Like many reviewers out there (and a number of my fellow Mbirds), I’ve found this season of NBC’s Parenthood to be profoundly underwhelming. But I continue to watch because I love the characters, chief among them these past couple of seasons being Hank, played by a post-Everybody Loves Raymond Ray Romano. Matter of fact, I think the Hank and Max storyline may be single-handedly salvaging this season of Parenthood for me.
If you are caught up to the 15th episode that aired Jan. 23rd, then you will know the substance of the storyline of which I am speaking. If you are not caught up then you may want to do so before you read any further.
The writers gave us enough subtle hints last season–and early on in this season–that Hank may be more like Max than he, or any of the other characters, suspect. It doesn’t hurt that Ray Romano’s approach to bringing his character to life has pretty-heavily foreshadowed the possibility of the (semi-)revelation that he would receive in the 14th episode, “Jump Ball.” The writers, though, were smart to tease this storyline out and let the friendship between Max Braverman–Christina and Adams son who has Asperger’s Syndrome–and Hank grow and solidify before making such a revelation. As you can probably guess, Hank has come to the conclusion that he, too, may have some mild form of autism, or Asperger’s. After Max throws a tantrum in Hank’s studio–because Hank had broken a promise to him–Adam lends Hank a book on Asperger’s Syndrome so that Hank might be more prepared to handle Max in similar situations in the future.
Hank ends up reading it. All. In a single night (or so it seems). He delivers the book, marked up and with sticky notes hanging from its pages, back to Adam and Kristina. What he read was supposed to make him understand Max better, but what it really did was serve as a mirror. As a result, he makes an appointment to visit the same doctor who had diagnosed Max and asks for his opinion. Dr. Pelikan informs him that without spending a significant amount of time together, he can’t diagnose Hank with complete certainty, but if he had to give his off-the-cuff thoughts it would be a “jump ball”, that is, an Asperger’s diagnosis is a definite possibility, but by no means 100% certain.
“So what,” you might say. Here’s why this is such a beautiful storyline. Hank, from the first moment he meets Max, feels for the kid and takes him under his wing. He offers up his friendship and his studio to Max so that Max can learn about photography, even though his relationship with Max’s aunt Sarah has run its course. It’s clear that Hank enjoys the company and feels a certain kinship with Max. In other words, he deeply identifies with Max. Max, too, considers Hank to be “his best friend.” As much as Adam and Kristina love their son (which they truly and deeply do), it takes Hank’s focused attention on Max to bring out the gifts and talents that laid dormant. It takes Max being seen and known to blossom.
To go further, though, the revelation that Hank may actually have Asperger’s or some other mild form of autism, only enhances the relationship that had already been established. Hank had identified with Max beforehand, but, now, Hank becomes someone who sees himself as just like Max. He goes from identifying with Max to incarnating Max’s world. He is Max for all intents and purposes. And the scene, where he comes to that realization and sits down with Max to play chess opens up a new level of friendship–and redemption–for both of them. That is the scene, and storyline, that has tugged at my heart strings this season. Surely it’s no coincidence that its reminds me of Christ’s incarnation, of a God who not only sees and knows us, but sends his Son in human form so that his identification with us might be complete. Incarnation, in this sense, is a mode of both redemption and restoration.
With Hank’s revelation, I am hoping that the writers see the full beauty of what they could do with that storyline from here on. There is potential for it to become one of the most profound relationships to grace the TV screen this year. At the very least, it’s reason enough to continue watching a season that has otherwise been lacking.