“Parenthood” has taken a big creative risk by giving one of its main characters, Kristina (Monica Potter) breast cancer. Her story will continue throughout the season, exploring the impact of the disease on the entire family. It’s a dark turn for a show that usually focuses on the lighter aspects of family life. Even the series’ more serious plots, like Max’s (Max Burkholder) struggle as a tween with Asperger’s syndrome or Julia’s (Erika Christensen) adoption of an older child, are ultimately uplifting and optimistic. Showrunner Jason Katims has stated that his will be a realistic portrayal of the disease, inspired by his wife’s own experience with cancer, as Kristina undergoes treatment and grapples with its side effects. Thus “Parenthood” has placed itself firmly into the Cancer is a Tragedy school of TV, in contrast to its rival, the Cancer is an Awesome Transformational Experience shows. Each of these sub-genres has its own tropes.
Cancer is a Tragedy
These shows portray cancer realistically. It is painful both physically and emotionally. The treatments are agonizing. The side effects are terrible, usually including hair loss. The afflicted characters worry that they are going to die, and struggle with feelings of weakness and vulnerability. The character’s friends and family struggle to help them through this difficult experience. Standard scenes include characters realizing their hair is falling out, characters vomiting, characters realizing they are too weak to enjoy a favorite activity, and characters using medical marijuana. Usually, these storylines happen well into a show’s run, as the writers work to show a new side of a character that the audience knows and love. Examples include Kitty’s lymphoma on “Brothers & Sisters,” Lynette’s Hodgkins disease on “Desperate Housewives,” Samantha’s diagnosis with breast cancer on “Sex & the City,” Murphy Brown’s battle with the same disease on “Murphy Brown,” and Charlie’s Hodgkins’ disease on “Party of Five.” These storylines follow a familiar trajectory, from tragedy to triumph. There is little suspense, since the odd are slim that a show will kill off a major character. “Parenthood” is so far adhering to the formula. This week we learned that Kristina’s cancer can be treated by a lumpectomy, and, depending on results of future tests, chemotherapy or radiation. She spent the episode selecting a doctor and dealing with her husband, Adam’s (Peter Krause) overprotective urges. However, given that this could be the final season of “Parenthood,” maybe the show will break the mold and give Kristina an unhappy ending.
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Cancer is Awesome
Shows that have cancer built into their premise tend to use the disease as a metaphor. The main characters use their diagnosis as a motivation to change their lives, and do everything that they have always secretly wanted to do now that they have nothing to lose. Typical scenes include telling someone of and spending large sums of money on something extravagant. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White (Bryan Cranston) ostensibly starts manufacturing meth as a way to secure is family’s future after his death. But really, he is finally letting his inner Alpha male come out to play. He goes from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to drug kingpin because he no longer has any motivation to conform to socially acceptable behavior. Why worry about prison or getting shot when your time is almost up? Of course, the twist came when he went into remission and realized he could not go back to his old life.
Similarly, in “The Big C” when English teacher Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) is diagnosed with terminal melanoma (what is it with teachers and cancer? Do we need to worry about Jess on “The New Girl”?), she starts speaking her mind, kicks her husband out of the house and has an affair before finally deciding to attempt to treat her illness.
“Grey’s Anatomy’s” Izzie (Katherine Heigl) was the rare character in a long-running show to get the fun, metaphorical cancer. Her tumor allowed her to hallucinate having sex with her dead crush then have her dream wedding on what she thought was her deathbed, before undergoing a high risk treatment that miraculously worked. Her character then got fired and left town so Heigl could become a movie star. These scenarios play with the common fictional question: what would you do if each day could be your last? However, these scenarios tend to ignore the physical effects of the disease and the human desire to spend the end of one’s life getting closure with loved ones, instead having characters act more like the way people in the real world do when they inherit large sums of money.
While the shows that portray cancer realistically are unquestionably being responsible about the subject, they’re not providing the escapist entertainment that a lot of people look for in a television show. Walter White is an iconic character, while few recall Kitty’s cancer as one of the highlights of “Brothers & Sisters.” “Parenthood” is keeping it real — a daring choice in television season where glamor, fantasy and wish-fulfillment are ruling the airwaves.