'Parenthood' Season 4: Why The NBC Drama Can Do No Wrong, Despite Its Flaws

We don't remember the dialogue of "Parenthood," we remember the faces -- the patience, the sadness, the worry displayed on those knotted Braverman brows. The show earnestly, and quite often effectively, takes on a whole host of things that other shows do their best avoid.
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"Parenthood's" mid-season finale airs Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 10 p.m. EST on NBC, and I've been meant to write about it for a while. (I'm in a perpetual state of meaning to write about "Parenthood" and not doing it.)

I'll start things off with a personal anecdote that I think illustrates what's best about the show, and I'll try to get through this part without crying. Ha. That's like trying to get through an episode of "Parenthood" -- especially this season -- with dry eyes. It just won't happen.

Last March, on a ski vacation in Colorado, I was on a very large mountain, heading downhill and toward a restaurant where my husband and I planned to meet friends for lunch. I'm not a great skier, but I was doing pretty well that day ... though I was in the process of realizing I kind of just wanted to quit -- not just for the day, but maybe forever. I've never been that enthused about skiing; I do it because my husband and son love it and are great at it. People with good balance who like to go fast -- God bless you. I am not one of your kind.

We were only a few hundred yards from our destination when one of my legs went one way and the other leg strongly objected and went another way altogether. A very large sound cracked across the snowy landscape.

Once my body came to a stop, I looked down to see my right leg sticking out in a way I never want to see it sticking out again. I'd done a lot of bad things to my leg, we found out eventually (ACL destroyed, MCL half-destroyed, bone bruise, etc). I didn't know the specifics in the moment; I just howled like an animal. There was no shame in the howling, because agony destroys the possibility of shame. I'd compare it to the pain of childbirth, but I don't know anyone who's given birth at 8,000 feet with her face mashed into snow.

Finally, my husband got my skis off my legs and I slowly rolled on to my side. In those moments in which I could speak, I told my husband that after the Ski Patrol took me away, he should pick up our son from ski school and stay on the mountain. What would be the point of both of us spending hours and hours in the emergency room?

My husband isn't big on what are considered romantic gestures; most of the time, he experiences major panic when he's trying to figure out what gift to buy me and he's never really gone the roses-and-chocolates route for any holiday or birthday. But now that I've been married a dozen years, I want to tell anyone on the dating scene that they should look for someone who will hold your puke bucket after surgery and who will do a thousand little errands for you when you're cranky and unable to move. Most of all, look for someone who will immediately scoff at the suggestion of leaving you in the hands of strangers when you're at your most vulnerable.

I won't repeat exactly what Dave said to me that day, but those short, declarative sentences were the most romantic things he's ever said.

He stayed with me during the long, painful procedure of getting me into a litter towed by a Ski Patrol snowmobile, he followed us down the mountain, he got our son from ski school and handed him off to our friends, he followed me to the emergency room and he sat there with me for hours. He helped me get on the flight home, he showed endless patience when I had knee surgery two months later, and he covered for me in a million ways during seven months of physical therapy.

I was not always at my best when I was recovering from all that. We'd like to think pain and sickness make us more noble and admirable (like Julia Roberts in one of those movies where she dies), but most often, crises of any kind just stress us out. My long knee nightmare often made me angry (how dare doctors say I couldn't work out or do everything I normally do? Wrong!). As the hard times (ideally) hone us into more patient, giving and caring people, they also put big spotlights on our flaws. And if you're family, you don't let the existence of those flaws stop you from holding someone's hand when they just can't take any more.

"Parenthood" gets all that. And that's what makes us cry -- the show's constant celebration of the way people persevere and try not to give in to their least generous instincts. Sometimes these people fail, sometimes they're petty or selfish or stubborn, but it's the desire to do better that we relate to.

"Parenthood" is one of the chattiest shows on TV -- the Bravermans' overlapping conversations are one of the drama's signatures -- but often the best moments involve silence: Think of Adam Braverman looking at his wife, Kristina, who has been fighting breast cancer, as she slept, or think of both their faces the first time she got chemotherapy. Recall Crosby's face as he sat in a bar, listening to a frantic Adam unload the stress and fear he's been holding in. Think of Kristina's face when she danced with her son, Max, and wondered how many more times she'd get to do that in her life.

We don't remember the dialogue of "Parenthood," we remember the faces -- the patience, the sadness, the worry displayed on those knotted Braverman brows. It's impossible not to relate to those feelings of helplessness and tenderness, and often, when we're already feeling misty, Mae Whitman's Amber comes along, and with one wrinkle of her forehead, she destroys whatever defenses we had left.

And that's why we endure the parts of the show that feel a whole lot less interesting than Kristina's cancer battle and her attempts to be a good mother and take care of herself for once. Though I've loved Ray Romano on the show, it's hard to care as much about Sarah's impulsivity and self-deception, though Lauren Graham's skill at tempering those qualities is undeniable.

Crosby's parking dispute with one of the recording studio's neighbors was typical of "Parenthood's" laundry-folding storylines: Pamela Adlon's villainous neighbor had to veer near cartoonishness in order to tidily wrap up that story within the hour. But many of the slightly-too-slick storylines offer good moments: I may not believe that Max Braverman would have won the student council election that easily, but Haddie's coaching of her brother was a sweet and understated moment, and that storyline has been yet another instance of the show respectfully and honestly portraying the multiple facets of Max's Asperger syndrome.

Since the show began, it's struggled to create consistently good stories for Sam and Julia, and even now, I have little sense of the personality of their adopted son, Victor. The show has so many characters to keep track of that not all of them are memorable and not all of them get interesting things to do.

But "Parenthood" is an hourlong broadcast network drama that earnestly, and quite often effectively, takes on a whole host of things that other shows do their best avoid. Raising a kid with Asperger, dealing with the trauma of having been to war, adopting a child, battling cancer -- "Parenthood" is admirable for even trying to take on these things, and NBC is to be commended for keeping this genuine and thoughtful show on the air.

Sometimes programs stay on the air long enough to allow you to admit a mistake, and I'm grateful for that too. When "Parenthood" began, I wondered if Monica Potter, who often plays high-strung characters, would be too much for me to take. Good God, the woman has slain me during every single episode this season. One of the things I've most strongly related to is the idea that it's hard to let go and be taken care of. I was so relieved Dave didn't let me go to that Colorado hospital alone, but I'm fully aware of how much I've had to rely on him and everyone else around me for nearly a year. It's humbling.

Potter has shown just how hard it is for Kristina to accept how much help she needs and how awful her situation is, and both Potter and Krause have done career-best work as Adam and Kristina reaffirmed their bond during this unpredictable cancer shitstorm. If you've ever had a relative with a serious medical condition, you know how accurately the cast has portrayed the sadness, terror and heartbreaking love that are inescapable parts of those situations. Not knowing what's coming next makes everything more intense, and Krause and Potter have paid tribute to that intensity but not with showy performances; they've both been models of subtlety and truthfulness.

I will admit to half-paying attention during "Parenthood's" more meandering or lightweight storylines, and I'll admit that I've often let episodes pile up on my DVR; sometimes I want an escape from, rather than a reflection of, my own life. But when I catch up with the Braverman chronicles, I end up glad I've done so: When it's firing on all cylinders, no show on television is more humane or emotionally resonant.

"Parenthood" reminds us how tough it is to care about other people, and why, if we're lucky, we can't stop ourselves from doing so.

My colleague Jamie Etkin recently interviewed Max Burkholder and Peter Krause; look here for those interviews later Monday and Tuesday.

"Parenthood" airs 10 p.m. EST Tuesdays on NBC.

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