In 1989, Ron Howard directed an ensemble comedy/drama called Parenthood. It was kind of generic, but it starred Steve Martin, Keanu Reeves, Joaquin Phoenix, Mary Steenburgen and a whole bunch of other people. It made $100 million at the box office. Naturally, Hollywood figured a TV spin-off was in order. After all, the idea of white, middle-class, suburban parents and children ... living at home ... doing stuff that’s, you know, funny ... and occasionally heartwarming—why, it’s something television had never before attempted. So, in 1990, NBC tried a TV version. It starred Ed Begley Jr., Thora Birch, David Arquette and some kid named Leonardo DiCaprio. It lasted like four episodes.
Undaunted (and perennially out of ideas), Hollywood has decided it’s high time to start beating that dead horse again. Yup, a good 20 years after the original film, NBC is back to give “Parenthood” another go. Now staffed with the likes of Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Monica Potter, Dax Shepard, Erika Christensen, Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia, the multigenerational Buckman family (now renamed the Braverman family) is back to generate laughs and pluck heartstrings.
Though it now bears a more-than-passing resemblance to ABC’s hit comedy “Modern Family,” “Parenthood” does quite a few things right. The cast, for starters, is impressive. It’s like “Brothers and Sisters” before that particular series went south. Peter Krause is a fine actor who can’t seem to land the right role (“Dirty Sexy Money” crashed and burned awfully quick). Here, he’s in his element, playing a sympathetic dad. Nelson and Bedelia are just right as the cranky grandparents. And Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) is a welcome addition to any show.
It’s clear that this iteration of “Parenthood” tips the scales in favor of drama. So far we’ve got storylines about autism, drug use, infidelity, long-lost biracial sons, working mothers, stay-at-home fathers and boomerang kids. There are a few laughs, mind you, but not many. That’s not bad, per se; the show is definitely aiming for the trendy “dramedy” label. Still, a little more levity might be in order.
As with most ensemble cast, multi-storyline shows, some directions are better than others. Dax Shepard, for example, seems appropriately cast as a slacker man-child whose life is turned upside down by the unexpected introduction of a 6-year-old son he never knew about by an ex-girlfriend he never knew was pregnant. There are plenty of awkward father-son bonding moments to be had in this sudden reunion, but the storyline feels heavily manufactured. Why, exactly, would the mother hide this fact for six years and then drop out of the sky expecting some sort of “Leave It To Beaver” bond to materialize between bewildered father and oblivious son? How long can this “I don’t know how to raise a kid” schtick go on?
Reservations aside, the cast, crew and characters of this show feel like the sort of things that will grown on an audience. It may not be gourmet, but it’s definitely comfort food.