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By Ben Cohen a “legendary master of the left field.” -BRP!

“Unintentionally misunderstood since 1975.” –Anonymous

“A big f@#k you, to the audience.” -B. Pendarvis

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Parenthood a Berkeley perspective?

In Parenthood we are presented with a transformed Berkeley, CA, in which due to trade mark law I guess, Pete's coffee becomes Berkeley Coffee and Berkeley High becomes Roosevelt.  My wife and I began watching it last night, seeing the 2nd and 3rd episodes.

From the age of almost 2 to the age of 12 I was a resident of Berkeley, CA.  Every summer of my childhood there after, having left my hart there, I would work there.  I still have an aunt who lives there, one of a myriad of excuses I have to go back and visit.  So I consider myself a reasonable judge (if not up to date and fully informed) of a show about raising kids in Berkeley.  First cautionary disclaimer would be, Berkeley is possibly the most diverse place on the planet...so no one story or one opinion will fill you in.  Still I find Parenthood to be an odd duck, even for Berkeley.

There have been hundreds of stories presented on San Francisco, you know, that city across the bay.  However, Berkeley seems to be lacking in the story department.  It is in this way, unfairly, unlike an equally unique place I have lived in and love, Savannah, GA.  Savannah has often now been the subject of plots in film and comics.  It is a dynamic character and has its share of storyteller.  Especially now with a school that houses some of the brightest new stars in comics and film.  Berkeley has its share of storytellers, Al Young, Robert Hass, Ayelet Weldman and her husband Micheal Chabon are all well respected local writers.  Two of America's greatest cartoonist, Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine have spent a sizable portion of their carrier in Berkeley.  Sure I can flip through pages of Eightball or Optic Nerve and find moments where I feel homesick.  But I don't have the sense that Berkeley is explicitly a character.  It was more so, in my comic Ordinary Betty and Ted the Milkman (although I am no Clowes or Tomine).  Berkeley has been portrayed in a number of fine documentaries,  for the epicenter it was in American culture.   Iconic apearences for the city have come in the form of; driftwood art in Harold and Maude, a college scene in the Graduate, Multicultural family dynamics in Made in America, the ghetto in Spirit Link, the title and more in Berkeley (which I only heard of when researching this post), through the lives of students in Boys and Girls and a pool scene at the Claremont in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Parenthood is the first time I am aware of that a TV series (still the most accessible of mediums) specifically states it is taking place in Berkeley and attempts to present Berkeley through the eyes of a fictional family. I was surprised to find out it IS filmed in Berkeley...and Mill Valley (where I grew up after moving), and Oakland (right next door to Berkeley) and a Universal Studio lot.  So far I have not had that moment of..."oh, I know that place," but I do confess architecturally it obviously is constant.

The casting is really the most interesting part of the production to me, but the characters are perhaps the reason I am not ecstatic about it. "Six Feet Under's" Peter Krause gives the cast credibility. While Dax Shepard (from Punk'd) would seem to be the warning flag going in.  The dropping in of an ex-lover and Shepard's bi-racial 5 year old son is actually interesting and fun, although predictable.  Apparently they did not partake in the well publicized School Nurse condom campaign at Berkeley HS (We at Tam had one that made the news too...but because we had to fight for it).  In reality I find Shepard's performance and character far more palatable and believable, so far he may be the reason I am watching still.  Monica Potter from Boston Legal so far is constantly just as annoying as Krause, in their dealing with having potentially a child with Autism.  From the perspective of a teacher and a psychologists son, I just want to reach into the screen and shake some sense of reality into them and shake their self obsession out (which is the point of the character...but it falls short of me caring about them). I usually feel Erica Christensen's performances are competent, and unlike her broth and sister in law, I am pissed at what she is pissed at.  Perhaps, because I have this insane busy American life, and feel that is a reality for most competent parents.  We struggle to find time with our kids.  Her TV husband Sam Jeager on the other hand plays the nice home husband...but the character is far to naive and again I find myself reaching for the screen when he is on camera...I really do not want to see another infidelity story.  The main issue facing Jeager and Christensen is Erin Hayes's Buddhist, wealthy, white mother with Asian or half-Asian kid, super flirty, super obnoxious....just pile on the stereotypes of progressive women who annoy the crap out of you...I know this character is more accurate a stereotype then some...I also understand its association with Berkeley...but man, do I hate being hit over the head with it.  If she brakes up their marriage, I will be annoyed by the transparency. I have some close friends that fit the good part this couple dynamic, and I just don't think they would act with quite the same stupidity. Bonnie Bedelia so far plays a bland "progressive" mom.  Which is disappointing, because most mom's I know of in Berkeley are very dynamic figures.  Ironically she was in the film Berkeley. On a great note, Craig T. Nelson continues the role he played in The Family Stone (a film I love and identify as a very Berkeley type family story)...but he is not as pure of hart in Parenthood...which is a good thing.  Gone are the days of Coach.  Lauren Graham from the Gilmore Girls, seems to be predictable and is another character I could do without.  Which is shame, because she is the reason we are watching their lives at this point, she has just moved back into her parents with her two kids.  Believable is that she is a bar tender from Fresno (a lot of bars there in comparison to grocery stores).  Her daughter is struck with dilemma of being held back a year after transferring to "Roosevelt" (which is much whiter then Berkeley High)...(my sister would be the authority here having lived in Berkeley too and teaches in Fresno now)...but my sense of this student struggling at a Berkeley HS not being a stretch. Graham's job interview scene made me super frustrated with my own interview process...if I could act that lame and be as close to getting the position as her...well it just was not realistic in this market.  Her struggles with her car are authentically Berkeley (lot of old clunkers there).  But you would eventually just give up and take the abundance of public transports (buses, bikes, BART)....it is so easy to get around cheaply in Berkeley and with her family dynamics...she would be aware of this solution right off.  The plot use of a twin bed seemed really lame.  I actually looked at the screen as she and her daughter struggle over room on the mattress...I said, "get another mattress...there is space right there." These basic solutions that down on you constantly, make it hard to believe these people.  The kids seem OK, so far and I would prefer to give them time to get into the characters.  But who has time for the kids when you are so annoyed by their parents.

One very genuine and accurate feature was Krause's battle with a possum.  They are common pests or neighbors (depending on your politics) in Berkeley.  That brought back "real" childhood memories for me.

1 comment:

  1. Watched the next two episodes...still arguing withe the TV, some slightly better scenes...lots more lame stereotypes. Krause improved ever so slightly as a father sub. And the kids are braking even. I would mention that there was the most unrealistic conversation between two cousins about their role and their parents role as teens and teen parents...only on TV and in Movies has this conversation ever happened. But I did have that...ah ha I know that place moment...an outdoor hop the fence at night pool scene.