Parenthood, the television series adaptation of Ron Howard’s movie, uses a mix of soapy drama and comedy to tell the story of five interrelated families. But most of all, it’s a show that is determined to warm our hearts. Every week provides what executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) calls “a sense of catharsis,” which often translates into opportunities for characters to cry: Kristina (Monica Potter) cries about her fears that she’s made mistakes raising her autistic son Max (Max Burkholder); single mom Sarah
(Lauren Graham) cries when she has to stop dating her daughter’s English teacher. Scenes that seem funny at first, like the one where Crosby (Dax Shepard) admits that he has an illegitimate son, wind up being full of tears and sentimental guitar music. “My favourite episodes are ones that start very bright and full of humour, and then you find that the emotional stuff creeps up on you when you’re not expecting it,” Katims told Maclean’s. Television is bringing back something that hasn’t been seen in a while: mushiness.
It’s not just Parenthood that tries to inject a bit more sweetness than you’d get on House or other dramas about stoic characters. The biggest hit of the 2009-10 season, Modern Family, has a premise that’s very similar to Parenthood’s, and it’s even more relentlessly nice: every story and subplot has a moral, and every character has to love every other character. Even HBO’s Treme, with its celebration of New Orleans, is more sentimental than the network’s usual product: co-creator Eric Overmeyer told TV Guide that it “will never be as bleak as The Wire.”
Today’s TV has depressing moments, but it’s got to have some uplift; Katims says that while some shows are
broad comedies or dark dramas, “the sweet spot for Parenthood is somewhere in between.” One of Katims’ favourite moments in the pilot had Max playing in a little league game while his parents watch, taking pride in raising him even though they’re worried about his condition; in case we didn’t get that message, Katims picked Bob Dylan’s hopeful Forever Young for the soundtrack. “It really helped tap into the emotion and beauty of family,” he says, “even when things aren’t perfect.”
This influx of warmth and fuzziness can be explained by the fact that nasty shows haven’t been catching on lately. The day before Parenthood was renewed for a second season, Glenn Close’s show Damages aired its
final episode: it won Emmys, but spent three years unsuccessfully trying to find viewers for its misanthropic melodrama. On NBC, Parenthood’s network, 30 Rock has had low ratings for four years, and this year it’s been the target of a backlash from viewers who can’t take writer-star Tina Fey’s sour attitude toward humanity: Newsweek’s Kate Dailey noted that Fey writes most of her show’s female characters as “slutty, slobby, neurotic morons.”
Still, it’s a reversal for TV to wear its heart on its sleeve. Since the ’90s, not only have acclaimed cable shows been flinty and tough— like The Sopranos—but so were the network hits. CSI and its imitators are about cold professionals who are unsentimental about murders and personal problems. Desperate Housewives was a sensation for its ironic, detached approach to its characters’ troubles. Sitcoms rejected the sappiness of shows like Full House, where every episode would end with a hug. Larry David made “no hugging, no
learning” the rule on Seinfeld, while an earlier TV adaptation of Parenthood (whose writers included Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon) bombed. The last two decades of TV were a big backlash against sentimentality.
But now there’s a backlash against the backlash. Katims is nostalgic for “watching shows like The Waltons,” or more recently The Cosby Show and Family Ties, that made family life seem like a “rich experience.” The
writers of The Office have mentioned that they sometimes return to the Full House formula of having a nice moment at the end, while Community, from the creator of the gleefully nasty The Sarah Silverman Program, has such a sweet core that one character worried that he was in a “very special episode.”
But though Katims says he’d love to see more “contemporized versions” of the warm family shows he grew up with, no trend is absolute. Just before NBC renewed Parenthood, it also renewed Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref, where celebrities laugh at the problems of dysfunctional married couples. There’s still room for heartless shows—as long as they’re cheap to produce.