We can not stress this enough: If you aren’t watching “Parenthood” on NBC, you absolutely should be. Remember how everybody told you to watch “Friday Night Lights,” and you didn’t, because you weren’t really into football, and now you really regret not listening because you got the DVDs and there was no one to hold you while you wept during the finale? Don’t make that mistake again. “Parenthood” is arguably the most frank, brave, and positively heartwarming (and heartbreaking!) portrayal of a family we’ve ever seen on television.
Over the first three seasons, we’ve watched Mae Whitman‘s character Amber grow from a rebellious, angry teenager into a strong, passionate, and confident woman. It’s a testament to the writing and to Whitman that we can’t quite put our finger on when she changed or on any specific moment that pushed her into maturity, Currently, Amber is embarking on a new romance that’s revealing a previously unexplored side of her. Her unexpected connection with recently returned Afghanistan vet Ryan (Matt Lauria) stands out from any relationship we’ve seen from her before. His uncertainty about his place in the world provides a compelling storyline when matched with her unwavering confidence, and we can’t get enough of these two together. (Are we gushing? Yes? Good.)
“What’s so exciting and inspiring to me about this season is that Amber’s doing well,” Whitman tells us. “She’s happy, and she’s in a place where she feels comfortable within herself. When you’re in that position in life, good stuff comes to you. When you’re open and positive you’re emitting that out into the world, and the things that feel right start to happen.”
Ryan is walking a precarious line. He’s hyper-aware of how people expect him to act as a veteran fresh off the battlefield, so he’s constantly conscious of his own behavior, constantly being careful not to arise anyone’s concerns. As a result, he’s grown introverted and tense, and meeting Amber has given him reason to come out of that shell a bit.
“With Ryan, it’s so cool because he’s so different from any other guy she’s been with before,” says Whitman. “He’s polite and he’s very reserved, but really funny and great. There’s an element of him not knowing who he is anymore having just come back from Afghanistan. There’s a darkness. Amber kind of brings back his light. She helps him to open up and let go and be himself and feel confident in who he is.”
It’s a mutually beneficial combination, though, because as far as Amber’s come, she has yet to experience a true, sweep-her-off-her-feet romance. “In a way, he helps her, too. She’s never taken it slow before. She gets what she wants and she’s very independent. She’s used to being in control and going full speed ahead, so for the first time she’s like ‘Oh, maybe I’ll take it slow, oh, there’s romance.’ It’s a nice change.”
In introducing a young veteran to their story, “Parenthood” bravely entered some very sensitive territory. Of course, they’re not presuming to tell the story of every young veteran, and they’re not making assumptions about how it feels to return from war to a nation that doesn’t understand your sacrifice. Amber isn’t able to understand Ryan’s experience, but instead of demanding answers and turning the show into a political statement, she accepts that they may not be able to relate to each other in every possible way.
“I would have no idea how it would feel to go through what he’d been through, or what everyone goes though over there,” Whitman says. “Amber can’t even imagine it, either, and there’s darkness to that and light. It will be hard for them, when those moments come up, to deal with, but it’s invaluable to have somebody there who is just bright and sees him for who he is, and not what he’s done.”
Where Amber is coming to the end of her “finding herself” arc, Ryan is just beginning to figure out his place. He has a surprising lot in common with who Amber was as a teenager — a fear of opening up, and of vulnerability, and of exposing his truth.
“He has a lot of pain and fear. He tries to push people away. He just doesn’t know how to operate, and Amber’s so straightforward and honest and open and clear, and really loving in the right circumstances. For him to have someone that he can trust and have fun with that is light in this world, is really powerful,” Whitman says seriously. Then she grins. “It’s so angsty and wonderful. I’m so jazzed.”
She admits that when Lauria joined the show, she was still missing Jonathan Tucker, who played Amber’s inappropriate workplace lust-interest Bob last season. “I love Jonathan Tucker so much, who played Bob. I had the most amazing time with him, so I was like ‘I’m gonna hate this new guy! Whoever he is!’ and Matt came along and it’s just impossible to hate him,” she laughs. “I still try. Every morning I wake up and I’m like ‘screw this guy!’ but then I come in and he’s the absolute best, he’s so kind and gentlemanly and wonderful. I love acting with him so much. We always come up with fun little things to do. He’s amazing and I absolutely love going on this journey with him, because Amber’s really happy and it makes Ryan really happy, and it’s all been the most positive experience.”
Lauria is just a guest star, so there’s no telling how long he’ll last, though it’s worth noting that Jason Ritter is a guest star as well and he’s stuck around. Whitman says that while she’s not sure how many episodes we’ll see Ryan in, she’s hoping it’s a lot. “I have all kinds of ideas in my head. I’m going to make this last as long as possible because I really think it’s nice for her, for a change, to have a stable boyfriend. Haddie had Alex, and it’s so nice to see Amber have a partner.”
“Parenthood” airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC. Watch it. Seriously.