Guest Post written by Allison M.
In a post on Salon today, Neil Drumming argues that although Parenthood “is easily one of the most moving and enjoyable dramas on television today. . . . over the course of five seasons, the show has evinced a particularly staunch opinion about what exactly a strong family entails. That’s a little disappointing being that there are so many alternative permutations of family in this country.” Parenthood, the post’s subheading declares, “espouses some of television’s most conservative ideas.” HMMMMM. An interesting idea? Yes. Selectively argued? Yes. Correct? I’d like to take exception.
If this is a conversation that is really about class issues or the show’s representation of LGBTQ parents, then it’s one worth having, as the show often flounders on both these fronts. Having Sarah pay the advertising piper by supposedly impulse-purchasing several Cuisinart products during a bout of retail therapy in a recent episode, for example, was out of step for her working class character, and a throwaway mention of Jenson’s two mommies (episode 310) surely doesn’t do justice to Berkeley’s LGBTQ community. It’s also worth exploring whether the show leans too hard, sometimes, into a patriarchal framework. There are often wonderful moments in which this framework is recognized and dismissed, as when Zeek explains to Jasmine that he only takes the Braverman grandsons on a rite-of-passage camping trip and she responds by scoffing, “That is sexist and absurd.” On at least two occasions, Crosby and Adam have reprimanded Zeek for asking them who wears the pants in their respective families. Indeed, Zeek is often treated as a kind of crusty, if lovable, relic of the past: he can get away with going over to Joel’s depressingly beige single man apartment to discuss that time he “gave” Julia’s hand in marriage to his son-in-law because he is so clearly of another era. It’s the younger Adam whose ruminations on his role as provider and protector can veer too far into Leave It To Beaver territory.
But if the issue at hand is the representation of family on Parenthood, as I understand it to be, then I have to offer another perspective. More than perhaps any show other than the Gilmore Girls, Parenthood offers a multifaceted, nuanced look at what it means to be raised in a single parent home. It does a better job, in fact, because it gives us two examples: the Holts and the Trussells. On Gilmore Girls, Rory and her mother were best friends; Parenthood, on the other hand, shows us the particular dynamic that develops between siblings when they negotiate—together—the (sometimes tricky) landscape created by their divorced parents. There’s a great moment on Parenthood when Haddie stops by her father’s office to complain about the driving lessons Kristina is giving her. She attempts an imitation of her mother and is frustrated when Adam won’t acknowledge its truthfulness. Two-parent families do this: the kids can poke fun at one parent’s flaws in a harmless way, or even vent about him or her. One-parent families, on the other hand, typically don’t do this: one parent’s flaws may be a source of contention or sensitivity, and often aren’t so easily discussed. Although Amber and Drew fight, especially in earlier seasons, they also have a bond unlike that of other siblings on the show. In season two, after their father, Seth, fails to live up to a promise he made, Amber goes to Drew’s room: “We’ll always have Mom,” she jokes wryly. “But seriously. We’ll always have each other, ok?”
Similarly, Jasmine has a hard time explaining to Crosby exactly why she doesn’t like fighting with her mother, Renee, who raised Jasmine and her brother on her own, without help. Her sacrifices outweigh any criticisms Jasmine might have of her somewhat meddlesome or opinionated ways. Are Renee and Sarah vilified or pitied for their positions as single mothers? Does the show suggest that their children are lacking in moral fortitude because they come from single parent homes, as would some conservative worldviews? No. Sarah worries about not providing Drew with a male role model—a concern that led to a rewarding storyline about Adam stepping in to fill Seth’s absented shoes—or Amber with opportunities she might be able to if she were more financially comfortable. But merely exploring such concerns is surely not the same as privileging or glorifying a traditionalist worldview.
So, certainly: at the core of the show is a nuclear family (albeit one that has been fractured by infidelity, on the part of both Zeek and Camille, as well as Camille’s intense dissatisfaction with her decades-long role as an old-school homemaker). But it has also, as did Friday Night Lights before it, depicted an abortion—a rarity on network television. It has had a meaningful conversation about the n-word, and how to handle that conversation in a mixed race family. It has explored Julia’s guilt over being a working mother, then her lack of fulfillment in the role of stay-at-home mother, and her anxieties over being an adoptive parent. It has also flipped over the family tree and looked at the worms underneath: how do you have an honest conversation with your kids about the hereditary nature of alcoholism and drug addiction?
So while I agree that there are an awful lot of white people on the show, and that everyone’s house is just a liiiitle too nice, and that it wouldn’t have been too difficult to cast the Lessings, say, as a gay couple instead of a couple of wacky heteronormative speed-walkers, I will say that I appreciate the bond between siblings that Parenthood shows. I appreciate that not everyone in the family is a professional, in a televisual topography that generally portrays families as uniformly filled with either lawyers or Duck Dynasty cast members. And I respectfully disagree that marriage is presented as the ultimate initiation into Responsible Adult Life. If anything, the show seems to argue in favor of kindness: Show up. Do your part. Forgive the ones you love (within reason). Family is what you make it.