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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Parenthood Is NBC's Lovingly Absurd Take on East Bay Life

Posted By on Tue, Nov 22, 2011 at 8:00 AM

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Jason Katims' Parenthood -- now in its third season -- is well-written, well-acted, and achieves a goal once thought impossible in making the presence of Dax Shepard tolerable.

A spin-off of the 1989 Steve Martin film of the same name, the series follows the extended Braverman clan of Berkeley, led by patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), matriarch Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) and grown children Adam (Peter Krause), Sarah (Lauren Graham), Crosby (Shepard) and Julia (Erika Christensen). While prior seasons' canned, location-setting dialogue -- i.e., "Let's take the bridge over to San Francisco!" -- have since eased off, the lovable missteps in describing the Bravermans' milieu keep me, as an East Bay resident, chuckling in between being sincerely engrossed in the show.

As of the 2010 Census, Berkeley is roughly 60 percent white and 19 percent Asian, while black and Latino populations each claim about 10 percent of the city's makeup. In summation, it has more white people per capita than Oakland or San Francisco but isn't lacking in people of color either. This SFGate article (which incidentally talks about how the radical spirit of Berkeley has aged out) states that 12 percent of Berkeley's residents are 65 or older and the median home price is $607,000.

While I was initially miffed at the intermittent splashes of color for a show based in the Bay Area, (an Asian here, an African American there) the relative affluence of the Bravermans and the city's demographics perhaps aren't so far off. These are probably the very folks you run into at REI or Berkeley Bowl. And the show does have two main characters of color: Jasmine (Joy Bryant) and Jabbar (Tyree Brown).

However, the show could perhaps think more critically about their recurring roles featuring people of color. Michael B. Jordan's extended role as a formerly homeless, recovering alcoholic black man from Oakland was a paragon of wholesomeness with an unjustified and undying love for the Braverman family. This season's recurring Person of Color (Rosa Salazar's Zoe) is a sweetly caustic pregnant young Latina who is taken under the wing of Julia because she doesn't have much of a support network ... and because she's agreed to give the caring, infertile white lady her baby. And though many may be used to yelling, "Get a job, hippie!" whilst in Berkeley, perhaps someone should direct that message to some of the Bravermans. Julia's husband Joel is a stay-at-home-dad (she is pulling in a lawyer income), and despite a storyline involving patriarch Zeek's financial troubles in the first season, he and his wife Camille seem to be living pretty comfortably as retirees who also have to support their adult daughter Sarah and grandkids Amber and Drew. Sarah was intermittently a bartender and a design intern but has seemingly given up all employment to be a playwright. Amber (Mae Whitman), a recent high school grad who was rejected from Cal, is a part-time barista. I say "part-time" because there are just way too many scenes of her lounging around the (albeit grungy) warehouse apartment she rents by herself to have a full-time work schedule. I keep asking myself, "Even if she's living in a low-income neighborhood in Oakland, how'd she have deposit money? And a credit report? Girlfriend just got herself an apartment without any help!" Even Crosby, a studio recording tech who used to live on a boat, is able to purchase a home in Berkeley during a misguided attempt at winning back his lady. Yes, he bought a house in the Bay Area on a romantic whim. After losing his job at a footwear company, Adam stays at home while his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) shifts from homemaker to part-time employee on a political campaign. With savings drying up, he declines a lower-paying job offer to start a recording studio with Crosby. Sounds like the worst idea ever, right? Not so. Because international superstar of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley fame Cee-lo Green just happens to want to record some songs at their completely unknown studio... These might sound like snarky criticisms but beneath the rant lies love. Despite the fallacies in the details, I enjoy Parenthood because the performances are done so well. The family tension narratives are refreshing and familiar at the same time even in the somewhat fantastical iteration of the Bay Area that the Bravermans inhabit. Parenthood airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
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Sylvie Kim

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