As far as realistic, human emotional drama goes, the two best shows on television right now are “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights.” Both shows have several things in common: They are both produced by the same man, Jason Katims; they both deal with good, well-meaning people trying to make the right decisions; they both revolve around loving, supportive families; and both shows consistently make me want to be a better person.
I can’t say that about any other show on television.
Both shows are grounded in real, natural drama, and for the most part eschew soap-opera dramatics (putting aside the first half of the second season of “Friday Night Lights”). Everything feels earnest and real in their particular universes, and both can extract deep emotional angst out of the smallest narrative turns.
“Parenthood,” now in its second season, has come a long ways since its crowd-pleasing but somewhat contrived pilot episode. The left-field subplot — that of Dax Shepard discovering that he has a five-year-old child he never knew about — has come on to be one of the strongest narratives in the show, thanks in part to Dax Shepard’s masterful take on his character, Crosby Braverman, who has had a remarkable coming-of-age series-long arc from the irresponsible womanizer to a man maturing into a loving father and soon-to-be-husband. It’s been a delight to watch Crosby’s transformation, from the initial news about having a son to falling completely in love with the kid (he’s supremely cute; it’d be hard not to), all the while coming to grips with the abrupt loss of his own independence — he’s scared of becoming the typical suburban Dad like his older brother, but there’s also something compelling about the security of that, of a wife and family, and Crosby credibly maintains a sense of cautious enthusiasm for it.
Peter Krause’s Adam Braverman anchors the show — he’s the go to guy for everyone in the family that has a problem, but he’s also dealing with his own, namely a shoe company that’s downsizing and a son with Asperger’s. And just when I think they’ve exhausted the Asperger’s plotline, they find a new wrinkle to explore every bit as powerfully as the one before. In a recent episode, Adam punched a stranger at a supermarket for calling his child a “retard,” an over-the-top development that Katims credibly managed to pull back and ground naturalistically — Adam seldom has any control over his life anymore, and his impulsive decision to lay out the man for insulting his son allowed him a small sense of control over his life. He can’t save the employees he had to fire; he can’t control his son’s Asperger’s, but by God, he can deck the fucker who called his son a retard.
What’s great about the smörgåsbord of characters on “Parenthood” is that if you don’t identify with one character, there’s likely to be another one with which you will. The Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia (Erika Christensen) relationship has consistently been the part of “Parenthood” that hits me the hardest. As young parents, Julia — a high-powered attorney — has to contend with the fact that her job keeps her from parenting as much as she’d like and the agony of missing out on certain parenting decisions, while Joel has to deal with the emasculating effects of having to take up the slack and the loss of his own identity. There’s a constant push and pull between these two and the compromises aren’t easy for either person. Their relationship roles are playing out now in their decision about whether to have a second child, which would likely mean Joel putting his career on hold for a few more years, a gender-reversal from just five or ten years before. I’d speak about this subplot more, but my wife’s in court and I have to go make my kid’s lunch.
If there’s a weakness in “Parenthood,” it’s the Lauren Graham character, Sarah; not because Graham plays the character poorly, but because she’s the 40-year-old Mom who consistently makes the wrong decisions. She’s nearly as frustrating as Adam’s wife, Kristina (Monica Potter), who — while supportive and loving — doesn’t seem to ever fully realize how fucking amazing her husband is. Sarah is frustrating because she’s being raised by her teenage children more than the other way around, and the friendship she has with her daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) often gets in the way of being an effective mother.
Overall, it’s the smaller moments that bring out the best in “Parenthood,” like Haddie clutching a doll while listening to her little brother talk during a sleepover in his room, or the moment where Crosby realizes he wants to marry Jasmine while eating cheese-fries. And while each episode tends to start out rocky, Jason Katims manages to tease out all the smaller emotional moments from a bigger event, and by the end of each episode, you find yourself wanting to crawl in your child’s bed and somehow prevent time from advancing. “Parenthood” manages, week to week, to highlight the earnest difficulties of parenting, while making you appreciate what a monumental and joyous experience it is.
“Friday Night Lights,” currently in its fifth and final season, has played on many of the same themes over the course of the series. The marriage between Coach and Tami Taylor, in fact, seems to be the spiritual inspiration for “Parenthood.” There is no better married couple on television, past or present, than these two, the way they come together, support one another, while allowing themselves the freedom to pursue their own lives separately. They run a clinic on parenting, and on what it means to love, support, and compromise, and they accomplish this without ever devolving into melodrama — Coach Taylor has never wept, for instance, but you feel his pain, his wounded pride, his loss, in every clenched jaw.
But aside from the relationship dynamic between Coach and Tami, “Friday Night Lights” is mostly about manhood, about what it means to be a man. Coach hits upon this theme with his players nearly every week, and it’s never about being a masculine ideal. It’s about taking responsibility. It’s about striving. It’s about being a better person. But mostly, it’s about understanding their deeper sensitive identities away from the football field. Coach stresses character, and the character — as Coach said in a recent episode — is not in the being, it’s in the trying. He doesn’t expect perfection, but he expects his players to strive for perfection, and as long as there is an earnest effort, they are forgiven for falling short. And lately, it’s Tami that’s taken up this same mantle for the female students of East Dillon High, and she’s trying to transform them from slutty drunks and soon-to-be dropouts into viable candidates for college and, more importantly, good people.
In the end, that’s what “Friday Night Lights” is really about. It’s not about football or religion or dealing with the deep-rooted issues of the South. It’s about being a good person, and week after week, Coach and Tami Taylor mold the people around them into better people while learning from their own shortcomings and becoming better people themselves. There’s nothing on this show more powerful than hearing one of those two say to someone else, “I’m proud of you.” It’s a small gesture, but it’s hard-earned, and coming from two character with whom we have so much respect, it means everything in the world. That’s why, at the end of each episode, I want to be a better person because, though he’s only a character on a low-rated television show, I find myself wanting to live the sort of life that would make Coach Taylor proud.