Watching “Parenthood” is an extraordinarily cathartic experience. As a master of emotional manipulation, executive producer Jason Katims seems to delight in bringing an audience to tears every week, without fail. The show makes a fantastic substitute for actual therapy.
This October, though, “Parenthood” aired its Season 4 episode “The Talk,” and instead of making me cry, it made me think.
(Okay, it also made me cry.)
Written by Sarah Watson, “The Talk” examined the use of the N-word, and our country’s history of racism, from the perspective of a white father and his black son. This brave storyline is what makes the episode one of my favorite TV episodes of 2012.
Jabbar (Tyree Brown) was visiting his dad, Crosby (Dax Shepherd), at work when he heard a rapper use the word in a song and asked what it meant. The incident proved a catalyst for several compelling conversations between Crosby, Jabbar, and his mother, Jasmine (Joy Bryant). I’ve discussed the storyline in-depth here, if you’re interested in reading more.
The N-word wasn’t used for shock value, or to propel the plot. In fact, Crosby, Jabbar, and Jasmine didn’t see a lot of action at all in this episode. They simply had frank, honest conversations about race and racism. Crosby’s white privilege was acknowledged and addressed, which is something I’ve never seen on television before. As Jasmine grappled with how to explain the country’s ugly history of racism to her very young son, Crosby struggled with the fact that as a white person he simply could not and would not relate to this particular area of his black son’s life.
I was surprised that “The Talk” didn’t inspire more conversation. It’s very, very rare for the N-word to be used on scripted network television shows, so I expected the episode to be addressed by critics and for the actors and writers to be interviewed about the choices at play in the storyline. Perhaps the fact that it didn’t lead to a clamor in the media is the ultimate evidence of just how effective the episode was, though — it didn’t lead to outrage or offense, only to introspection and an appreciation for the writers’ respectful approach.
Additionally, the episode explored a different kind of name-calling as Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter) faced a tough situation with their son Max, who has Aspergers. Max wanted to run for student council and showed his parents his petition, signed by 25 of his peers, to run. When Kristina — who was just beginning her battle with breast cancer — realized that the petition had been signed by fake names like “Rhea Tard,” she had to examine her priorities as the ailing mother of a child with special needs, while Adam balanced his urge to protect his son with his desire to see Max grow.
Young Max Burkholder‘s acting has always been impressive, but now that he’s a teenager and has grown into his talent, it’s become a true privilege to watch him portray his character. Burkholder has an awe-inspiring grasp of who Max is as a person, and who he is as a person on the Autism spectrum. He plays the role with care, respect, and a sense of responsibility that rivals actors with decades of experience. Max’s conversations with his parents in “The Talk” are a brilliant example of that.
Lest we forget, “The Talk” was also memorable because it introduced Ryan (Matt Lauria), a character new to the series who has left an indelible mark. We first meet Ryan, a young veteran adjusting to life at home after serving two tours in Afghanistan, through Braverman patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), who has been urged out of his house by his frustrated wife. They meet at the VA Center, and Ryan helps Zeek fix a faulty sprinkler system.
Laying the groundwork for one of the most compelling arcs of the season, Ryan asks Zeek to reassure him that he won’t always feel out of place, isolated by his experiences with war and with coming home. “Being back’s been kinda weird,” Ryan says simply. “I just feel like I could handle it better if I knew it wasn’t going to be forever.” Zeek can’t make any promises, though, about finding a sense of normalcy — what he can promise is, “You’re not invisible to me.” It’s a brave, important story to tackle given the very real struggles our young veterans face today, and having it presented without fanfare or political intent is refreshing and inspiring. I think it’s particularly moving because these aren’t men who are thrilled to be talking about their feelings, so the audience is encouraged to read between the lines and to assign meaning on our own.
“The Talk” is available for download on iTunes. “Parenthood” returns with new episodes on Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 10 p.m. EST on NBC.