As you know if you read this blog at all, both of us are die-hard fans of NBC’s one-episode-from-the-end family drama “Parenthood,” which is not to say that we are always fans of the show’s creative choices or of its characters. But that’s what family is – you don’t always like ‘em but you do always love ‘em.
So I cried through last night’s episode, the last one until the series finale (the real finale, and not that fake NBC “the last episode before the last episode before the fall finale” crap they do in previews), because this show makes everybody cry. And I realized something weird – the character whose story I was most interested in seeing the conclusion of was Julia (Erika Christensen), the youngest Braverman daughter and, at least initially, the most financially successful besides oldest brother Adam (Peter Krause).
And that’s funny because when the show debuted, not only was Julia the least-focused on, character-wise, but probably the Braverman kid that got the least attention, perhaps because she seemed to have it all figured out and wasn’t as much drama as overgrown man-child Crosby (Dax Shepard) and perpetual screw-up Sarah (Lauren Graham). And with her sweet supportive husband and cute, if hideously bratty daughter, high-powered lawyer Julia was the one you didn’t have to worry about. So the show didn’t and neither did I – other than her pretty husband, I never paid her much mind.
When the show started, the character I most identified with was Adam’s wife Kristina (Monica Potter), who’d grown up in an unhappy family and wasn’t always appreciative of the way the Bravermans barged in, physically and emotionally, into each other’s business. (I’m from a big family who’s in and out of each other’s business, even across state lines, and I get it. We’re exhausting.) What a difference six season makes. When “Parenthood” debuted, I’d been married for less than a month. Now, right before my fifth anniversary, I realize that I relate much more to the nuances of marriage as seen through the eyes of Julia and Joel (Sam Jaeger) than to Kristina, a dedicated mother who’s become, to me, increasingly sour and self-righteous.
Julia, however, has become more intriguing because she’s had to find out who she was as a wife, a mother, a professional, a woman and even in the order of her original family. When the show begins, she’s the breadwinner, and Joel, who was in contracting and had seen his work affected by the economy, is happy to be the primary at-home parent. And it works perfectly, so the two don’t see how deciding to add another child to their family would be anything less than perfect – perfect-er! But life happens, as we know it does, and they can’t get pregnant again. Then the young woman who was to let them adopt her baby changes her mind. So they adopt Victor, an older child who’d been in foster care and who made them work for his affection because he was afraid of being rejected again.
Wow. Suddenly Julia’s life felt real to me, more real than the nth iteration of Sarah screwing up relationships at will and Adam and Kristina’s various personal and professional conflicts. The always stable attorney quits her job, so that she can be around to provide the stability that both her kids need, at the same time that Joel’s career starts picking up again. But this causes issues that the always-solid rock of the family never predicted. She hadn’t considered how much of her identity was wrapped up in her job, how much her confidence rested on it. Meanwhile, her sacrifice at work doesn’t magically make things easier at home, and as Joel’s star rises, Julia flounders. She’s threatened by Joel’s success, horrified a little to realize how selfish that felt, and envious that he got to have an escape, one he’d not had for years.
Then came the convoluted conflict that TV shows have to have, the writerly script things thrown in just because someone in a meeting thought there needed to be some drama: Julia begins flirting with a fellow parent at their kids’ school, a dad who, like her, is a displaced professional, as Joel’s very attractive lady boss begins showing some interest in him. Because she’s always the one in control, Julia refuses to admit there’s an issue until an ill-fated kiss between her and the school dad, which throws Joel into an anger spiral that almost immediately results in him shutting her out and moving out.
That part felt stupid and rushed, but it went to the heart of the problem in many relationships of any type – people not talking to each other and assuming they’d all work out because they always had. By the time Joel realizes he’s screwed up and wants to sort it out, the divorce papers are being signed. Julia’s dating a college friend who is now her boss at her new law firm, the kids are adjusting to the split as best they can, and she pleads with him to just sign the papers already…about three seconds before they wind up in bed together. And from there, the two start a semi-secret reconciliation, which was cemented in last night’s episode when Joel moves back in. Daughter Sidney is thrilled but Victor, who knows a thing or two about chaos, isn’t convinced. How do they know, he asks, that they won’t wind up fighting and miserable again?
They don’t. And this is where I realized how much I love Julia and how I will miss her the most, because she and Joel have the most real conversation about marriage I’ve seen on TV in some time, maybe ever. Joel realizes that Julia’s still in close contact with her now-ex, still her boss, and that this makes him uncomfortable. They both realize that they hadn’t considered a lot of stuff, and that there’s a lot to talk about. Joel doesn’t want to fight about it, because he, like the kids, is afraid of the fragile truce fracturing. Julia, on the other hand is “afraid not to fight,” because she doesn’t want the problems that exploded the first time to be repeated. So they sit in their car, away from the kids, and hash it out. It’s not pleasant. But it’s part of making it work. And I believe it will.
I have told this story before, but it bears recapping – the best advice I’ve ever gotten about marriage was from a former college Christian fellowship staffer when I was a freshman, who told us that she’d learned in her first year as a wife that “love is not a feeling. Love is a commitment.” Marriage is work. Marriage is details and conflict and compromise and just talking about stuff you’d rather just put a Band-aid on before moving on to brunch, because it never, hopefully, ends. “Parenthood” is the story of several marriages, but somehow Julia and Joel’s, the one that briefly ended, is the one that seems the most real, the story that is the most about these two people and the choices they make to do the work. Julia used to be the one I ignored because she seemed so figured out, but it’s her conflicts that made her real. Bravo.