Now drifting into its sixth and final season, NBC’s Parenthood has spent its run alternately pegged for cancellation and heralded as the saving grace of the network’s Thursday-night lineup. Rejecting both courses, it has remained just good enough to get by, just bad enough to remain tolerable. Sometimes better, sometimes worsebut always along the gradient of mediocrity.
The vast realm of the average is nothing to be ashamed ofif we’re honest with ourselves, it’s where our own lives likely fall. To be middling is not remarkablethe reason, perhaps, that Tolstoy dismissed all happy families as alike. The three generations of the Braverman family at Parenthood’s core offer, as Peter Lawler has observed, nothing so much as “a fine (and astute) portrayal of a realistically happy family.” Six years in the life of a happy family is frequently six years remarking on the unremarkable, watching neither the great nor the awful, but the ups and downs of the large middling swath of lives that are more or less good.
To be certain, they are imperfect: the family struggles through divorces, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and substance abuse; the traditional nuclear family constitutes a bare plurality of the iterations on offer within the larger clan. But the Braverman family is successful largely because remarkable events and traits only punctuate its narratives, affecting trajectories without defining their lives.
Take, for example, one of the show’s first crises: the discovery by the adult Braverman children of their father’s past extramarital dalliances. They are outraged to learn this and outraged again that their mother wants to hear nothing of their outrage. For her, this news is decades old. It is not unimportantit was a crisis in its timebut, rather than breaking the weave of her marriage’s general happiness, it has been knit into it. Their is more to the garment than the stain, and she concluded long ago that it was still worth wearing.
So, too, the show’s long engagement with Asperger’s. So, too, Kristina Braverman’s treatment for breast cancer. Despite the martial individualism of our shared language for discussing cancerbattles, survivors, valiance; the need for highlight-reel heroicsher illness does not make Kristina any more or less significant than before her diagnosis. Even this crisis only punctuates, and then recedes into the texture of the family’s happiness. Its effects are palpable but not all-consuming: the focusing of her already-present energies; the transformation of her husband, usually tasked with being the family’s rock, into a grim and short-tempered waiting-room cynic while his father undergoes routine bypass surgery.
Julia, the youngest Braverman sibling, is also the unhappiest. But the collapse of her marriage was prompted by that most mundane of crises: a persistent malaise of which neither she nor her husband was aware until it was too late. There was no single breaking point, but a series of them; their punctuation not broken glasses but the dissolution of the small gestures, phrases, and touches that establish genuine communication within marriageand which characterize the success of Adam’s and Kristina’s.
In the end, what distinguishes Parenthood is the presence of what is absent in the high-end television dramas that have launched a thousand think-pieces and close readings (of which I am particularly guilty): a modern existence in which the center not only holds, but is almost never threatened. Despite wearing its secular agnosticism proudly, watching Zeek Braverman or any of his kin is like nothing so much as The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling puzzling over a man quickly walking into and away from a church on Ash Wednesday, the presence or absence of the smudge of the cross unclear on his forehead:
When he gets in his Mercury, he does not leave immediately but sits looking down at something on the seat beside him. A sample case? An insurance manual? I watch him closely in the rear-view mirror. It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bon Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say.
They would not call it grace or God, but going through their lives, the unremarkable mundanities of their family’s successes, the Bravermans of California find among themselves something that is more important than any individual member of it. Their happiness may not distinguish thembut, pace Tolstoy, it is their own.