A new generation of family ties

by Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

'Parenthood' photo provided by NBC.

There’s something to be said for sticking with your gut when you’ve got a winning formula on your hands. There’s something completely different to be said for stabbing your competition in the gut, stealing his winning formula and running for the hills.

If this spring’s new family drama “Parenthood” (NBC Tuesdays at 10/9c) feels altogether familiar in more than one way, that’s because, well, it is. Inspired directly by Ron Howard’s 1989 movie, “Parenthood” has also drawn heavy comparisons to ABC’s Sunday primetime standby “Brothers and Sisters,” now in it’s fourth season. While the Walker family of California notoriety looks to a sassy Sally Field for its dose of unwanted motherly influence, the new “Parent” on the block is a bull-headed but well-meaning patriarch played by the Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson.

The endearing combination of family togetherness and sibling rivalry that has earned “Brothers” seven Emmy nominations, including one “Best Actress” win for Field, seems to be missing from the new drama, which focuses more on the second generation children than their thirty-something parents. Lauren Graham makes a sudden return to the small screen as Sarah after Maura Tierney, who was originally cast in the slot, pulled herself out of the show to battle breast cancer. Tierney’s unexpected diagnosis caused network execs to pull the show from their fall lineup and re-shoot several episodes with Graham (who enjoyed much better writers in her “Gilmore Girls” days) stepping in place.

Now nine episodes into their opening run, “Parenthood” has already dragged the viewers along through the discovery of a new son, grown daughter Sarah (Graham) moving back in with her parents and fistfuls of teenage angst as three grandchildren enter the high school ring. Often the only saving grace in this show appears in the form of Max (Max Burkholder), one of the youngest members of the Braverman clan who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the show’s pilot. Despite the embarrassment of this older sister Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and the chagrin of his parents Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter), Max wants nothing more than to wear his pirate costume to school every day and play baseball with his cousin Drew (Miles Heizer) at night. Max’s socially inept nature makes him so refreshingly unaware of his own eccentricities that the rest of his family comes off as flat and guarded.

Another point of frustration in this parenting nightmare is the fact that it’s impossible to keep the relationships straight. While the siblings on  “Brothers and Sisters” have an established rapport with one another that distinguishes them from their spouses, viewers of “Parenthood” need a certified road map to recall whether in fact it’s Adam or Kristina who is related to the clan as well as which interchangeable child belongs to which branch of the family tree.

For all its positive attributes, however, “Brothers and Sisters” still has not reclaimed the holding power it enjoyed three seasons ago. Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths, Matthew Rhys and Dave Annable still bring a believable and enjoyable presence to the show each week as four of the Walker siblings. Though they fight like cats and dogs for forty-five minutes at a time, the family invariably ends up sitting around their mother’s dining room table at the end of the night, sharing a glass of wine from the family vineyard to toast averting another crisis. The first season or two of this robust drama provided the plot twists of a telenovela but delivered them in a polished, witty and (generally) logical way. The latest episodes, however, have shown us a magical cure for cancer, a green card that arrives just in the nick of time and job offer for Senator McCallister (Rob Lowe) just vague enough for writers to give Lowe an easy exit when plans for him to join the cast of “Parks and Recreation” become final.

If all of this heavy drama is weighing viewers down, have no fear: at least there’s one “Modern Family” (ABC, Wednesdays 9/8c) in town. Or, as the show’s tagline says, “one big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.” Perhaps hoping to spice up its midweek lineup, ABC has essentially taken “Brothers and Sisters” and broken it down to a snappier, spicier, showier version. Instead of an aloof, gay, lawyer for a brother, we have Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who makes Liberace’s costume designer look reserved. Instead of an upstanding senator for a brother-in-law, we have Phil (Ty Burrell), who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old and recently spent the entire half-hour slot playing with his trendy new iPad.

Standing at the head of this comedy of errors is retiree Jay (Ed O’Neill) who recently married trophy wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and took on her chipmunk-cheeked, preteen son as his second shot at being a father.

The thing that makes “Modern Family” a show worth returning to next week is not the star power of O’Neill as was originally anticipated, but the continually surprising and genuinely funny performances of supporting cast members. In a move that’s got even “Glee” starlets thinking twice about pre-written acceptance speeches, the entire cast of “Modern Family” (including O’Neill) has just announced their plans to enter the Emmy race in supporting categories.

The truly ensemble spirit of the show shines through in a way that makes even the most degenerate cousin consider attending his family reunion after all.