The first season finale of Kingdom, appropriately titled “King Beast”, is more interesting for what it doesn’t do than what it does. Namely, that the episode contains no overreactions to the events of fight day. There is a complete lack of build up to the fights both Ryan and Jay have been working for months for which to prepare. Both fighters are loose at Navy Street during final preparations, if not totally relaxed. Jay is his usual sarcastic self throughout the entire day, keeping everybody around him in good spirits as the fights inch closer. Even in the stew room, surrounded by nervous family and friends, the tension doesn’t overwhelm the excitement of the battle. Ryan is visibly coiled up inside ready to burst but not in a way that overwhelms his chances in the ring, it is clearly just the way he prepares compounded by the nervousness brought on by his return after so long away.
Kingdom is a different beast for the land of pay cable shows. Byron Balasco — he of such procedurals as Without a Trace, Detroit 1-8-7, and FlashForward — wrote the script on spec. DirecTV’s third scripted series ever (not counting their role as savior of Friday Night Lights) and only the third show out of Endemol Studios, the show is very much a mix of experience and newer hands both behind the camera and in front of it. Balasco’s expertise in the world of MMA is sketchy at best, and before now he was better know as an executive producer or co-producer than a show runner. Even after taking all of this into account, the pilot is a more cohesive look at the damaged and problematic Kulinas and their extended Navy Street Gym family than it has any right to be.
Parenthood has had an uneven season. After starting the year out promisingly, odd and unexamined character choices started to take over the show, leaving the audience to connect the dots to understand the extreme reactions (or lack of reactions) demonstrated by several characters. Joel, swamped at work (except when he isn’t), reacts poorly to Julia’s indiscretion and leaves. Hank’s back, but he’s not with Sarah, and no one knows why. Kristina runs for mayor, because remission? , and Adam, inspired by her, convinces Crosby to start their own label. Several of these storylines overstayed their welcome, stretched too thinly over the 22-episode season, but fortunately the finale draws more heavily from the narratively energetic start of the season than the slog that was much of its second half.
After months of stalling, last week’s “Cold Feet” jumpstarted all of the series’ stagnating season-long arcs, finally giving the show a bit of momentum. Thankfully that continues this week, with each of the threads not only progressed, but examined in a way they haven’t been for much of the season. Yes it’s easy to infer that Kristina’s impulsiveness this year stems from her cancer scare and exposure to the harsh impartiality and unpredictability of death, and we’ve seen a handful of scenes on this topic over the course of the season. But while there’s plenty to be said for letting the audience read between the lines, at a certain point a character deciding to run for mayor and then open up a new school becomes a difficult pill to swallow (for this reviewer, that point was almost immediately). Showing us Kristina’s anger and frustration over Gwen’s fate gives us the emotional background we needed for these choices and, thanks to Monica Potter’s fantastic performance throughout the episode, builds up substantial reservoirs of empathy for a character whose Mama Bear instincts toward the people and projects she cares about can quickly become aggravating.
Parenthood shifts its focus back to the season-long (thus far) saga of Amber and Ryan this week, as Matt Lauria gets an emotional sendoff. In this potentially-final episode for Ryan (though he could just as easily return later in the show’s run), writer Julia Brownell wisely picks up the under-developed thread of Ryan and Zeek’s bond, giving viewers a clearer peek inside the character’s head than he would allow were he sharing all of his scenes with Amber. Tying her in with Zeek as well is just as important- most of Amber’s scenes this season have been with Ryan, Sarah, or the gang at the Luncheonette. It’s nice to be reminded that she has other relationships in her life informing her romantic decisions. Amber’s goodbye to Ryan is moving and heartfelt and, one imagines, very familiar to those with loved ones serving in the military. The scene treats both characters respectfully and while viewers may sympathize more fully with one person or the other, it’s great to see a balanced approach to the breakup of such a likeable couple.
Katims’ choice not to end the year with the plot-heavy “Election Night” makes sense; “All That’s Left is the Hugging” is far more introspective and cathartic, seemingly tying up several of the year’s early arcs tidily while setting up the continuing storylines for what’s undoubtedly going to be a tough second half of the season.
This season of Parenthood has been an incredibly consistent one, with interesting arcs for most of its characters and great moments for everyone. With so much going on, however, a few arcs have floundered, coming perilously close to cliché due to under-examination and familiar character beats. “Speaking of Baggage” focuses on two of these, giving them overdue attention and emphasizing their lingering, underlying causes: Julia’s struggles at home and Amber and Ryan’s engagement.
Over four seasons, one show that initially flew under the radar but has been steadily gaining critical and commercial acclaim is the NBC show Parenthood. With the 1989 Ron Howard film namesake serving as a loose inspiration, the story of the numerous members of the Braverman family has quietly become one of the more critically …