On TV: Parenthood

Movieline Score: 5

Parenthood is strange and familiar thanks to its utterly traditional format. Based on the disarming 1989 film comedy with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis (and exec-produced by the film's director Ron Howard), Parenthood takes the family melodrama of Brothers & Sisters and ratchets up the funny moments, allowing actors who've pleased us in similar roles to gently overstep their archetypes with warm, self-effacing sympathy. If we can catch up with all the pilot's proposed story lines, we may have a Pottery Barn-scented Modern Family on our hands.

I called Parenthood "strange" earlier; what other word best describes an update on a 21-year-old movie featuring different actors and a soberer sense of comic rhythm? (It premieres tonight at 10 on NBC.) The idea is peculiar, but the denizens of Parenthood elevate (or warp) domestic drama into something of a calming, psyche-coddling experience, like the whole thing is gift-wrapped in talk radio and root beer. It's overly sweet, to be sure, but the bubbly mouthfeel is pacifying.

Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham) initiates the story by moving back home from Encino, bringing her two kids with her in somber failure. She's divorced now, and her parents Zeke (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) have unfortunately raised their several children to be greater achievers. Sarah's older brother Adam (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) have two kids, a "perfect" teen daughter Haddie and a young son who may have Asperger syndrome. Sarah's two younger siblings, Julia (Erika Christensen) and Crosby (Dax Shepard), are offered as extremes on the Braverman spectrum. Julia's a lawyer and the adored family go-getter, and Crosby is the restless brother with a long-term restless girlfriend and old flings bearing harsh news.

You may already realize that the Parenthood pilot is chockablock with character setup. It's a lot to weather in episode one, but with Graham's downtrodden sarcasm leading the way and Shepard's surprising comic restraint vivifying each of his romantic squabbles, there's plenty to look forward to here. In addition to the angles on sibling rivalry and disappointed ambitions that seem poised to unfurl, Parenthood smarts us with undaunted levity. As viewers, we acknowledge scattered discouragements and complications, but we also like the people too much to feel like we're entering 7th Heaven territory. Tenderness is a frightening quality in network TV, but it is thankfully offset here by Parenthood's finest attribute: Its people feel like people.