Syndi Shumer: New Approaches in, um, PARENTHOOD

haddieby Syndi Shumer

I’ve always been a sucker for a music montage, particularly when it settles in at the end of an episode, wrapping up the events of the hour like a sort of warm, cathartic blanket.

In the PARENTHOOD season finale, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” provided the soundtrack that took us to the end of season five, a season that has left many of the Braverman clan hanging on the precipice of change, and we, the viewers, cliff-hanging right alongside them.

Will there be a season six? The jury is still out, but I, for one, will be very disappointed if we don’t get a solid resolution to the limbo that we’ve been left in concerning the relationship between Joel and Julia…my favorite couple… the series’ former “rock” of a pair…

Ok, ok, I digress. While I clearly didn’t love the often seemingly out-of-character roller coaster ride of this season’s “Joelia” storyline, there is one thing that I do love about this series overall, and that is its willingness to approach situations from new angles. So that’s what I’ll focus on here. (Joel and Julia, you’ll just have to wait for another post all of your own.)

Autism, for instance, is a condition that viewers have grown used to seeing, as the show has been effectively exploring this subject over the past five seasons through the character of school-aged Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), diagnosed early on with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.

However, this season the writers put a fresh spin on the subject through the role of “Hank” (recurring guest star Ray Romano), a man in his forties who is just now for the first time coming to terms with the fact that he, too, may have Asperger’s. Watching late-bloomer Hank grapple with self-realizations about his own long-standing behaviors and personal challenges, has added new dimension to his character while lending a whole new outlook on the condition itself.

I can’t help but root for him. While it’s too early to know whether or not his challenges will hinder his ability to make a relationship work with Sarah (Lauren Graham), this fresh approach by the writers certainly keeps me wanting to find out what’s going to happen next.

Another issue being explored from an angle that’s different than the “norm” is the definition of what it means to grow older. Traditionally on family-centered shows, too often the patriarch and/or matriarch characters seem to be relegated to minimal roles, portrayed as being more a means of support for their adult offspring and grandkids rather than as exciting individuals in their own right.

But in this series, both parenthood and personhood are valued and celebrated, regardless of whether or not such characters are the parents of infants or of thirty-somethings. From the beginning of the series, Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), the matriarch and patriarch of the Braverman clan (characters who, I’m guessing, are both in their sixties), have dealt with their own challenging circumstances: spousal infidelity, the need for independence, and the weighty consequences of clinging to tradition vs. breaking free from it.

Prompted by free-spirited Camille’s desire to live out their golden years in a manner which would afford them the ability to travel and explore their personal interests, she and Zeek make the tough decision to sell the house they had called home for over thirty years and raised their four children in.

I love that Camille isn’t comfortable with the idea of becoming a complacent housewife as she ages — she wants to thrive! And I love that Zeek, a character very rooted in tradition, took it upon himself to dig down deep and find the means within to meet her on this. I look forward to discovering how the brand new life of this gently time-worn couple will unfold and take shape.

Finally, the show has just embarked on a storyline involving homosexuality; not a new subject for a television series to tackle by any means, but the lens through which it’s being approached here is refreshing. When Haddie Braverman (Sarah Ramos) returns home from college for the summer with her new “best friend” Lauren in tow, she briefly wrestles with how to tell her parents that Lauren is more than just her friend, even though she does trust that they will be supportive.

I’ve personally never seen the subject of homosexuality introduced in a family series while being presented as acceptable from the get-go. There are no worries about disappointed parents, no dark internal struggles, no hard-won battles. It’s just simply a matter of how to say it for the first time; other than that, it’s a non-issue. And it’s a wonderful thing to witness.

In fact, all of these fresh approaches are wonderful to see. Why? It’s not simply because the show’s writers are coming up with newly interesting ways of exploring topics and characters, but because, with these examples, those who have been traditionally positioned in society as outcasts for being “different” (the mentally ill, the aging, the gay/lesbian) are here, at last, being presented in ways which show off their sameness.

These characters and their situations are not shunned, they’re celebrated with normalcy. Hank gets the girl. Camille and Zeek embark on a new, exciting life. Haddie is accepted without question. In many ways, these thoughtful new approaches are a reflection of the times. And thankfully, indeed they are a-changin’.