I dreamed of being an artist or a writer or something, but I mean, come on. You gotta pay the rent, you know?
March 2, 2015
In which I secretly wish I were a Film & TV major who got to write essays about her favorite fictional characters.
Maybe it's because Parenthood ended recently and the Bravermans collectively stomped on my heart to the sound of "Forever Young" during that stupid, wonderful final sequence on the baseball diamond, or because as I myself am marching towards "adulthood" and nearing that dreaded time of looking back on your younger self's dreams and assessing the mathematical, measurable distance separating the Now-you to the Future-you Younger-you used to dream of becoming... whatever it is, I've been struck by how much Sarah Braverman means to me — especially the now-me.
Full disclosure: I wish I could say my love for Lauren Graham influenced my love for Sarah Braverman, and it probably would have in the alternate universe where younger-me (this motif is getting tiresome, so I'll stop now, promise) watched Gilmore Girls before Parenthood. But I didn't. I fell in love with Sarah Braverman before I did Lauren Graham. Now, I could talk about Lauren and Lorelai Gilmore and Amy Sherman-Palladino all day every day (anyone? anyone?) but that's another topic that I reserve for all the wine-and-Gilmore Girls nights Future-me will plan to convert friends so I'll have people to gush and gab with. The appeal of Parenthood was the show's connection to Friday Night Lights. I also tend to crave and consume shows that could be described using a combination of the following: family drama, comedy-drama, hour-long, WB, college/high school/teen comedy-drama. I tend to be biased (sometimes unfairly) against shows that are structurally plot-driven. And I've become (sometimes unfairly) hostile towards the prestige shows that seem to sprout everywhere and that promise depth and a Nietzschean look on politics or marriage or insert your chosen profession when they mostly feel like the result of a focus group where people were asked, "What makes entertainment deep?" and the answers were: adultery! booze! nudity! horrible, pointless violence! cynicism! nihilism! long, overdrawn shot of a dude smoking and looking pensively out a window at the gray skies that mirror the emptiness he feels inside his heart and that he has to fill with scotch at work and multiple women in his bed! You can keep all of your cynical anti-heroes. Give me all of your most earnest characters trying their best. I'll take sincerity over jadedness any day. Sweet Over Bleak! (Nice band name?). Part of it may be that I grew up watching shows like Dawson's Creek and its spiritual-but-better-because-it-gave-me-Peyton-Sawyer successor, One Tree Hill. Looking back, I remember how important they were at the time, how formative they were. But I'd get very little out of rewatching these shows now, way less than from the shows I discovered during the period I think of as a time when you acquire tastes that will likely last for the rest of your life, late high school/early college. Friday Night Lights was one of those perfectly-timed discoveries, like happiness and comfort (and tears) wrapped in a neat package that seemed designed just for me. And as I watched Street learn how to navigate life in a wheelchair, sobbed my way through Tyra and Smash getting into college, and, when I finally decided it was time to press play on the finale, as the camera panned across the football field and rose up and away on a crane above Coach and Tami walking off together, and the screen turned to black — I realized, this is what I love! This is what I have to seek in entertainment! And indeed, Friday Night Lights led me to watch other shows that felt similar if only in their commitment to warmth and sincerity, yet without the saccharine those early WB/CW teen dramas too often indulged in. Among them: The West Wing, Parenthood, Freaks and Geeks, and most importantly, Gilmore Girls, which is not what I'm supposed to be writing about BUT I CAN'T NOT. I'm working on eventually getting to Felicity, thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Anyway. Back to Parenthood. There is evidently a Friday Night Lights approach to doing things that I have a taste for: the shooting with multiple cameras running at all times thing that allows for spontaneous moments to happen and be captured on film, the naturalistic look of the show, the shooting on location, the world created that's constant and "normal" and populated with constant and "normal" people, the dialogue that sounds unpolished, the beautiful, beautiful score. This is what drew me to Parenthood initially, and there's one shot that I always go back to and that I think encompasses all of these elements in a small, but devastatingly effective way: in the episode "What's Goin' On Down There?" (1.07), after Sarah goes to Mark's apartment to call things off ("I really like you. I really like you."), she leaves, and he follows her just outside and there's this shot of Jason Ritter looking defeated in the hallway that is PERFECTION and that kills me every damn time.
Because of the Braverholt side of the family, and most importantly because of Sarah Braverman, Parenthood soon became something else entirely to me. I still have a fondness for seasons 4-6 because of a handful of scenes and because there was, and is, nothing like this show which (I'm paraphrasing Adam Scott here) had the audacity to be a show about love. And people. But seasons 1-3 I hold so dearly to my heart because of Sarah. I don't think I've ever related to a character more, or loved a character more than Sarah Braverman. Not even Lorelai and Rory. Not even fictional Dave Eggers. Not even Franny Glass, though I think there is a lot of overlap there. Here's the part where I write a lot about me to prove how much I relate to her. Where do I start? Sarah's introduced as a struggling single mother who's been bartending for the past ten years and harboring dreams of being more, of doing more. She's smart, talented, artistic, and most of all, she has POTENTIAL. Everyone basically agrees. But everyone also agrees, to varying degrees, that she's wasted that potential for more than a decade serving liquor for a living to try and support her family. I don't have a family. But in many ways, I can see myself becoming Sarah in a couple of years. I think it's difficult to handle the pressure of being told you have potential when you don't know what that means exactly, when you don't know what you should apply it to, or where. It's a combination of being really indecisive, really insecure, but also having some kind of gut-feeling that you're destined to do something great. I always seem to come back to that low self-esteem/high self-esteem problem, but hey:
Anyway. It's established that as a teenager, Sarah dreamed of being an artist of some kind. She read a lot and wrote a lot, drew and painted, wrote songs. She had a lot of dreams but didn't follow through on any of them. Apart from a spring break weekend, she hasn't been anywhere. She's wanted to go to Morocco à la Burroughs and Kerouac, and sit at that one café and write, write, write, but she hasn't.
(Brownie points for The Sound and the Fury! I would totally read that paper. My biggest regret is not having been born a year later since the class after ours had The Sound and the Fury on their syllabus while we had stupid Scarlet Letter. I would've crushed at an essay on Caddy, and by crushed it I mean written 20 pages on how much I love her. And then 40 more pages on her relationship with Benjy.)
Having artistic aspirations as an adult is often not celebrated unless you've somehow succeeded in those pursuits and turned them into a career and made money out of them. Otherwise they're seen as lofty, unrealistic, immature. A barrier to growing up. It's fine to want to be an artist, a writer, or a painter when you're seventeen and just discovering Dylan Thomas. But dreams are not often a phase, are they? Once you're a kid who's fallen in love with creative writing assignments in high school or gets praised in art class, if you've only ever entertained the idea, no matter how many times you can try to talk yourself out of it... I don't think it ever goes away. It's always there beneath the surface. Believing you can be an artist or that you could do more may sound terribly pretentious. But what seeing yourself in that kind of light means is merely believing you have something in you that needs to get out and be seen or heard or read—or simply understood.
It always made me sad when people (characters on the show or critics/viewers) made fun of Sarah and talked about her as being flighty, frustrating, as dabbling in too many things and not finding herself already. Sure, part of me wishes the writers had stuck with her trying to be a writer. It's probably be a tricky storyline to construct in a compelling and entertaining way, but it would have been better than what they chose for her. But even so, all the things she did, all the things she tried, whether they be writing, design, or photography, they were all expressions of some future she had imagined for herself in high school. I feel similar in a way because I've always been an artsy kid, yet with no clear idea of what I was actually good at, or what I should pursue. That's the tricky part about dabbling in a lot of things. I've always felt like I could maybe be pretty good at a few things, but never great at one thing. "Follow your bliss," right? No one told me the hardest part would be to find your bliss. I've played music all my life but I never trained hard enough during my time at a conservatory to be even a good-ish pianist. I can't sing to save my life and the songs I used to write were mediocre at best. I've drawn since I was a little kid but I've never developed a proper style and technique which you need to set yourself apart. I've only recently tried to master (more like fumble with) different types of paints to underwhelming results, and unless you're named Schiele or Monet, no one really cares about your half-assed pencil sketches. I tried to take up photography but that was always my sister's thing, and let's face it, I was pretty terrible at it. I've done a few graphic design assignments and can find my away around Photoshop. I've always loved writing, and began to take it more seriously when I started college. I also admitted to someone for the first time a few weeks ago that my dream would be to write for a living. (They didn't laugh! Success!) Anyway, it's not hard for me to picture myself becoming Sarah Braverman in the long run — some waitress, bartender, temp, who knows, trying to stay afloat and having a lot of regrets because she never went for it, whatever "it" was at the time.
A lot of Sarah's early storylines involve her trying to give some credit to the dreams she used to have when she was younger, to recognize that they were not silly or naive. I always loved what Zeek was trying to do then, and what perhaps he ultimately did during the whole run of the show: He tried to convince Sarah she was good enough. Mostly, because I think Sarah knew deep down that she could be more than a bartender, he tried to instill some sense of confidence, a nugget of self-esteem in her.
Zeek believes in Sarah, but it's hard to believe in yourself when your family sees you generally as not successful, as a series of failures. I relate to Sarah a lot in that she's kind of the outsider in the family — or at least she was for a very long time — and so were Amber and Drew in the cousinhood. Like Crosby, she's the easy punchline of jokes about family members making terrible choices and life decisions, being flawed, and not very good with other people. The Holts are definitely the more independent branch of the family, almost annoyingly so, as some family members tend to find. They start out as the outsiders, the black sheeps. Others don't really know what to do with them. My relationship with my sister is rather different than Sarah and Julia's (it's probably closer to Amber and Drew's), but I definitely identify with Sarah in their dynamic, in her feeling inadequate when comparing herself to her sister who seems to have it together, has a career, a stable relationship, etc.
There are many threads to Sarah's journey, one of them being to learn to consider herself worthy of putting herself first every now and then and of acknowledging her dreams without brushing them off. She tries; she's not always successful. At the end of the day, she is a selfless person, and she's not a kid anymore, she can't just run off and be Kerouac (although in my head she did go to Morocco with Mark and they sat at this café and wrote all day every day and then invited Drew and Amber and Baby Zeek to visit but that's not the point.) Sarah is someone struggling to own up to her potential, to find her path and know what she wants in life instead of neglecting her wants and needs to manage other people's problems. She's struggling to admit to herself and to others what her dreams are and to work towards accomplishing them, she's learning how to value herself and her work, learning how to put herself out there*. That's why the Seth/Sarah scenes were some of the show's best moments, because beyond the romantic ramifications, their dynamic always put exactly that in perspective: how she sacrificed so much to raise their kids and how she put her dreams on hold, and as temporary became permanent, Seth went on to follow his/their dreams of being on the road, making and creating stuff. Not to say that he was leading the ideal life. But the gist of their scenes together is that for the longest time she's blamed him for her having given up on herself. One of my favorite moments between the two of them is in 2.17 (written and directed by Katims) outside Whiskey Mike's: After Seth tells Sarah he's leaving, again, she follows him outside and delivers a speech that Lauren Graham kills, as is her wont:
“I have spent so much of my life blaming you, Seth. I have blamed you for the fact that I'm almost forty years old and I still tend bar. And I could even tell you all the reasons and explain to you exactly why it's your fault. [...] I shouldn't. I really shouldn't. It does no one any good. [...] And sadly, part of me gets off on it. I love having something to blame you for, because then it lets me off the hook. And I don't want to be let off the hook. Not anymore.”I love this line. When your life has gone off the course you initially imagined and you find yourself with discarded dreams and a lot of regrets, it's easy to feel resentment towards the people you blame for one obstacle or another having been put down your way. I blame my family for things I shouldn't blame them for. I don't want to be let off the hook. Call it owning up to your mistakes, taking responsibility, sharing the blame, whatever it is, she doesn't put it on him anymore, but on herself. She stops feeling sorry for herself. Maybe she lacked the confidence to follow through on her aspirations. Maybe life wouldn't let her. Probably both. In any case, I love the subtlety of that scene and of that whole storyline Katims crafted that ultimately lead her to write her first play. You can see it more clearly when you juxtapose the two scenes between Sarah and Seth that frame his first appearance on the show. What he tells her is similar to what Zeek told Sarah before, but the history there is different. And in a microscopic way, her two answers capture the essence of Sarah's journey: from please, enough to okay, I will try not to let myself get in the way of my own potential. That "okay" means everything at that point, and it feels completely earned. It means being okay with letting (some) people in, it means opening up, it means putting herself out there with the absolute chance of failure, and maybe, the possibility of success.
* Speaking of putting yourself out there, one of my favorite scenes in the whole show is the scene where Adam tells Amber she shouldn't be so scared of trying and of putting herself out there, and she shouldn't self-sabotage her opportunities simply because she's too scared.
There are obviously a lot of similarities between Sarah and Amber, one being exactly that — struggling to find themselves, to reconcile potential with aspirations, their dreams with the reality of their situation. And in that, Amber's biggest cheerleader is her mom, who doesn't lose any opportunity to tell her that she deserves more, that she can do more. There are so many beautiful, beautiful scenes between these two. "I see you, I see how brave you are, how smart you are, how funny you are." "You can fly," obviously. The scene on the bench after the aforementioned Adam/Amber scene where Amber tells Sarah that her college interview having gone well, she's realized that maybe she could be smart and successful. I miss them. The past couple of days, as I've been preparing for what is probably the most important interview of my life so far, I've been rewatching some of these scenes and episodes, not only because I relate to Sarah (and Amber) a lot but also because Sarah has something that I painfully lack: moxie. She's braver than I could ever hope to be. Rewatching those scenes is always a must before I have to do stressful things like speak in public or go outside, as if I could absorb some of her boldness by osmosis. Perhaps she's always had it in her, or maybe having two kids and raising them on your own gives you a kind of bravery that is unbreakable. Maybe it's just the surges of confidence that we all sometimes get, when we rise to the occasion or when the survival instincts kick in. But then Sarah's also a scrappy Fresno bartender who's ready to throw down at the drop of a hat, dixit Crosby. A few instances of this: when Amber's new school decides to hold her back, Sarah goes to the headmaster's office and says that Amber's a great kid who deserves more (!). When the theater producer guy snobs her, she goes up to him and says that he, not his assistant, should read her play and that he should believe in her play because she believes in it and basically threatens never to go away unless he promises to read her. One of my favorite moments and one of the earliest ones where I thought, hmmm, what is this character that I'm feeling things for, [alert, alert, activate fangirl mode!!!!], is in the second episode, when she's at her job interview and is being her charming, funny, nervous self, and then the guy says he loves her work. Just look at her beautiful, incredulous face! And when she says "I really want this job." UGHHHHH. Lauren Graham sells it right there — all the self-doubt, the barely-there façade of confidence, the I-can't-believe-this-is-happening-to-me, the maybe-I-can-do-this, the maybe-I-deserve-this. Cue me tearing up right there.
In trying to get into I'm-confident-I-can-blow-your-freakin'-mind mode before the interview, I've also rewatched some scenes in early season two where Sarah displays the kind of bravado that people with unattractively low self-confidence like me aspire to. She has an idea that Adam takes to his boss and which turns out to be a great idea. It's small, but it's something.
I love that whole arc which to me culminates in her asking Joel to build her a desk. I love that scene SO MUCH it's ridiculous. I loved all the siblings/in-law dynamics, and I especially cherished all the stuff between Crosby and Sarah, the designated screw-ups of the family, but I wish we could've had more Sarah and Joel scenes. I think they're very similar, in a strange way. Okay, I'm becoming less and less articulate, if I ever was (*Ira Glass-voiced bot therapist* YOU WEREN'T), but I just love the arc of her giving herself credit for having ideas and being good at something, and then asking Adam to recognize her idea, and asking for more.
We never saw Joel give Sarah the desk, which makes me sad, but we did see him building it in the next episode (I think?) which makes me happy. It's one of my favorite moments. I love that she asked him and that he built a desk for her. Parenthood isn't a show that boasts of grand metaphors and symbolism (thank god—if I see one more slow-mo closeup of antlers on TV I will punch a bird), but I love that the desk is like this physical, concrete representation of her progress. It's baby steps, and roadblocks. Building yourself up is a long, tortuous road and only you can draw the map of your life. Sometimes it can start with something as simple as asking a friend to build you a desk.
Bonus screencaps that I tried to work in this long-ass post but couldn't: Sarah throwing some shade at a couple of pretentious MFA candidates (I'm assuming, though really it doesn't require a big stretch of the imagination). Again, Brownie points for Eggers! (Though after a year subscribed to McSweeney's, I have to admit I don't think I actually enjoy reading it? At least not as much as I wanted to. Hm. I love, love A Heartbreaking Work and will hold on to my signed copy instead.)