I’ve said this before, and I will probably say it again: Television just loves the dysfunctional family.
Whether it’s in comedy or drama, they lend themselves to ensemble casts and moments many of us identify with.
Ron Howard’s big screen Parenthood (1989) was a highly satisfying look at a dysfunctional family, yet this small screen version is the second to try to capture its magic. The first, in 1990, was notable for Joss Whedon as a writer and Leonardo DiCaprio and David Arquette amongst its cast.
Howard is well-known to us for, amongst other achievements, his central role in one of television’s most beloved families on Happy Days. There wasn’t much dysfunction then, aside from whether Joanie could hear Richard get a lecture from Howard before being sent to her room. Of course, Arrested Development is one of the finest in the genre.
For NBC’s newest incarnation Ron Howard is one of several Executive Producers (longtime collaborator 24‘s Brian Grazer is another). Despite some promotion by Seven as “Ron Howard’s Parenthood” he is neither a writer nor director of the Pilot. I rather wish he had been, because it might have matched the humour of the feature film. This one feels like it has been filmed with a Brothers and Sisters filter.
At the centre of the Braverman family universe is Adam (Peter Krause), husband of Kristina (Monica Potter) and father to Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and Max (Max Burkholder). In the Pilot they will learn that eight-year-old Max is diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham in the role vacated by Maura Tierney) is Peter’s sister and single mother to Amber (Mae Whitman) and Drew (Miles Heizer). The three are moving back in with her parents at the top of the series, a kind of US Rafters perhaps?
Then there is also Crosby Braverman (Dax Shepard), Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) plus assorted kin.
As the patriarch of the family is Craig T. Nelson as Zeek Braverman and Bonnie Bedelia as Camille Braverman. Nelson gets some of the best lines in the Pilot episode, as the worldly father too old to hold back on his emotions anymore.
The Pilot jumps straight into the relationships at a furious pace, seemingly asking the audience to keep up as it cuts from scene to scene. It’s a nice change from slowly unpeeling an onion. It touches upon issues of commitment, security, communication and independence in a broad but confident tone. At times it is awfully earnest, even opting for that cliche of Adult Contemporary track washing over a montage of smiling family members at the end of the episode. Throw in Sally Field smiling through tears an it wouldn’t be out of place here.
But there are also smart moves in making these likeable characters. Fans of Krause’s former Dirty Sexy Money would remember they were fascinatingly dysfunctional -but it was hard to warm to many of them.
This is a pretty-perfect match to follow on from Packed to the Rafters, with one life-affirming series dovetailing out of another. It’s seriously lacking Steve Martin’s spontaneous humour, but Parenthood nevertheless gets off to a good start.
Parenthood airs 9:30pm Tuesday on Seven.