Even the best series on television can occasionally disappoint or make viewers scratch their weary heads, and Parenthood has really done it this time. All season long, we've watched as Joel and Julia (Sam Jaeger and Erika Christensen) have slowly grown apart over her transition to stay-at-home mom, his new job, and their adopted son Victor's learning problems. Now, Parenthood has gone nuclear on the once happily married couple, and it feels more than a little out of character.
While we may not have always appreciated them as such, Joel and Julia have always been something of a rock: their problems would come along, they'd solve them, and then they'd kiss. Every single time. We came to depend on them, so naturally, when they began to have problems, things start to feel a bit off kilter. But now that Joel has moved out of the house, the series feels incredibly off, as if we're watching an alternate universe Parenthood: Amber is conspicuously missing from Thursday's episode, Sarah is happy, and Joel and Julia are unraveling everything. Where are we?
But it's not the fact that Joel and Julia are front and center that's the issue; it's the way in which, despite their break-up being drawn out over many, many episodes, it still feels forced. This is a couple who talks things through. These are two people who are fiercely devoted to one another. While Julia had a frustrating bout of depression when her joblessness forced her into the stay-at-home mom role and Joel into the workforce, everything we know about Joel tells us he's equipped to handle a problem like that. Julia was a pill when she was finding it hard to balance the law firm and her children, and she's a pill when she's not. Of course, Joel might understandably get drunk one night and eat a bunch of terrible grocery store cake in response, but that's to be expected.
Instead, we jump forward a few episodes and Joel has made the decision, somewhere on his own, that their marriage isn't in trouble, it's over. When Julia asks him not to give up on her, he says he would if it weren't so far along already — yet, they've not truly had a conversation about their problems since those problems really grew out of control. Instead, they've nudged each other, had outbursts, or stared silently. Not once has Joel, the man who's been so expressive throughout their relationship, expressed to Julia exactly why he's leaving. His only explanation is that it's too late and he's just doing it and there's nothing Julia can say to stop it.
This breakup almost feels as if there's some other nugget of information that we're missing — though considering the absurdity of Julia's earlier inclination that Joel would have any connection with his boss, Pete (Lost's Sonya Walger) there doesn't seem to be a vessel for that missing information. The part we're lacking is Joel's voice, rather than his action. And while that's certainly something that happens to real couples going through tough times, the Bravermans are such a clan of expressive, vocal people that to withstand this much silence in the face of emotional destruction is practically unbearable.
It's so unbearable, even creator Jason Katims had to clear the air about the Joel and Julia issue when speaking to the LA Times:
You have people you think are the best couple and that they’ll always be married, and then suddenly you hear that they’re separated. We were interested in telling that story because we don’t want Joel and Julia to always be the C story. The actors are so great. And there is hope for Joel and Julia.
He's right in that relationships are unpredictable and this could happen to any happy couple, but what's really interesting is his insistence that these characters not remain a C story, which they've admittedly almost always been. It's also noteworthy that since Joel and Julia's marital problems have increased, so have Parenthood's ratings. Katims also made sure to tease the potential of reconciliation, to ensure the series new, more sizable viewership doesn't jump ship before the storyline is complete — and considering the manner in which Christensen teased the slow burn in an interview with Parade, we're going to need that reassurance.
Still, with all this talk of Joel and Julia being a C story and the higher ratings since their romantic downward slope began, it almost seems as if their tumult is some form of deliberate wake-up call. Last season, Parenthood ratings slipped so low, the series was forced to craft a season finale that might have to double as a series finale. Like Joel and Julia's happiness, Parenthood's presence on television was being taken for granted. Its potential end drummed up publicity and brought out battle cries for a Season 5 renewal like clockwork.
Now, Joel and Julia's potential end has riled up fans and brought them out in ratings buckets. Yes, in times of low interest, it behooves a television series to swing for the biggest, most shocking dramatic arc it can, but the way in which the story is unfolding feels foreign. Perhaps, the 22-episode order for Season 5 has encouraged the writers to let the story be more drawn out, but for Parenthood to let these two characters go this long in complete and total silence is nothing short of infuriating.
And while it's expected that a series steeped in such realistic family drama will make us uncomfortable, we still depend on situations to shift and morph as each episode passes — it is a television drama. We need movement. And at the moment, Joel and Julia feel stuck in their devastating silence. Still, no matter how much we may disagree with this storyline, Parenthood has the last laugh because it's proved that even when we're not okay with its swift turns, the series still has our hearts on a very, very short leash.
Images: NBC (3)