Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spotlight: The Kids on Parenthood

There is no doubt in my mind: Parenthood is one of the best dramas currently on TV today. Impeccably crafted by the master behind the *other* best drama, Friday Night Lights (Jason Katims), Parenthood is a criminally underseen series about parents, children, and everyone in between.

Katims and his writing crew manage to juggle a bevy of characters with such grace and finesse. The first season had a problem of balancing everyone out -- those initial episodes were uneven and unfocused. Once season two began, the crew had figured it out. They found that magical solution that makes the show flow effortlessly.

In addition to the writers creating realistic and true-to-life story lines, the actors bring their own weight and class to the characters we have come to know as the Bravermans. Heading the clan are the perfectly matched veterans Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia as Zeek and Camille. Their four children, Adam, Sarah, Crosby and Julia, are embodied by a terrific quartet of actors: Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard and Erika Christensen, respectively. This season, which concluded last month, gave us the sense that these six characters are a real family. They are very well-complemented by their respective spouses: Kristina (Monica Potter), Jasmine (Joy Bryant), Joel (Sam Jaeger).

Now, I can fill this whole post with words about how wonderful these actors are. But I'll hold back because I must single out the kids.

When the kids aren't onscreen, Parenthood is a very good show. But when they are on, it reaches a whole new level of greatness. Tears are shed. Hearts are breaking. The writers are very adept at utilizing these kid actors. These youngsters can handle some weighty, difficult material just as well as their adult counterparts.

Haddie Braverman (Sarah Ramos) is the daughter of Adam and Kristina. She is going through changes that all 16-year-old girls go through. Haddie had a fantastic arc this season involving a new boyfriend that her parents aren't too sure about. Alex (Michael B. Jordan, a welcome transfer from Friday Night Lights) is 21, in A.A., has his own apartment. Oh, and he's black. Of course, her parents refuse her to see him, despite Alex being honest and forthcoming to Adam and Kristina about his past and his intentions with Haddie. You think you know where this story is going, but it takes some surprising and heartbreaking turns. Ramos is fantastic as Haddie, the most compelling teenage girl on television since Angela Chase from My So-Called Life.

Haddie's younger brother is Max (Max Burkholder), who has Asperger's. Adam and Kristina have their hands full with Max. As any parent with an Asperger's kid knows, you are on edge during every waking moment, unsure when your child will be going off the rails. This season, Adam and Kristina learned more about Asperger's and how to cope living with a child who has it. They hid the disorder from young Max, but towards the end of this season, Max finally learned the truth about himself. Burkholder finds the perfect balance of being a 8-year-old boy with a wide-eyed sense of wonder and a kid with a behavioral disorder. It's a delicate performance by a charming young actor.

Amber (Mae Whitman) is Sarah's daughter, the same age as Haddie. Amber is edgy and rebellious and has some unresolved issues with her father (played by John Corbett in a terrific arc this season). When she doesn't get into the college of her choice, she dips into a spiral of anger and self-pity. Whitman is achingly good in this role and the writers fill her words with eloquence and stunning clarity. With her cropped hair, dark-framed glasses and short stature, she's at once beautiful and poignant. In a word: she's adorable.

Amber's younger brother is Drew (Miles Heizer), a young teen in dire need of a father figure. He tries to lean on his Uncle Adam, but Adam's got a chaotic family of his own. Uncle Crosby, as hard as he may try, is not quite fit to be a father just yet. So Drew leans on Grandpa Zeek. The two form a sweet bond that I wish had more screen time. The chemistry between these two is palpable and I hope the writers have a chance to explore this relationship next season.

Joel and Julia have a 5 year old daughter named Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae), while Jasmine and Crosby have a young son named Jabbar (Tyree Brown). Needless to say, these youngsters do not have nearly as much screen time as the rest of the clan, but they are distinctive enough to make a presence.

As of this writing, Parenthood has not yet been renewed for a third season, but the chances are pretty good. It's not a runaway hit in the ratings, but NBC needs a critical darling that could possibly lead the charge during awards season.

So seek out Parenthood. You may be drawn to the big names of the show, but you'll be pleasantly surprised when the younger stars are the ones who steal your heart.

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