Parenthood and the Road to Hate Watching

NBC's Parenthood

The road to hate watching is paved with good intentions.

One of the biggest challenges I faced with being married and becoming a first time Dad was how my time was distributed. I was used to freedom, but for the better things in life you have to make sacrifices. For me one of those sacrifices was my independence as a television watcher. Instead I would be sharing my viewing experience with my wife. So long to the shows of watching shows full of violence, and crime and hello to watching shows that we both would find interest in.

After throwing a multitude of options out there we eventually went for an outside opinion. Thanks to the Babycenter forums we decided on NBC’s Parenthood, a show about an extended family, the Bravermans, from Berkeley, California. It came with high recommendations for the show’s quality and it’s propensity to cause viewers to cry.

Within the first few minutes of the pilot you’re dropped into what the show does so well and that’s not stopping to explain things. The initial hook for me was the story of Adam Braverman (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) as they struggle through learning their son Max (Max Burkholder) has Asperger’s Syndrome. There other storylines that run through the first season, but this is the touchstone that everything is built off of. Adam being the most stable of Zeek’s (Craig T. Nelson) children now has to struggle through this thing which defines him. Adam and Kristina want their son to be “normal,” and throw everything into him while ignoring their oldest child Haddie (Sarah Ramos).

Like everything with Parenthood, what starts off as engaging slowly becomes toxic. As the show goes on Max’s rarely (mostly never) receives punishment for his outbursts. Instead these parents want the rest of the world to change. There is a moment in the second season where Max starts an incident in the grocery store that results in Adam punching a man. What could have been a teaching moment for his son turned into Adam acting out in anger and not getting any punishment for it.

What that veneer of pleasantry fades we are left with the privilege and entitlement of an upper middle class white family. As a black male this immediately becomes something that disconnects me from the show. It unveils how many of these characters I truly didn’t like, and unlike Breaking Bad these characters were supposed to be people we loved. Yet as my wife and I watched we found ourselves discussing how each character were borderline reprehensible.

When Crosby (Dax Shepard) decides to sleep with, Max’s behavioral aide, Gaby (Minka Kelly) while he is separated from his ex-fiance Jasmine (Joy Bryant) he is shamed. He tries to win her back by buying a house and doing other ridiculous things. Flash forward a season (or so later) and he sleeps with Jasmine after discussing with their son Jabar (Tyree Brown) that they weren’t going to get married. Jasmine equates this affair with what Crosby did to her because she’s cheating on Dr. Joe (D.B. Woodside). This completely lets Crosby off the hook in a scene where he tells Jasmine that he’s not as good as Dr. Joe.

Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) and her husband Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger) decide that they want to have another child. After several attempts they discover that Julia can’t give birth naturally. So through a series of contrived events they end up in a situation where the “coffee girl” Zoe (Rosa Salazar) at Julia’s job is pregnant and willing to give her child up to the Grahams. This is until her boyfriend gets involved, having been broke all their lives he wants some financial reward because he sees the transaction as being one sided. Apologetic for the encounter Zoe comes to Graham residence only to be told by Julia that “she would have made a great mother” to Zoe’s child.

Yet these are the characters we’re supposed to root for. This is without going into detail about Sarah’s consistent enablement, or Zeek’s old entitlement and need for his children to support him. What at first seemed like a group I characters that I loved being around turned into a pack of characters I couldn’t wait to see something bad happen to. That switch was why I had to stop watching on episode 12 of season 3. It was too hard to watch something that I actively hated.

I hated how things tended to work out for the Bravermans. Adam lost his job as an executive at a shoe company to turning down a steady job with benefits to join Crosby in his pipe dream of running a studio. The studio needed tons of work but within a few weeks (or a month) they managed to attract Cee-Lo Green. What made that turn worse was Cee-Lo, who left upset after the first day, returned happily to record the very next day. It was a moment that was meant to pull at our sentimental heart strings but instead it was contrived.

This past weekend while on a playdate, I talked with a friend who stated the secret for his getting through Parenthood was to stop watching like himself (a black man) and watch like the target audience. This, I must admit, is a skill I don’t (and probably will never) have. I wanted to know if others felt like I did and before Saturday, I couldn’t find anyone. Google search after Google search resulted in love fests and I didn’t know what to think.

My wife, at one point, believed that I needed to see characters die or commit crimes to enjoy a show. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t even need tragedy. I need characters I can believe (whether I like them or not) and a reason to care and be invested in their lives. An example of this is Men of a Certain Age (not streaming anywhere, but find it!), a show about three men approaching 50 and dealing with their changing lives. What that show did that Parenthood didn’t was give us moments that were earned (good, and bad), reasons to care, and examples of how faults can force characters to improve or how they can cause them to suffer. All I ask for is quality, and I don’t think that’s too much.