Parenthood's End: On Television's Children




Dear Television,

Parenthood, a show I’ve watched religiously for nearly five years, ended last week with a death, a montage, and a lot of hugs. When I say I watched Parenthood “religiously,” I mean that in the fullest, most contemporary sense of that term. That is to say, at the beginning, I watched it because I really believed and because I regularly found a sense of community and transcendent experience that was lacking elsewhere in my TV life. For the past few years, though, I must confess, I’ve watched out of obligation, checking in mostly over the holidays. All the moments of transcendence felt local, and I often had to tune out some plotlines so they didn’t threaten to spoil any connection I still felt to the rest. I was a “cafeteria” Parenthood viewer, watching because I felt I should, picking and choosing what to care about.

All of which is why I didn’t feel particularly compelled to write a post mortem when Parenthood kicked the bucket last week. It lived most of its surprisingly long life under constant threat of cancellation, ignored by the plurality of viewers and the voters who give out awards for acting or anything else. (I’ve written about the injustice of Parenthood’s empty awards mantle.) Sometimes, it felt like NBC kept it on the air because they forgot it was there in the first place.

Regardless of problems I’ve had with the show itself and its psychotic insistence that starting a small business is dramatically interesting — no one on earth ever has cared about The Luncheonette — its ensemble has consistently been one of the best on television. Though operating in a totally different register from, say, the great Transparent, Parenthood featured — in Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, and Erika Christensen — a sibling ensemble that deserves every bit of praise that that hip, new series has garnered. Jason Katims, who created Parenthood after an even better, if similarly un-lauded, turn as showrunner of Friday Night Lights, knows how to gin up chemistry. Of all the things I might miss now that Parenthood has gone away, I will miss the warmth and rhythm of the Braverman siblings.

But the other thing about Parenthood is its kids. For five years, Parenthood featured some of the best child acting to be found anywhere on TV. The littlest kids were fine, showed up on set, looked cute or bratty depending on the situation, and certainly did their jobs professionally, but, good gracious, what a gang of teenagers! Because Monica Potter and Peter Krause could never score well-earned Emmy nominations, these kids never stood a chance. So, in honor of this late series, I now present an — admittedly incomplete — survey of the kid acting landscape after Parenthood.
 

Parenthood

First, let’s talk about Amber and Max. The mark of a truly exceptional child actor is the degree to which they almost steal the show away. (I’ll get to the two most ingenious heists now underway below.) Amber, as played by the outlandishly talented Mae Whitman, actually pulled it off. Parenthood, in fact, went out of its way to place her at the center of the action this season and give her essentially its final beat. Sure there were narrative reasons to have the most troubled of the Braverman children finally become a parent in her own right, but Katims wouldn’t have handed her the series in this way if she weren’t already carrying it to some extent or another.

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As has been noted, Mae Whitman is and has been for some time “the best crier on television,” and on a series with an aesthetic built around open weeping, that’s a hell of a distinction. But Whitman wasn’t just a hysterical soft spot in the show’s aesthetic, Mae Whitman’s mature, un-canned performance was the linch-pin of this show’s massive, unwieldy ensemble. As the oldest of the Braverman kids, Whitman’s Amber always occupied a middle space on the show — as the de facto leader of the children and the occasionally embattled ambassador to the adults. Over five seasons Whitman held the uneasy role of offering seasoned advice to her juniors while making reliably childish mistakes of her own. Because it’s so infrequently done well, I assume it’s hard to play a kid when you’re a kid yourself. (And Whitman, for what it’s worth, was always a little older than her character.) To be able to approach the role of an aimless youth with any kind of critical distance is a massive achievement, and Mae Whitman turned in a performance absolutely perfectly scaled for the show she helped build.

Then, there was Max. In Parenthood’s first season, Max (played by Max Burkholder) is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It would have been very easy for an actor as young as Burkholder, who was 13 when the series began, to turn in a caricature or for the series to diagnose and then hide the character except for “very special episodes.” But, to Burkholder and the show’s great credit, Max was never one-note, and the show insisted on making him a functional part of the aforementioned spectacular ensemble. The convention for TV series and films about disability is to either craft a tragic arc or to have the actor manifest the disability only when dramatically convenient. Parenthood kept Max in focus, kept the difficulty of his disability in focus, and built a years-long, rather moving characterization. While this plotline encountered some magical thinking late in the series, and occasionally Max’s behavior was figured as a “problem” for the family to solve, Burkholder’s performance always made Max feel like a person rather than a collection of tics.

Max Burkholder should see more work, and Mae Whitman deserves the lead in her own series. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Get on that, dear television.
 

Mad Men

Imagine if every year, for eight years, we shot 13 episodes of television about the same kid! It’s not to denigrate the massive and moving achievement of Richard Linklater’s film — or the gut-wrenching experience of seeing such a long period of time condensed in one sitting — to say that serial television has been watching kids grow up since before Ellar Coltrane was a glimmer in his Earth-parents’ eyes.

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The rise of Sally Draper has been so demonstrably the most compelling subplot over seven seasons of Mad Men that it now threatens — promises! — to rise to the level of Plot itself. I don’t think I/we are alone in imagining that, even if Sally doesn’t become the actual protagonist of this series, the show’s impending end will register and resonate finally in the space of her consciousness. The risk of playing a protagonist’s son or daughter is the risk of constantly being a foil. Sally Draper, as played by Kiernan Shipka, has existed in her own right for several seasons now, and, by this summer, I think we’re all going to be talking about the way that Don Draper is her foil.

And this is all a credit to Shipka. Originally cast simply as the cute, smiley face trapped in a plastic bag, floating around to witness and improperly process her parents’ dissolution, Shipka carried those images forward in her bones. It would be easy to make a sharp inter-season transition from cute kid to angsty teen, but Shipka’s angst has always felt wounded in a way that’s hard to place. Her performance carries the weight of memory for a man who’s built his life around how easy it is to forget things. And, again, Shipka — in her puzzled face, her awkward rage, and the sheer sadness of her deadpan — has transcended that role as Don Draper’s historian and conscience to become something like the show’s ultimate, earned hope. Don will not, cannot, triumph, but Sally’s survival feels constantly possible, even inevitable because of the strength of Kiernan Shipka’s work. If Bob Oedekirk deserved a prequel spin-off from Breaking Bad, I think we all deserve a spin-off about thirtysomething Sally Draper in the Reagan era. I’m happy to wait 15 years for it. (FYI: I am available to write this series. I’m thinking Working Girl meets 400 Blows.)
 

The Americans

"The Americans" Season 2
Sometimes I think that, with Paige and Henry, The Americans has almost effortlessly done what Homeland struggled so laboriously to do before it ultimately lifted the curse and let the poor actress playing Dana out of her contract. What’s it like to have parents with monumental secrets? What’s it like to be traumatized by something you can’t see or articulate? How do you manifest a shapeless, ghastly global war within the space of the home? Part of the success of The Americans on this front is in the way it has positioned its children. As opposed to Sally Draper, whose witnessing has metamorphosed into a kind of independent identity, Paige and Henry have been almost entirely reactive characters. They represent and manifest the blowback, the cost of the secrets their parents keep. This is most certainly a show about Philip and Elizabeth, so Paige and Henry are foils, but these roles demand an incredibly difficult task from the actors.

The Americans’ new season is really focusing on twisting and transforming this relationship, but in order to profitably represent this transformation, the show needed to establish a baseline, and that baseline belongs to Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati. It’s a cool trick of the show to stage a secret, deadly, sexy espionage thriller underneath a 1980s family sitcom. The bubbly brattiness of Taylor and the Bad News Bears aw-shucks magnetism of Sellati are the necessary leavening in this heavy heavy show. And as much as the drama of this set-up lies in the virtuousic code-switching of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as KGB-parents, an equally difficult negotiation has to take place in Holly Taylor, as her coming of age coincides with her creeping suspicion and nameless dread. Rhys and Russell have to play both Family Ties and Bourne Identity, but Taylor has to slowly turn one into the other. Again, this is partially the brilliance of Joe Weisberg, to stage a mini-Breaking Bad arc for one of his youngest regular cast members, but Taylor is both game and great. Keri Russell’s character says late in season two that Paige reminds her of herself, and, every episode, Holly Taylor reminds us more and more of the thrillingly good Keri Russell.
 

Game of Thrones

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Do I seriously need to say anything about Maisie Williams as Arya Stark? I can’t think of a show that would crumble more quickly or more completely with the loss of one child actor than Game of Thrones. This series is meaningless without her soulful, hilarious, heart-broken, tough performance. The anti-child Emmy prejudice is most visible and unjust in the fact that Maisie Williams has never been nominated. This kid is ridiculous.
 

Louie

Louie’s kids are props, but what props they are! Over the years, Louie has become a showcase for blistering, unsettling, heart-aching cameo performances — David Lynch, Charles Grodin, Sarah Baker — and, in the case of Parker Posey, what I think is a possibly career-best hour and a half of work. The most common occupants of this slot are Louie’s kids, played by the wonderfully adorable Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker. If Sally Draper transcends the role of the parental foil and Paige and Henry deeply and complicatedly occupy that role, Delany and Parker play very differently in the margins of Louie. They fill the role against which Louis CK always casts himself: the fully-realized human being.

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CK’s shtick is that he’s an unformed lump of a human man, constantly learning hard lessons from the confident, self-possessed people who flit in and out of his life. The best thing I could say about Delany and Parker is that their brief screen time reveals so much genuine life and gravitas that it’s easy to imagine an equally good show entirely about them that occasionally features cameo performances from Louis CK as their well-meaning but emotionally lunk-hearted dad. These kids constantly surprise us because they so crisply perform such hidden, fascinating depths. Louie’s fatherhood feels triumphant on those rare occasions that he can recognize and engage with their full personhood, but it feels, most often, pathetically insufficient to their presence.
  

The Goldbergs / Fresh Off The Boat

The Goldbergs has been around for two seasons now, continuously improving on its ambitious Wonder Years meets Malcolm in the Middle vibe as a show about the goofy eighties childhood of young Adam (Sean Giambrone). All the kids on this show are hams, and this broadness is strategic. Rather than simply a series based on creator Adam Goldberg’s childhood, the show is presented as basically a re-enactment. Patton Oswalt’s crackly narration — as the grown-up Adam, narrating from the future — maintains a kind of embarrassed distance, and Adam’s constant onscreen manning of a camcorder paired with occasional actual video footage of Goldberg’s childhood makes The Goldbergs a pretty funky hybrid sitcom, and one that draws a lot of warmth from its over-the-top kid roles.

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Fresh Off The Boat is the newest one on the list here, and it’s mining a very similar aesthetic to The Goldbergs. In many ways, Nahnatchka Kahn’s sitcom based on Eddie Huang’s childhood raised by Asian American immigrant parents in nineties Orlando is still finding its feet. Fresh Off The Boat won’t just casually benefit from good kid performances, it absolutely needs them. Forest Wheeler, as the preternaturally confident Emery is the best so far, though he’s mainly around to deliver punchlines.

The show’s ostensible star — Eddie Huang’s younger self — Hudson Yang has a tougher road to walk. It’s his bildungsroman, his coming-of-age that gives the show its arc. And this is helped — as Daniel Stern’s wistful, wry voiceover provided a set of training wheels while Fred Savage worked to become Kevin Arnold on Wonder Years — by the fact that Eddie Huang narrates the show. But this voiceover’s role is less clear than Oswalt’s comment function on The Goldbergs. Is Huang simply framing his show, or will he provide a counterpoint against which young Yang can improvise? As of right now, it’s hard to read the charisma and crunch of Huang in his young doppelganger. That’s not Yang’s fault — the show needs to decide how to use Huang’s voice to build the onscreen character rather than replace it.

Yang, for his part, has had some great moments. He plays angry and haughty equally well, and his hip-hop victory laps have been highlight moments in the first episodes. As the show develops, I’d love to see more proto-Huang in Yang’s lines and performance and less of the Muppet Babies version we see right now. Yang won’t steal the show — it’s his to lose. And if all we have is this cute little guy quoting Nas lyrics at his parents, there are worse things in the world, I guess, but Fresh Off The Boat is going to need to pick a narrative strategy and stick with it quick.
 

Black-ish

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Mad Men, The Americans, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off The Boat are all historical period series. They show us the births, lives, or deaths of trends, social movements, even fashions. The children in all of these shows, then, are in some ways the stand-ins and prophets for the viewers at home. Matthew Weiner has repeatedly stated that the end of Mad Men is the present, that we are Sally. Much the same could be said about the other three shows, and, for that reason, their children are doubly important. There is a sense of historical inevitability, of audience self-fashioning, that comes in as we let Sally, Paige, Henry, Adam, and Eddie essentially backfill the history we already know. As all of the interviews and press surrounding Huang’s battle to produce a show honest to the experience of middle-class Asian Americans make clear, Fresh Off The Boat is as much about the Huang family in the nineties as it is about who Eddie Huang is today. And, in The Americans, we see a story about the children of the late Cold War geared toward viewers who are, themselves, children of the late Cold War.

But Black-ish is a show about the social conditions of the present. It’s a history of a time and place as yet unseen. And, given the events of the past year, the way the unhealed wounds of racial politics in America have been made dramatically visible, and the way the myth of a post-racial America has been so authoritatively debunked, the idea of a show about middle-class African American children in the present — even a light, silly one like Black-ish — serves as a somewhat hopeful sign. We don’t watch the adorable, wide-eyed children of Black-ish with the bitter dramatic irony that attends our time travel adventures with the Drapers, Jenningses, Goldbergs, and Huangs. We see them negotiate — with frankly incredible comic timing — their identities in real time, construct a future that is unwritten.

If the future of those other shows is our present, the future of Black-ish is our future. And our investment is a social one. In their loving repartee with their zany family, in their awkward stepping around the nuances of whiteness and blackness in our contemporary moment, in their resolution of these anxieties, we watch the kids on this show with the hope that they’ll inherit a world in which they’ll be okay. Black-ish isn’t a work of gritty realism, it’s a social comedy, and the kids are what’s at stake. And given the cultural world into which Black-ish debuted, I’m glad at the very least that so many viewers are so invested in watching Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, and Marsai Martin grow up on TV.

The Story of Sally D, created by,

Phil.

¤


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