There’s a big difference between character “evolution” and character assassination. If you spend enough time with a character on any given show, you’ll hope to see them change and grow as the seasons go on. That’s evolution. That’s growth. Character assassination, on the other hand, is when a character “grows” in either a wholly unbelievable direction or, even if it is believable, the show doesn’t do the required work to get us there. We need to see the change occur incrementally and over time under recognizable and relatable circumstances. (Even in an unrelatable world of sci-fi/fantasy. See: Stark, Arya. Very understandable.)
The best example of this kind of incremental, believable change, in fact, was recently executed by Breaking Bad over five extraordinary seasons. Can we believe that a man could go from mild-mannered teacher to cold, calculating, bombastic bastard in under a year of his own life? I don’t know about you, but I believed. The opposite is true of the disappointing way in which The Office bungled the Jim and Pam storyline in its ninth and last season. They were out of dramatic ideas, it seems, so they conjured strife where there was none and, in the process, (briefly) turned Jim into a complete bastard. That’s not what you do with your romantic lead at the last minute. If that’s a story you want to spin out slowly over nine years, then have at it. That’s an interesting story to tell. But the end of series reversal of all the traits we’d come to know and love in Jim was just heartbreaking to watch. It’s fine for a marriage to go through rough periods. It’s absolutely good and honest storytelling to show a relationship (even between two lovely people) on the rocks. But you can’t cheat your way into that story by having one character change his personality completely.
And that brings us to Parenthood.Once one of my favorite shows on television, the show has lost a little bit of steam over the past few years. That’s okay. That’s to be expected. Some shows just don’t have five seasons in them. And given that the theme of Parenthood (beyond being a parent) is one of adult relationships and how we navigate them, it’s not surprising that we’ve run across a few infidelity plots over the seasons. It is surprising, however, that all four major adult relationships have been wrung through one. Jasmine and Crosby? Yep. Zeke and Camille? Sure. Even Adam and Kristina. It was brief, but it happened. Last night the last couple, Joel and Julia, entered into their own infidelity plot. They’ve been dancing around it all season-long and I was hoping it was going to be one big make out fake out. But it wasn’t. I would be less resentful if the show had gotten there organically. But they got there by, once again, turning the nice guy who gets embroiled in his career into a completely unrecognizable asshole. When Joel blew right past his weeping wife in the hallway three weeks ago I nearly threw a shoe at the TV. That’s not Joel. That’s not ANY version of Joel. Bad form, show. Very bad form. The preview for the next episode shows Joel punching people out. Does that sound right to you? Didn’t think so. How did we get here?