“Parenthood,” a family drama that begins on Tuesday on NBC, is unexpectedly compelling, even though it looks almost exactly like “Brothers and Sisters” on ABC (but the new show is set in Berkeley instead of Pasadena). Another NBC show, “The Marriage Ref” had its preview on sunday.
Both series poke fun at relationships without slandering them. And both shows rise above a woefully flimsy format with good writing and exceptionally good casts.
They are at the opposite extremes of NBC programming. “Parenthood,” with its polished scripts and beautifully shot exteriors, seems like a last gasp of television past, while “The Marriage Ref,” which was created by Jerry Seinfeld and attracts guest stars like Alec Baldwin, Larry David, Ricky Gervais and Madonna, could well be a glimpse into television future. But together they uphold the same basic principle of so-called family entertainment: dramas must be veined with acerbic comedy, and comedy should, at heart, be good-natured.
“Parenthood,” which includes among its executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, is a gentler reworking of the farcical 1989 movie with the same title, and is mostly a coming-of-age drama for all ages, from acne to arthritis. It boasts the kind of top-tier pedigree for drama that “The Marriage Ref” has for comedy. Craig T. Nelson (“Coach”) plays Zeek, the patriarch of the Braverman clan, a softhearted bully and alpha dad. Bonnie Bedelia (“Heart Like a Wheel”) is almost unrecognizable in the role of Camille, Zeek’s faded, hippie-ish wife.
Their children are in constant turmoil. Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) is Adam, a businessman, Little League coach and reliable brother to three other adult children who are competitive but always close. Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) is Sarah, a divorced single mother of two sullen teenagers, short on money, who moves back to her parents’ home in Berkeley. As soon as Sarah returns, friction surfaces between her and her career-minded sister, Julia (Erika Christensen, “Traffic”), a driven lawyer who struggles to find time to care for her young daughter, who prefers the attention of her stay-at-home dad, Joel (Sam Jaeger).
All the Braverman siblings rely on Adam for advice and support, but none more than Crosby, a charming, womanizing slacker played by Dax Shepard (“Baby Mama”), who weakly agrees to his girlfriend’s deadline for marriage.
Like the characters on “Brothers and Sisters,” the Bravermans tease and bicker, but in a subdued manner. Sarah is not unlike the fast-talking single mom Ms. Graham played on “Gilmore Girls,” only here she talks more slowly. Crosby is less goofily obnoxious than the characters Mr. Shepard usually plays, and so is the wonderfully funny Monica Potter, who here plays Adam’s wife, Kristina, with a fairly straight face. It’s as if the comedians were toned down so as to not detract from their characters’ more serious problems, which include career setbacks, rebellious adolescents, and, in Adam and Kristina’s case, a son who may have Asperger’s syndrome.
It’s the wrong emphasis, really, because the Bravermans are more interesting than the sum of their plights. The actors sparkle, even in muted form, but the Berkeley they inhabit feels a lot like upscale Brentwood, minus the Lexus sports cars and nanny cams. At times it seems as if the writers and producers were recreating their own lives on a slightly less entitled, more middle-class canvas — and with a rosy, self-congratulatory gloss.
That is, of course, the unspoken joke of “The Marriage Ref”: Hollywood, and that includes the famously embittered divorcé Alec Baldwin, passes judgment on the marriages of ordinary folk.
The comedian Tom Papa is the host, the so-called referee who arbitrates in a dispute between a husband and a wife, after consulting the panel, which changes with each show. Sunday’s episode opened with Danielle, a wife who doesn’t want her husband, Kevin, to enshrine in their home the stuffed remains of his beloved dead dog, curled up on a board to appear asleep.
“I think if you’re going to stuff your dog,” Mr. Baldwin says, “you should stuff it in either a useful or attractive position.” In a way the show is a throwback to the early days of television, when game shows like “What’s My Line?” gave celebrities like Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf an excuse to riff and banter. On Sunday the panelists were Mr. Seinfeld, Mr. Baldwin and Kelly Ripa, of “Live! With Regis and Kelly.” All three were relaxed, good-humored and laughed at one another’s jokes. More important, the ordinary couples, who are taped in their homes and shown on a big screen, are in on the joke, and often have the best lines.
“The Marriage Ref” switches to a full hour on Thursdays, which may be too long for such a light conceit, but like “Parenthood,” it isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.