'Parenthood' review: NBC's 10 p.m. comeback starts here

parenthood-320.jpgNBC's new show "Parenthood" shares a title and a basic structure with Ron Howard's 1989 movie, but its closest sibling on television now is probably "Friday Night Lights."

That's due in no small part to the fact that Jason Katims, "FNL's" executive producer and showrunner, is also the man behind "Parenthood." The two shows look different -- "Parenthood" is shot much more conventionally than the documentary-like "Friday Night Lights" -- and have somewhat different tones, but they both drama and comedy really well, and they both strive for honest relationships rather than neat ones.

"Friday Night Lights" is one of my favorite shows of the past decade, so I'm not putting "Parenthood" anywhere near that level yet. But its first two episodes do give the show a very strong foundation on which to build.

Like the movie (and less like the brief 1990 sitcom that followed it), "Parenthood" revolves around four siblings and their respective spouses, significant others and kids, along with their parents. Tuesday's (March 2) premiere covers a lot of ground: Single mom Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) moves her and her two teenagers (Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer) back in with mom (Bonnie Bedelia) and dad (Craig T. Nelson); oldest brother Adam (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) learn their son Max (Max Burkholder) may have Asperger's Syndrome; underachieving little brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) discovers he has a son; and middle sister Julia (Erika Christensen) struggles to stay connected to both her husband (Sam Jaeger) and daughter and her career as an attorney.

That's a ton of story to unload in an hour, but very little of it feels rushed or forced. The way Katims -- whose own son has Asperger's -- Krause and Potter handle the Asperger's story is sensitive, sad and in the second episode even darkly comedic; it's a high point of the first two shows.

The cast turns in fine work across the board. Graham (who replaced Maura Tierney in the show following Tierney's cancer diagnosis last summer) is playing another single mom, but Sarah Braverman is basically the anti-Lorelai Gilmore: frayed and unable to get through to her kids. She feels defeated returning home, but there are a few small wins here and there, and she manages to survive it with a biting sense of humor intact.

Krause ("Six Feet Under," "Dirty Sexy Money") is more or less the glue of the show, and I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Shepard ("When in Rome"); the two have a very believable big brother-little brother dynamic. Shepard's character also probably has the most room to grow with the realization that he has a son from a long-ago girlfriend (Joy Bryant).

Christensen gets the short of end of the story-telling stick in Tuesday's premiere, but the second episode spends more time exploring just how badly she wants to make her career/home balancing act work. In a lesser show her character might be a brittle cliche unable to recognize that she's losing touch with her family. But as Julia is written and played by Christensen, she's all too aware of it, and full of good intentions to rectify it, but is unable to get out of her own way.

"Parenthood" is the centerpiece of NBC's effort to gain back some of the viewers it lost during its failed Jay Leno-in-primetime experiment earlier this season. The hope here is that the network didn't do too much damage to itself, because "Parenthood" is absolutely a show worth an hour of your time.
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"Parenthood" premieres at 10 p.m. ET Tuesday, March 2 on NBC.

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Photo credit: NBC