Written by Duana

Welcome to 2011! Do you know one of the reasons I know you’re glad to be here? ‘Cause of the memory of your family and what happened over the holidays. What was your flavour? Passive-aggression? Boastful sibling? Crazy-but-somehow-truth-telling grandmother?

We all know the deal. The romanticizing of the family togetherness, the epic trip back, bags filled with gifts for them, self-preservation for you… and then the realization – you love these people, and they’re your family, and exactly how many hours are left? And I’m here to tell you that other families have problems.

Parenthood is fantastic. It’s complex, it’s uneven sometimes – but that’s forgivable in a show about family in a way that it just isn’t in a cop show. It’s what it would be like if you and your siblings were usually good to each other and uniformly pretty.

But people skip good shows because they feel like the train’s left the station without them. I am here to help. Parenthood comes back tonight. And they need us.

So below is your cheat sheet, so you can dive in with everything you need to know and feel good about it. I promise you will not be disappointed.

The Bravermans live in Northern California. Zeek (who has the audacity to make fun of other people’s names) and Camille Braverman had four children who all still live nearby. They’re played by Craig T Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia, and I am not above dropping celebrity names if it’s going to get you to tune in.

The oldest of the children is Adam, played by Peter Krause. The first season seemed to indicate he was around 42, so we’ll go with that for now. He married Kristina, his high school sweetheart, and they had two children. Haddie (…nobody knows. Prevailing wisdom says Hadriana, which – is that a name?), who’s 16, and Max, who’s 10.

Adam works at a shoe company that we all sort of thought he ran, but now it seems he’s just a VP. Also, it’s just been sold. Kristina is a SAHM who misses her career in municipal politics, and even realizes that staying at home makes her a bit neurotic/needy, but nonetheless is a huge support to her children and husband.

Daughter Haddie is your basic lippy-but-overachievingish teen. Last year she had some drama with a boyfriend who sniffed around her cousin, but this year she’s been mooning over Vince from FNL. I know! On this show he has a moustache! He’s going to meet her family tonight!

Max has Asperger’s syndrome, and goes to a special school, and is treated by his therapist Lyla Garrity (no, seriously, it’s Minka Kelly). He is precocious and obnoxious sometimes but never, ever cute, which saves everything, and the actor is really talented and so authentically in his own world. And Max makes Adam and Kristina so worried that they put all of their energies towards the care and feeding of an Asperger’s child, placing him into family situations and wringing their hands at the results.

Then there’s Sarah, played by Lauren Graham. She has a 17 year old daughter and if you’re having Gilmore Girls flashbacks, steady on. She also has a 14 year old son, Drew, which helps. Daughter Amber, and Mae Whitman who plays her (and who you already loved as Ann Veal in Arrested Development), kicks so much consistent ass and regularly, though not cruelly, points out that her mom is kind of a f*ckup that the resemblances to Lorelai end.

Sarah’s is that age-old story. Girl marries drug-addled musician, he’s a terrible father, they break up, and she moves her kids home from Fresno to be closer to her parents. In their guest-house, to be precise. Amber is mouthy and snarky and apparently brilliant, due to some surprise SATs. Drew is invisible and really misses his father.

Sarah’s seen as a screwup but she’s not the only one in this liberalish family. It’s just that the other one is So. Damn. Endearing. Crosby is supposed to be 32ish and he’s played by Dax Shepard and DON’T GO ANYWHERE! He’s really surprisingly awesome! So his deal is he got a girl named Jasmine pregnant and she had the sweetest child on earth, Jabbar (…), but Crosby didn’t know. So he only began being a dad when she decided to tell him when the child was five. However, he is the sweetest dad on record, even though Jasmine’s family thinks he is or was a deadbeat. Some of this may be due to the fact that he’s white. More of it is due to the fact that he lived, until moments ago, on a houseboat. Jasmine and Crosby are still doing that thing where they are seeing whether they truly like each other, or just Jabbar. Even though they’re now engaged. Jasmine can be irritating when she’s pretending she still has a dance career, but Joy Bryant makes her really really endearing.

Julia (Erica Christensen) is the youngest. 30. Esque. And her daughter Sydney is also five, and don’t get me started on how young a then-aspiring lawyer must have gotten married and had a child. She married Joel, who’s a carpenter. Currently a househusband, who is being rapidly, rapidly emasculated by his overachieving-and-aware-of-it wife. Their daughter, dare I say it, IS cutesy-precocious, and what’s more, Dad kind of loves it when she sasses at Mom or otherwise prefers daddy. They are setting her up for a WORLD of issues, no joke, since she’s kind of a pawn between them. But Julia wants another baby….

And that’s just the four siblings. I haven’t told you how the sisters Julia and Sarah hang out with Kristina the sister-in-law but they both kind of pity her for being lame, or how Haddie and Amber are alternately best friends and rivals, or how irritating it is for Adam that when he does the generous thing for his sister, gets her a job, she somehow comes off better than he does.
Fun stuff that makes this family real:

  • The parents do not say they love all their children the same. Camille says she loves Sarah best but I think she only connects with Sarah best. She loves Crosby best (Zeek, on the other hand, really does love Sarah best). Other people who love each other disproportionately: Sarah and Julia do not have a sister-bond that’s verbal. At all. Crosby and Sarah have a bond over being the screwups, as do Julia and Adam for being ‘better’ and yet less appreciated by their parents.

  • Even though Julia has been TOLD she needs to take her husband’s feelings into account, it’s just one of those things. She’s not going to. She just…can’t see what he says as important, even though he’s very important as support to her.

  • There was once an episode where Crosby and Jasmine helped Jabbar to feel comfortable pooping away from home.

  • Zeek and Camille cheated on each other in the past, and neither of them is really done punishing the other for it. Camille has the upper hand lately.

  • Adam and Crosby have absolutely nothing in common, but somehow the older-younger dynamic doesn’t play. They’re like equals. I think it’s because Crosby knows his unconventional choices have made him happier than Adam’s conventional ones. But he doesn’t want to rub it in, he’s that kind.

  • There are ongoing plotlines, but – they sort of ebb and flow, the way things do in a family. Family dinners that take place in each episode could be about the drama going on but so much more often they’re about who gets to eat a cookie, i.e. absolutely nothing.

See what I mean? It’s like a real family! There’s unrest! It’s not all figured out! But nobody’s going to kill anyone else!

But the best part is that you go through equal parts wishing like mad you were a part of this big, boisterous family, and thankful that you aren’t, and sort of happy for all of them at the same time.

Try it out. See if you love it. Let me know.

Attached – Lauren Graham presenting with Matthew Perry at the Emmy Awards.

Photos from Jason Merritt/Kevin Winter/Frazer Harrison/Gettyimages.com