I love NBC’s series Parenthood. In many ways, I hate that I love it, as the show has been accurately described as soap opera with updated music. When I try to explain the show to friends, the conversation quickly derails, as summarizing the show highlights how unrealistic it may be is. I don’t really know whether families as large and diverse as the Braverman clan are actually faced with as many utter catastrophes as the show presumes, or if the writers are merely doing what good writers do—drawing in an audience, in this case through heightened melodrama.

In either case, I am emotionally invested in the future of the Braverman family. And a good portion of America is with me. We love watching the entire family pull together to get through whatever trial they are facing, be it Max’s struggle with Asperger’s, Amber’s flirtation with substance abuse, Jabar’s gluten intolerance, or Sydney’s sulkiness. The writing of the show is clever, but the formula is clear. Every problem is solved through the strength of family.

Every problem, that is, until, Julia and Joel separated.

The entire story arc was so startling. A deteriorating marriage? We’d expect this sort of thing from flighty Sarah or careless Crosby. And I even worried about strong, even-keeled Adam and Kristina when their family faced a roller coaster of seemingly insurmountable setbacks. But Joel and Julia? Never. They’ve been rock solid from the beginning. And then the distance crept in, like it tends to in real life. Little by little, tiny changes began quietly ripping through the seams of their relationship, and Julia drifted away, floating along until she found herself in the arms of friendly and flirtatious Ed. Once she realized that her emotional entanglement was endangering her marriage, she, in typical Julia fashion, resolved to end the friendship immediately. But Ed proved himself comparably decisive, kissing Julia resolutely as she was breaking things off. And she didn’t stop him.

So here we are. The deed is done. The apple is bitten. The vow is broken. We naturally sympathize with Joel, the injured party. He is certainly within his legal rights, and arguably acting on a biblical recourse, in separating from Julia. So he does, and he is both justified and bringing justice to his family.

Except that justice isn’t what the family needs. True to form, Parenthood faces the cold, hard reality of marital separation with brutal honesty. It’s nigh unto televised torture. Joel’s sharp and vibrant heartache, Julia’s earnest pleas for forgiveness, their twisted, anguished smiles as they put on brave faces for their children—these are the casualties of this broken relationship. Perhaps the most miserable moment in this disaster is when they tell their children about their decision to separate. If Victor and Sydney’s cries of sheer agony didn’t break your heart, it might have been broken to begin with. There is no solace, no relief, no break from the suffering. Every second of this story is pure misery.

On the surface, this story arc seems out of sync with the values the show upholds. But this isn’t a deviation from Parenthood’s position on the power of familial love. It’s just the logical inverse of what the show has already espoused. If marital fidelity and faithful love reconcile families and fortify them against suffering, then infidelity and separation wreck children and fling family members into abject isolation.

In a show that, to be generous, has a casual relationship with spirituality, it is almost shocking to see the sanctity of marriage upheld in such a steadfast way. Marriage is a sacred covenant, an unrivaled bond of intimacy that forges individuals together in ways that absolutely make easy severance impossible. And Parenthood is mercilessly exact in its rendering of the wreckage that occurs when families fail to love each other well.

Julia breaks the family. And Joel acts justly, activating the natural consequences of broken trust. But what Joel and Julia need, what Sydney and Victor need, what we need as a human race, isn’t justice but forgiveness and grace. Justice puts the scales back in balance, but it doesn’t heal us. Only grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation can do that. And if there is anything that can give us hope for Julia and Joel, it’s that the Bravermans understand the capacity of love to restore shattered relationships.


4 Comments

  1. Amanda, this is so great! It’s hard because my husband and I love the show a lot but we both seriously felt as if Joel was completely in the wrong in choosing to separate without any outside counseling. However, I can definitely see some of the same themes of justice, grace, and mercy in the whole story arc, hard as it is for me as a faithful viewer to watch. The show really does hit on some key spiritual themes, as secular as the characters are sketched out to be.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer! I have been in such a conundrum about who to blame for this mess. On the one hand, I think Julia’s behavior was inappropriate. On the other hand, Joel’s was selfish. He reacted out of hurt instead of love and self-sacrifice. They’re both wrong, I guess. But I really believe their marriage will be redeemed, although it will likely be a long, painful process that will stress me out for weeks on end.

  2. I like this article and agree that Julia was wrong to kiss Ed and that this family needs love and forgiveness rather than justice. BUT (you knew there was going to be a but), I think reducing the cause of their separation to the kiss is too simplistic. Yes, that was the obvious sin. But, really, this marriage was showing a lot of problems this season, from the moment that Julia quit her job and Joel went back to work. Did Joel break a marriage vow? No, not that we have been shown (his relationship with Pete has been, perhaps flirtatious at points but it does not seem they have entered into a physical or even emotionally intimate relationship). Still, I think to say that Julia’s sin (of kissing Ed) is the cause of the rift is reductionistic. As in real life, there were many factors at play, many many sins by both parties and each doing their part to breakdown their marital relationship. Oh, and let’s not forget that Joel kissed on of the mom’s in the playgroup in an earlier season (much like the Julia Ed situation, the other mom kissed him and he let it go a moment before stopping it). Now, let me just remember this is a TV show! Cleary, I’m invested too!!

  3. This is all moot now, of course. Something far more damaging to Joel and Julia’s one-flesh union–Julia’s one night stand with Max’s schoolteacher–has happened and Joel doesn’t know about it.

    My guess is that in the moral universe of the writers this occurs while they are “separated” and so when they inevitably reunite in the finale on Thursday there will be no irony in the portrayal. All will simply be nifty again and the hookup ignored.

    Let’s see.

    As for the story arc, I never bought it in the first place and think it the stupidest of the show’s many stretches of the imagination. There’s just no hint in Joel’s character prior to his reaction to discovering Julia’s emotional bond with Ed to suggest that he could be so unforgiving and blow the family up over it. It just doesn’t jive. Everything prior–including his love for Julia and the children–suggest a few days of anger and then reconciliation.

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