For NBC, it isn’t 1994 anymore. And it never will be again. There’s no “Seinfeld” or “Friends” or “E.R.” in sight. The network’s ragtag schedule is a mix of critical, modestly rated hits (”The Office,” “30 Rock”), non-hits that somehow were given a green light anyway (”Community”), aging dramas (”Law & Order: SVU”) and middle-of-the-road reality TV (”The Biggest Loser,” “Celebrity Apprentice”).
And after the Jay Leno 10 p.m. debacle, NBC is seeking 10 p.m. programs of any sort to fill the gaping holes.
“Parenthood” isn’t going to become NBC’s next “Law & Order” by any stretch of anybody’s imagination. But in this day of reduced expectations, the low-key, slice-of-life dramedy based on the 1989 Ron Howard film is doing pretty well for itself. After opening at 8 million March 2, the show quickly stabilized around 7 million viewers and 18-49 ratings in the high 2’s.
A few years ago, those results would have meant instant cancellation. Today, they mean hope.
NBC is spending some of its valuable PR dollars flying the likes of Lauren Graham and Erika Christensen around the country to meet with reporters like me to spread the word on the show. And while Erika and I were talking at the very cool restaurant Urban Pl8, the publicist with us got the news: NBC had given “Parenthood” a pickup for a second season.
Christensen - best known before “Parenthood” for films “Traffic,” “Upside of Anger” and “Swimfan” and the short-lived ABC series “Six Degrees” - began working her BlackBerry, sharing the good news with fellow actors and crew.
“I’m so happy!” she said, frantically typing away. “I just emailed my family. I’m pretty thrilled about this show. I like the people and I definitely the characters. I’m interested as an audience member and an actor.”
Christensen plays Julia, a talented full-time 29-year-old attorney whose husband is a stay-at-home dad. But her five-year-old daughter Sydney is more attached to dad than Julia. The key scene for her came episode three when Julia tried to teach Sydney to swim. Sydney failed and blamed Julia. “When her voice cracked when she yelled at me,” Christensen said, “it broke my heart!”
Julia is also suspicious of another mom Raquel in her hubby’splay group who seems a wee bit too friendly. Her husband later admitted that Raquel made a play on her but said he fended her off. Is he being totally honest? Christensen said that situation will be addressed again.
Christensen’s real life is not at all like that of Julia. She’s never had kids, is not married. In fact, she’s two years younger than her character. But that’s what acting is.
She said NBC has given the writers room to breathe and build the show organically, something she felt did not happen with “Six Degrees” on ABC. (That 2006-07 show didn’t congeal particularly well from what I recall and was taken off the air after eight episodes.)
If you’re a fan of “Brothers & Sisters,” “Parenthood” is in the same wheelhouse. It’s a bit less frenetic with less soapiness. It’s also sweet without being saccharine. The actors playing the Bravermans are top notch: Craig T. Nelson of “Coach” fame and Bonnie Bedelia play the grandparents; their kids are played by Lauren Graham (”Gilmore Girls”), Christensen, Peter Krause (last seen on “Dirty, Sexy Money”) and Dax Shepard (”Baby Mama”).
The storylines are getting richer over time although there has been some attempts at more risque topics such as masturbation and faking orgasms. (Christensen said she had a “When Harry Met Sally” homage scene that did not make the final cut.)
The most memorable, most effective plotline in the early going has been Adam and Kristina Braverman and their son Max, who they discover has Asperger syndrome. It isn’t pandering, it isn’t melodramatic. It feels real.
Dax’s immature but likable Crosby finds out he has a five-year-old son and grapples with growing up. Graham’s Sarah Braverman, with two teen kids and poor financial prospects, moves in with her parents and grapples with the humiliation and self doubt.
Graham replaced Maura Tierney (”NewsRadio,” “E.R.”), who was diagnosed last year with breast cancer. At first, NBC delayed production but she pulled out, forcing the producers to push back the launch date several months and seeking Graham to replace her. Graham has done an admirable job although her character so far isn’t quite as memorable or compelling as Lorelai Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls.”
Christensen said the extra time benefited the writers, who had more time to shape the storylines for season one, which was reduced to 13 episodes from what might have been 22.
NBC is just thankful it has at least one 10 p.m. slot guaranteed for the fall.
“Parenthood,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC