A few weeks ago, just before the Fall TV season started, several news outlets published articles decrying the number of new shows that were showcasing the same thing: male doofusry. Emasculated, unemployed, clueless and/or sequestered behind walls of Draper-inspired misogyny or nostalgia, the American male did not appear to be doing so well, at least not according to the networks. The Mancession had made it to the small screen. Now that a couple of the shows in question have fallen on their faces, as the cancellation of How to be a Gentleman and The Playboy Club would attest, one has to wonder whether the whole thing was invented, or at least trumped up, by a clandestine group of, you know, Mad Men…
Of course, the doofus Dad archetype has been a fixture of American television for more than 20 years now, since before Al Bundy had a son-in-law named Phil Dunphy, or Homer Simpson spawned Peter Griffin. (Note: Phil doesn’t quite fit the one-dimensional mold – he’s more of a Huxtable or Barone, i.e. half child, half sage). All characters which have brought us some undeniably great laughs over the years. These guys haven’t been without their counterparts on the opposite side of the macho spectrum: the Tony Sopranos and Archie Bunkers, Walter Whites and Bill Henricksons. But there’s been precious little in between when it comes to father roles. It’s either buffoon or badass.
Enter Jason Katims. We’ve made a lot of our admiration for Coach Eric Taylor on this site. Katims and Peter Berg crafted a character on Friday Night Lights who doesn’t fall into any of the typical male caricatures. He’s neither superhero, criminal, or clown. He’s got his shortcomings for sure, but he also appears to be, for lack of a better word, a grown-up. Plus, he’s married to a self-possessed woman who seems to love and – gasp! – respect him, without idealizing or fearing him. Their power-dynamic seems relatively sane – their marriage more often than not a genuine partnership (rather than a competition or outright battle).
Then, in 2010 Katims brought us another memorable father, Adam Braverman on Parenthood. Played by reliably great everyman Peter Krause, he represents the heart of a show that has a lot of heart. If you were being lazy, you might characterize Adam as a blue-state version of Coach Taylor. Yet Adam is very much his own guy, full of quirks and foibles and bad dance moves, yet unmistakably grounded, both morally and emotionally. He’s an all-too-human man trying to do right by his family, negotiating life’s curveballs with real courage, while not immune to fear and impatience – alongside his wonderful, no-shrinking-violet of a wife Kristina.
There’s not much religion in the Braverman house – unless you count ‘family’ as a religion. In fact, outside of a touching prayer by the grandfather in one episode, the subject has only been alluded in passing by Adam’s brother Crosby, and even then, all we got was a sense of them having some form of Northern Californian mixed heritage (Catholic, Jewish, and recovering hippie/lapsed Protestant). The relatively a-religious nature of the show hasn’t stopped the producers from slipping in the occasional nod, e.g. the moving use of “It Is Well With My Soul” a few weeks ago. But more significantly, and as anyone who has watched it will agree, Parenthood is full of grace, both thematically and dramatically, and a couple of the more palpable examples center around the character of Adam. Perhaps for this reason, now that FNL is off the air, Parenthood is the only show that consistently makes me cry.
As a digression, the difficulty in writing about television is two-fold. First, it dates pretty quickly. Seasons come and go, as do writers and showrunners. These characters are not real people, after all. One never knows when a plotline will insubstantiate something you thought was set in stone. Secondly, the networks have become increasingly opposed to people posting clips, fair use or not. So you’re left with having to describe scenes rather than show them, which is kind of a drag, as the real power is in the performances. Bear with me, then, as I describe one of these powerful instances of grace in Parenthood.
Right off the bat in the first season of the show, Katims hit us with an incredible dose of the Beyond Deserving approach to relationships (and life). Adam and Kristina have finally realized that something is wrong with their son, Max, that his stubbornness exceeds the bounds of a kid being a kid, and his compulsiveness may be reason for concern. The presenting symptom is Max’s refusal to dress in anything but a pirate costume. Adam, afraid that his son will get made fun of at school and receive scars that will last a lifetime, finds himself increasingly exasperated by Max’s adamancy. Over dinner, Adam attempts to get Max to put away his pet cockroach and eat his meal (Max is very particular about his diet), going so far as to barter with him, bites of food for minutes of TV time. The tactic backfires, and the parental aggravation is evident. The next scene finds Adam and Kristina lying in bed, unable to sleep for worry about their son – before Adam proceeds to take his frustration out on an invasive possum.
Fast forward to the Braverman’s appointment with the highly sought-after child psychologist Dr. Pelikan. When the doctor informs Adam and Kristina that Max’s behavior is indeed consistent with an Aspergers diagnosis, they look like they’ve been hit in the face:
Adam: “How long is this going to take, then? To get him through this and back on track?”
Dr. Pelikan: “Unfortunately there is no cure for Aspergers. It is a syndrome that he will always have.”
Adam: “I don’t understand.”
Christina: “What are we supposed to do for him? I don’t know…”
Peter [clearly irritated]: “So just in case we can never see you again, what do you suggest we do to get him out of the pirate costume?”
Dr. Pelikan: “The first step is not to wrench Max out of his comfort zone, the first step is to join Max where he is. And when he’s ready, you walk him into the world.”
Adam, looking shell-shocked and scared, puts an arm around a heartsick Kristina, and we go to commercial.
Later, watching Max play outside in his pirate costume, Adam confesses, “Kristina, I just, I don’t… I can deal with anything, I can deal with disease, with illness, with a broken bone, give me something I can fix. But I don’t know how to deal with this. This is for life.” It is a powerful admission of helplessness, one which sets the stage for an even more moving scene, the final scene of the episode, which NBC has mercifully allowed on youtube:
God-willing, the clip speaks for itself, so just a couple of thoughts. Here we have a child with whom the Law has categorically failed. Rules, commands, bargaining, etc find no foothold, either behaviorally or motivation-wise. “Fixing” is simply a non-starter when it comes to Max. A stronger potion is called for – what Dorothy Martyn so beautifully describes (and Dr. Pelikan advocates) as “noncontingent, compassionate alliance with the essential personhood of the other.” In other words, Grace instead of Law, Love instead of Judgment, Acquiescence instead of Assertion (feast on that, patriarchy!). You might even say we catch a glimpse here of how God works.
Lest we turn this into a moral or instruction, as we are wont to do, you and I are the Max in this equation, not the Adam. We are the child not the parent, the beloved not the lover, the creature not the Creator, the doofus not the doofee. Occasionally, perhaps, we are given to love another in this way, and it’s a beautiful thing, premeditated or not. More often, though, we remember the times when we were on the receiving end of such mercy, and how those moments shaped us. This is not the only instance of grace in Parenthood – just watch how Adam handles the whole virginity question with his daughter Haddie in season two – but it is the one that sets the tone for the series, thankfully. May God bless and keep you always, Adam Braverman.