"Parenthood": The next generation of (embarrassment-free) family television

Every so often I indulge my nostalgia for old and embarrassing television series. Case in point: For the past few months, I've been addicted to reruns of -- don't judge until you read on -- 7th Heaven, which air every day on GMC.

The Camdens weren't the Waltons or the Cleavers (especially not in the rebellious Jessica Biel years), but they were, at the time, a modern version of the idyllic family, and they sucked me in. When I was 12, all I wanted was to sit around the dinner table with them, to confide my career aspirations in Mrs. Camden and exchange clothes with Lucy. I was young, naive and idealistic.

I'm still two of those things (you pick), but tolerant of black-and-white perspectives I am not. When I re-watched the iconic weed episode a few weeks ago, I almost choked on my lunch. Reverend Camden finds a joint in the house, goes on a cringe-worthy witch-hunt, and alienates both his wife and son in the process. If you haven't seen this awesome parody of the episode's most ridiculous scene, check it.

It's 15 years later, and how times have changed -- at least on television. The most obvious sign is the success of the "Modern Family," a show that boldly boasts a loving, goofy homosexual couple and an endearing reverse-cougar marriage. The creators have, inoffensively it seems, tapped into the heart of the "new family unit," a term that gets thrown around quite a bit as a sociopolitical hot topic.

You have to dig a little deeper, though, to find the more interesting shift in family television, and the most gratifying counter to the Camden family. Chugging along after three years of poor network support is "Parenthood," a gem that depicts family life with all the messiness, nuance, hilarity and rich, palpable emotion that it deserves. (And, as fate would have it, weed.)

On the surface, the tight-knit Braverman clan fits snugly in the "modern" family category. Its family tree includes an adopted child, a preteen with Asperger's Syndrome, a single mom, and a biracial couple that started dating well after they created their son.

But that's not what makes "Parenthood'" progressive. The show, in all its ad-libbed creativity and rapid-fire dialogue, shines a different, more knowing light on contemporary family life. It's embedded in how the characters interact, how they dissect situations, how they choose to respond to the chaos -- the cancer, infertility, unemployment -- that life inevitably throws their way. Almost all of the actors are adept at gliding from one emotion to another in a matter of seconds, a very real illustration of life's complexities.

And as a single woman in my 20s, "Parenthood" does something tricky: it makes me crave children for realistic reasons. It manages to slice through the glamour of parenting and marriage without sacrificing the appeal of either. My favorite characters, Kristina and Adam Braverman, are a resilient team with firecracker chemistry, and I adore that. But their most charming quality is that, unlike the Camdens, they don't, in fact, know what they're doing.

Of course it's OK to smoke weed when you're going through chemotherapy. No, it's not OK to let our 17-year-old daughter date a 20-year-old recovering alcoholic. Wait, maybe it is. Is it ethical to bribe my kid to do his homework?

That's the honesty absent from "7th Heaven," and the gray area too deep for a breezy sitcom like "Modern Family" to effectively dip into. But it's what brings the characters to life -- and I mean awkward, relatable, controversial life.

That's not to say "Parenthood" is without flaws. My homegirl Lauren Graham has been saddled with equal parts boring and frustrating storylines and Bonnie Bedelia's excellent matriarch character often gets lost in the shuffle. But look, it's 2012, and "Parenthood" is the kind of family representation that will hold up in 15 years without embarrassing our future kids, and there's something to be said for that. Not to mention it showcases kick-ass music.

If you're not watching "Parenthood" on Tuesday nights -- returning January 1 on NBC -- you should be. Now excuse me while I go watch season five of "7th Heaven."

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