It's worth remembering that when Ron Howard's film “Parenthood” debuted in 1989, it was somewhat revolutionary. The yuppies had just recently begun giving birth but parenting had not yet become the billion-dollar industry it is today.
"Roseanne" had been on a year, but cinematic families still tended to fall into two categories: the golden sages of Ozzie and Harriet (or their slightly more modern incarnation the Huxtables) versus the shattered destroyers of Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams. "Parenthood" instead explored what many Americans, at least many white upper-middle class Americans, were experiencing -- the balancing acts of exhaustion and ambition, true hearts and neurosis. Families in which love means sorting through the trash to find a lost retainer.
“Parenthood” the NBC television series is certainly not here to dispute that. Debuting in the wake of what appears to be a renaissance of the family comedy led by "Modern Family," "The Middle" and "Cougar Town," "Parenthood" sticks firmly to the message that occurred to Ron Howard as he was trying to herd his young children off an airplane -- parenting is harder than you think it will be.
But what "Parenthood" lacks in edginess, it more than makes up in nuance. The narrative is essentially the same as the film, though the dictates of television require that certain characters and situations be blurrier around the edges. So Zeek, the patriarch of the Braverman (nee Buckman) clan, is played by Craig T. Nelson instead of Jason Robards. (Don't you just still deeply miss Jason Robards?) If Nelson lacks Robards' sorrowful rage, he grounds his character, and the series, in a steely devotion to family that promises both injury and salvation. (One can only hope that the lovely Bonnie Bedelia, as his wife Camille, will be given more to do as things progress.)
At his right hand is son Adam, Peter Krause ("Dirty Sexy Money"), the anxious fixer, and his wife, Kristina (a wonderful Monica Potter, last seen in "Trust Me," who delivers the best scene in the pilot). As in the film, they have a young son who is "different" but in keeping with the recent fixation on autism, young Max (Max Burkholder) now has Asperger's.
Likewise the over-parenting pair of the movie has been slightly modified -- Adam's sister Julia (Erika Christensen) is a cellphone juggling attorney who has left most of the parenting of her young daughter to her husband, Joel (Sam Jaeger), who is sweet and laid-back without a flashcard in sight.
Lauren Graham ("Gilmore Girls"), meanwhile, is dependably delightful as Sarah, a single mom who has moved back to the family home in Berkeley because of her "financial problems and two degenerate children." The "black sheep" of the family is Crosby (Dax Shepard from "Punk'd," riding the wave of emotionally challenged dudes), who has reluctantly promised to have a child with his girlfriend only to discover he already has a son with another.
Though filled with far more tender and often tear-jerking moments than actual laughs, the first hour of "Parenthood" seems a solid and steady enough vehicle for such a brilliant cast. If the family is at times unbearably and unbelievably close -- everyone showing up for kindergarten concerts, Little League games and endless family meals -- the groundwork has also been laid for future tensions. And for every overused trope -- a Little League meltdown scene? Really? -- there is a flash of brilliance to compensate. ("You Googled my sperm?" may set a whole new standard for TV one-liners.)
Still it's difficult not to approach "Parenthood" with caution. Much has been made of the troubles Howard has had bringing the concept of the film to the small screen. An earlier series failed and this one has been plagued with problems, including the late-in-the-game casting of Graham after Maura Tierney, who originally played Sarah, was diagnosed with cancer. The first pilot, with Tierney, was shown to critics and TV writers and, frankly, Tierney was the best thing in it. So when she pulled out, expectations were not high.
But as Howard and his co-producers (including Jason Katims, who wrote the pilot) have said, the need to reshoot also gave them the opportunity to re-edit. That the second version is so much better than the first could serve as a primer for classes in television writing and editing, but it makes predicting the success of the show a bit worrisome.
Still, "Parenthood" certainly has a talent pool and a pedigree that puts it in a class of its own. Though it will inevitably be compared to "Modern Family" and "The Middle," "Parenthood" may instead be more like a funnier "Brothers & Sisters," when the kids are still small and all that irreparable damage that makes most adults so interesting has not yet been done.