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Television Review

Cooperation and conflict across generations

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 2, 2010

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Fading, it seems, are the days when TV’s grandparents were strictly guest stars, and the pre-teens were all generic muppets. On “Modern Family’’ and, beginning tonight, NBC’s “Parenthood,’’ the subject is the extended family, and the storytelling is cross-generational. Grandpa has a sex life, little Johnny has big issues, tweener Susie is smoking pot, and the boomer parents still want to stay forever young. Now let’s all eat.

“Parenthood,’’ at 10 on Channel 7, is a fairly promising ensemble dramedy that shows TV expanding beyond an emphasis on nuclear families to look at broader family systems reaching from ages 5 to 75. Even more than “Six Feet Under’’ and “Once and Again,’’ two influential and superior family series of the last decade, “Parenthood’’ wants to track the trickle-down - and the trickle-up - between multiple generations. The dozen-plus Braverman clan in “Parenthood’’ flock together from singing recitals to school baseball games, an infighting, affectionate, and sprawling single unit.

One advantage to the cross-generational approach is variety. “Parenthood’’ is brimming with characters and issues, one or two of which will probably engage your interest. Craig T. Nelson is Zeek, a Vietnam vet who’s too passionate about competition. He and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) have four grown kids, the oldest being Adam, played with barely hidden anger by Peter Krause from “Six Feet Under.’’ Sisters Julia (Erika Christensen) and Sarah (Lauren Graham) are opposites, with Sarah a financially hurting mother of two and Julia a career-obsessed lawyer. Younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard), a happy hipster, is having trouble committing to his girlfriend.

The Bravermans all live near one another, now that Sarah has moved into her parents’ garage apartment, and the action jumps among them. Sarah’s teen son and daughter are having trouble moving in with their grandparents, but Adam’s 8-year-old son, Max (Max Burkholder), gets the biggest chunk of plot tonight. Max is not blending well with other kids, he clams up at baseball games, he fixates on his Lego set, and he insists on wearing pirate garb to school. But Adam keeps pressuring Max on the baseball field, unwilling to see and accept Max’s differences.

The resolution to Max’s story - I won’t spoil it here - comes too quickly and is much too pat. That’s one of the disadvantages of the cross-generational approach. Often, no single story line gets fleshed out enough, as the narrative fractures among the many characters. The “Parenthood’’ pilot, directed by Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing’’), stuffs so many crises and life-changing events into one hour, the overall effect is a little absurd at times. I hope that executive producer Jason Katims manages to linger more on the most compelling situations going forward, playing them out more thoroughly and distinctively. He certainly has done that expertly on his other show, NBC’s “Friday Night Lights.’’

Katims didn’t create “Parenthood,’’ of course. The show is based on Ron Howard’s popular 1989 movie starring Steve Martin, as well as a failed 1990 series attempt by NBC. At times, the material does feel a little dated, as if suburban life hasn’t changed at all in two decades. Sons are still trying to get their fathers to be more sensitive, women are still trading family for career. But then again, the show doesn’t strain to evoke the digital age, either, by throwing texting- and Facebook-based dramas at us. That approach can be irritatingly forced.

And ultimately - aside from airing opposite the hit “The Good Wife’’ on CBS - the cast is what will make or break a show like this. The “Parenthood’’ lineup bodes well. Krause was a revelation on “Six Feet Under,’’ a pent-up guy coming of age in his 30s; he’s less riveting but no less solid here. Graham, who replaced Maura Tierney after Tierney was diagnosed with breast cancer, is too broadly comic in her dating scenes, but she’s also touching in her interactions with her children. Shepard, with his handsome and yet comically shaped facial features, fits in well as the clueless guy’s guy, and Mae Whitman, as Sarah’s daughter, is a likable renegade. Even when their story lines veer toward cliche and sentimentality, the actors emerge with dignity.

One thing’s for sure, though. Whether you like “Parenthood’’ or not, you will most likely prefer it to its timeslot predecessor, “The Jay Leno Show.’’

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

PARENTHOOD Starring: Peter Krause, Craig T. Nelson, Lauren Graham, Max Burkholder, Bonnie Bedelia, Monica Potter, Dax Shepard, Mae Whitman, Erika Christensen, Miles Heizer, Sarah Ramos

On: NBC, Channel 7

Time: Tonight, 10-11