Don't expect Modern Family-type laughs from this NBC show that's equal parts drama and comedy

By Ken Tucker
Updated March 26, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Chris Haston/NBC

Parenthood has had a vexed history on television, but the allure of the title alone seems to make it an irresistible project for the TV industry. Who doesn’t want to watch a show about multiple generations of parenthood, right? Well, Ron Howard’s hit 1989 film was turned into a quick-death 1990-91 series, despite the fact that the show, which featured Ed Begley Jr., Thora Birch, and a young Leonardo DiCaprio, was pretty good, and its writing staff included Joss Whedon.

But NBC is trying again. The new Parenthood was delayed this season when costar Maura Tierney was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to be replaced. (That pilot was sent out to TV critics, and Tierney was terrific in it.) The Parenthood that arrives on our screens now has Gilmore Girls‘ Lauren Graham in Tierney’s role, along with Peter Krause as her brother, Dax Shepard as her brother, and Craig T. Nelson as her father, to just skim the top of a large cast.

Krause is better cast here than he was as the angsty lawyer on Dirty Sexy Money. You believe the uneasy relationship he has with his roaring papa-lion father (Nelson excels at that sort of thing without going over the top). And the show’s prominent subplot — about the emotional difficulties endured by Krause’s young son, Max (Max Burkholder) — is a potent heartbreaker.

Graham takes the role of single mother Sarah and makes it her own. Sarah is forced by tough economic times to take her two kids (including Mae Whitman, so good as Gabriel Byrne’s daughter on In Treatment) and move back in with her parents. Graham captures Sarah’s mixture of embarrassment and defiance at having to admit she needs help while trying to build a new life for her (moody, trouble-prone) kids and herself.

NBC is promoting Parenthood as though it were in the same genre as Modern Family, with commercials that play up the lighter moments. This does the show a disservice. Its drama and comedy are weighted equally; if anything, the show plays more like ABC’s Brothers & Sisters — but is better than that series, in its current, mawkish state. I fear that if you tune in to Parenthood expecting Modern Family-size laughs, you’re going to think the new show is a downer and switch away. Parenthood isn’t better than Modern Family, but it’s different — it’s its own creation, thanks to the deft touch and careful characterizations developed by executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and his writers. If some of Parenthood’s subplots resonate with viewers, it could take off in a way the previous TV Parenthood did not. Or it could suffer from NBC’s lack of momentum with 10 p.m. dramas due to the Jay Leno debacle. So far, I’m pulling for Parenthood‘s success. B+