Shadley Grei thinks men should overlook the tear-stained stigma of NBC’s family drama and watch it actually explore the real struggles of modern men.
NBC’s Parenthood has a reputation for being a weepy family drama. If you check out the @nbcparenthood Twitter feed, there is no shortage of comments about the show’s ability to start the waterworks.
It’s true that every episode packs at least one emotional punch and some episodes manage to do so in between every commercial break. When it’s done well, that’s exactly what we expect from a show like this. It’s a show about family and love and conflict and the struggle for personal growth and understanding.
Doesn’t exactly sound like a testosterone rush, does it?
So how exactly can I proclaim that this cry factory would be the manliest show on television? Because I’m not talking about the stereotypical male alpha Neanderthal. I’m talking about men I relate to trying to become the same kind of man I want to be.
There are no guns or car chases. Nor are there serial killers, meth labs, Prohibition outlaws or zombies. Instead it delivers something else that feels rare in the current slate of television: characters that feel undeniably honest while also being the kind of people you’d like to find in your own life. The important distinction to make is that while Parenthood is definitely a drama, it’s not without humor and it’s also not a melodramatic soap opera that builds storylines on lies, deceit and backstabbing. Instead it takes an honest look at the everyday, cross-generational challenges that face aging parents, adult siblings and the relationships that create the tapestry of life.
I’m sure you’re still struggling to understand where exactly the “manliness” in all of this is found. Well, this is the revelation that struck me recently: Parenthood is the only show I can think of that has such a large number of male characters who get to be just as emotionally rich and complicated as their female counterparts without trading in their masculinity. These aren’t boys pretending to be grown-ups, these are men struggling to find their way.
There’s a lot of talk – and there should be – about the dearth of great roles for women in film and television. The imbalance is impossible to ignore. But while the male characters may be greater in number, a majority of them still support an antiquated definition of what it means to be a “real man.” There are great and powerful and rich roles but their emotional complexities are oftentimes expressed through anger, sex, violence, manipulation and coldness. Tears and vulnerability are signs of weakness and used as weapons.
This isn’t the case with the men of Parenthood. Between lead, supporting and reoccurring roles, the current season has more than 10 male characters that have all been allowed to be fragile without being portrayed as weak. They fight for their loved ones just as much as they argue with them. They get to be lonely and scared and arrogant and unsure and wrong and sexy and smart and stupid all at once. They push each other, not because they are trying to knock each other down but because they are trying to lift each other up.
A recent episode exemplifies what I’m talking about in regards to the male perspective Parenthood explores so richly. Actually, it’s not even the full episode – it’s a single scene.
The episode is titled “Just Like At Home” and the scene is between Adam (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter). They are sitting in a hot tub on a much-needed mini-vacation, sharing some sweet and sexy banter when Adam excuses himself. He heads into the cabin and sneaks a phone call. In a soap opera, this call would be to his mistress or drug dealer or henchman. But in Parenthood, Adam calls his sister for no other reason than he was worried about her because he knew she was having a tough time. No hidden agenda, just a caring man trying to balance the needs of his loving wife and the desire to be a good brother.
After the phone call, he returns to the woman that is not only his wife but his best friend and they resume their passionate and loving connection. And when he admits he had called his sister, she isn’t mad because she trusts her husband and knows that his motives are genuine and kind. She suggests they cut their vacation short so he can be there for other people in his life that need him just as much as she does.
This scene is small, but it isn’t simple. It’s emotionally complex in ways few shows allow characters to be, especially men. And this kind of scene isn’t rare for this show. It happens repeatedly in every episode with every character.
I have no idea why this show is overlooked during awards season. It’s easily some of the best writing, directing and acting you are going to find in any medium. Perhaps because it’s hard to recognize how much talent it takes to make something feel so real. We applaud big characters with big adversaries giving big speeches. Parenthood doesn’t shout because it doesn’t need to. Instead it shows us the brilliance and magic found in everyday, regular conversations.
If this family was real, you can bet your ass that I’d try to finagle my way into an invite to one of their meals where the wine and discussions are stretched out for hours under the setting sun on the gorgeous patio. Sure, they’re all a mess but it’s a mess that I can respect. They don’t want to be kings at all costs; they just want to be happy and they want the people they love to be equally happy.
Few shows on the air right now are about a family that you can believe in. Most of the drama being explored within family dynamics is found in the in-fighting. Sibling against sibling. Daughter against in-laws. Husband against wife. Parenthood takes the braver, more complicated path and looks at the ways that we hold tight to each other and stand side by side as we face the world together.
And by placing men in the middle of the tribe as equals, we get to see ourselves as we truly are: beautifully complicated in ways that can bring a tear to your eye.
Pass the wine, Bravermans.
Cheers to you.
You might also like: Fatherhood Shines on the Small Screen