son; Sarah (Lauren Graham) trying to cope with the anger of daughter Amber (Mae Whitman); Julia (Erika Christensen) being told by a doctor that her daughter Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae) is “gifted.”

But ultimately, the hour cohered as an examination of the ways different family members dealt with secrets and insecurities, hiding or admitting them with varying degrees of honesty.

Part of the pleasure of Parenthood as it proceeds is in watching characters who don’t often interact come together. Thus the road trip Zeek insisted on taking with Adam was tartly funny at first, with both men jabbering awkwardly. Similarly, we don’t often see sisters-in-law Julia and Adam’s wife Kristina (Monica Potter) engage with each other, and this subplot was particularly rewarding.

Julia mistook her Sydney’s obsession with a ball the kid had made from rubber bands as an early sign of the same sort of autism diagnosed in Kristina’s son, Max (Max Burkholder). Instead, Sydney is deemed a gifted child, and in very brief scenes, the episode deftly sketched in a variety of complexities. Kristina feeling guilty that she’s almost pleased when she thinks Sydney may be autistic; Julia abashed at how to tell Kristina about her daughter’s different diagnosis without sounding as though she’s bragging or in danger of hurting Kristina’s feelings.

Last week, Parenthood focused on Sarah’s dating of Amber’s teacher (a contained story-arc featuring Jason Ritter, of whom I presume we won’t see a lot more). This week, Sarah was dealing with the fall-out from that, which means Amber was furious and rebellious. These roles are particularly difficult to pull off. Lauren Graham can hardly get a line of dialogue out without reminding us of her indelible Lorelai Gilmore, but she’s quickly establishing Sarah as a very different sort of person — not as articulate, more anguished. It was very good to see her being comforted by her mother, played by the terrific Bonnie Bedelia, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen-time. As for Amber, playing TV’s one-billionth irritating teenager is its own challenge, but Whitman is a subtle actor who risks being unsympathetic and, in so doing, wins us over with honesty (both from the performer and her character).

(I did wish the episode had followed up on Amber skipping out on her SATs last week, though.)

As for Jabbar’s birthday party — boy, was that nicely awkward or what? Dax Shepard is proving to be Parenthood’s secret surprise. He’s not just trading on his usual goofiness in playing Crosby; the guy’s got range.

All in all, just the kind of deceptively messy, intricately choreographed drama that makes Parenthood special. And can I just add what great job young Max Burkholder is doing in playing the very tricky role of Max?

Did you watch Parenthood? What do you think of the show? Which of its plots most interest you?

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