It takes a little while, but NBC’s belated second attempt at turning Ron Howard’s 1989 movie Parenthood into a series—this time as a drama, rather than the sitcom version the network foisted on audiences in 1990—settles into a nice groove. TV doesn’t usually do the rhythms of real life particularly well, and while Parenthood occasionally goes in for a mildly earth-shattering plot twist or two, the show is mostly focused on the small-scale stuff that makes up American lives: trying to keep a daughter from having sex before she’s ready, dating again after 40, balancing work and home. It has nothing terribly revelatory to say about any of this, but at least it isn’t yet another show where the faded stars of better shows solve murder mysteries.
What clicks about Parenthood from the first is the cast, who find the rhythms of how families talk or how siblings banter as early as the first episode. Even when the scripts and direction are a little cloying, the actors put the sentimentality over without straining too hard. Peter Krause anchors the show as a breezy golden boy, while Lauren Graham (who has many of the show’s funniest scenes) somehow finds new notes to play in the single-mother type. Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia put on their grandfather and grandmother roles like a comfortable old coat, and Erika Christensen is horribly miscast, but somehow turns this into a virtue over the course of the season.
The real revelation, however, is Dax Shepard. The beats he plays are familiar—he’s a young man discovering he has a child from a brief fling five years ago—but he finds poignancy in them. The season’s best episode, “Rubber Band Ball,” ends on a long close-up of Shepard’s face as he watches his son being born—an event he didn’t even know about when it happened. Shepard, best known for playing dozens of variations on lackadaisical goofballs, rewards that faith as emotions play across his face before it finally freezes in something like wonder.
The series takes a while to reach its actors’ level. In the early episodes, the attempts to shoehorn in hot-button storylines can feel clumsy (though the show makes good use of an autism plotline), and the scripts are often too content to hit cruise control and coast for an hour. Unlike Friday Night Lights, the other series that has Jason Katims serving as show-runner, Parenthood doesn’t dare to do too much. It’s content to just hang out with its central family amid rosily lit Northern California landscapes that look ripped from the pages of Dwell magazine.
As the season goes on, however, the show settles into a nice groove. It isn’t trying too much, but it provides enough interesting character moments per episode to keep viewers watching. There’s a strained attempt at an overly emotional season finale, and a few missteps along the way, but for the most part, Parenthood turns into finely executed comfort-food TV, the small-screen equivalent of a bowl of warm oatmeal and honey before bed.
Key features: Katims and pilot director Thomas Schlamme contribute an interesting commentary on the pilot, which goes over the many major and minor changes made between the original pilot and the one that aired. Most notably, Maura Tierney dropped out for health-related reasons, and Graham took over her role. There are also a handful of deleted scenes and a fairly rote behind-the-scenes featurette.