Why is Parenthood set in Berkeley?

2010 March 4
by kvanaren

In the inevitable Wednesday morning flurry and hand-gripping that follows each new episode of Lost this season, the fact that NBC debuted a new hour-long drama as part of its fill-the-10pm-void programming got buried in the shuffle for me. Parenthood is about four adult siblings and their families, which range the familiar gamut from distant and wistful career mom, to struggling single mom, to delayed adolescent boyfriend who turns out to have a five-year-old son. The freshest and most emotionally effective story here is the plot belonging to the oldest brother, who realizes in the pilot that his son has Asperger’s. Autism spectrum disorders have just begun to seep into popular television, whether blatantly named (as in HBO’s Temple Grandin or Mary McDonnell’s character on Grey’s Anatomy) or unnamed (Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). These stories have mostly centered on adults with Asperger’s, and Parenthood is notable in its decision to depict a child with the disorder and the parents’ struggle to cope.

parenthood 1

The family home in Berkeley, California

Maybe as the show develops, the plotlines will feel less canned and more original, but right now, the strangest thing about Parenthood is its setting. California is the home of so much television that to be set in Orange County, San Diego, Los Angeles or even San Francisco is hardly worth batting an eye over, but Parenthood proudly takes place in Berkeley. The show’s four adult siblings have wacky ex-hippie parents who live in an astoundingly large, rambling house in Berkeley. There are tables outdoors surrounded by mismatched brightly painted chairs, old sheds with giant bureaus full of knickknacks, vintage lampshades, and condoms, and a general sense of a freewheeling counterculture youth that’s now older and wealthier. It would seem like an inconsequential aspect of the show, except that one of the major points of the pilot is that Lauren Graham’s character, the struggling single mom, is moving back in with her parents because she’s out of money. Her extended family is concerned that her children are rebellious and out of control, but their misdeeds fit into the classic Berkeley atmosphere more seamlessly than anyone else’s – they smoke, they get arrested, they run away. The show’s musical cues add to the dislocation. Twice, the pilot uses Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” a song that comes from a soundtrack more appropriate to a Berkeley several decades in the past.

parenthood 2

I can’t figure out exactly why it’s so odd to see these characters in Berkeley, except perhaps for the Lauren Graham/Lorelai Gilmore effect. Like Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, the setting has been boiled down to pure charm, totally distinct from the proud grittiness of major urban areas or dry remoteness of Midwest America. There’s no sting in this Berkeley, there’s nothing about political activism or rampant pot use, or even overt liberalism. It’s just a fairy land where you can always eat outside and your parents wear tunics with Asian-inspired collars and chunky necklaces. Parenthood is striving for a balanced drama, something between comedy and bleakness, but it’s set in a world of wacky houseboats and overflowing flower pots. Worse than that, the setting adds to the distinct impression that Parenthood is a show about the problems of rich white people who live in a gorgeous paradise. Don’t get me wrong – much of Berkeley is a gorgeous paradise, but it’s not all like that, and there may be a reason shows aren’t usually set there. Either you’re a hippie cliché, or you’re complaining about problems some people would kill to have. The show’s concept is more thoughtful than that, but I’m not sure its location helps sell the universal appeal.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS