Julia and Joel
Julia and Joel

As television's revival has reinvigorated the water-cooler discussion, many of the moments viewers have to talk about with someone have come from cable. Hannah Horvath spends a sexy weekend with a hot but emotionally troubled doctor on Girls, and the masses take to their keyboards. Catelyn Stark gets her throat slit during a wedding on Game of Thrones and the Internet explodes. Sometimes though, even network television shows with cable-style sex and violence get to join in the fun. Shonda Rhimes' addictive political soap opera Scandal is better at creating oh-my-God-what-did-I-just-watch moments than almost anything else currently on television.

But lately, some of the fiercest debates I've been having with my fellow viewers and critics center around a much quieter show with much lower stakes. Instead of armies of ice zombies, rampaging sexy vampires, or even corrupt presidents who just so happen to have shot down pesky passenger jets, it's just got families, and feelings, and a bout of breast cancer. But it turns out that tugging on our heartstrings can be just as powerful as punching us in the gut. I'm speaking, of course, of NBC's family drama Parenthood, and the separation of one of the show's many married couples, Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger) and Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen). The debates over their dissolving union, and the question of who is to blame, may not be quite as bitterly divisive as some of the cable brouhahas of recent years, but the feelings on both sides are exceptionally deep.

When we met Joel and Julia five seasons ago, they were the parents to a daughter, Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae), a somewhat spoiled only child. Joel, a builder and contractor, was staying home to raise Sydney, hosting play groups and escorting his daughter to swim classes, where he developed a friendship with an overly familiar mother named Raquel (Erinn Hayes). Julia was, at the time, working as a hard-charging corporate lawyer. It was a balance that worked for them, with the kinds of problems all such arrangements have around the edges. Joel sometimes missed work and connection with other adults. Julia felt insecure about Raquel's incursions into her home and her relationships with her husband and her daughter, symptoms of her larger anxieties about whether she was spending enough time at home.

But over the show's run, Joel and Julia have reversed positions in their marriage in ways that have had disastrous consequences for them and their family. After failing to conceive a second child and a planned adoption of an infant fell apart when the birth mother backed out at the last minute, Joel and Julia agreed to adopt an older boy named Victor into their family. The couple had agreed to participate in a placement program, but they weren't necessarily prepared for how quickly their names came up, and what it would be like when an adoption officer showed up on their doorstep and essentially told them they could take Victor or leave him.

They took him, and loved him. But Victor's arrival fundamentally shook Julia's assumptions about where she wanted to direct her energy. And the way the couple resolved her changing sense of purpose, both individually and collectively, led them to the present crisis.

First, Julia quit her job on impulse after her boss proved to be less than sympathetic to the demands Julia faced in reorganizing her family. Her decision was entirely understandable, yet completely disastrous. Not only did Julia quit without discussing what her loss of income would mean for their family, but the manner of her departure meant that she'd denied herself the reference to get another job as a lawyer. Defenestrating herself from big law and freeing herself up to focus on her family was undeniably cathartic, and I cheered for it in the moment. But it was selfish, too, and a choice that foisted all sorts of problems on her family.

It made sense for Joel to go back to work, both to support his family and to finally pursue his professional ambitions. But the timing of the transition, and the fact that Joel and Julia didn't mutually agree upon it, increased the family's stress. When Julia was working, Joel had made the choice to stay home. But as Joel secured a very large contracting gig, he met with increasing success at the same time that Julia was learning to be a stay-at-home mother. And Victor's difficulties in school made Julia feel like she'd been set up to fail, as she was asked to solve a major problem without being given time to adjust to her new role first.

The situation got worse when, seeking confirmation that Joel had less time to provide her, Julia became friends with Ed, another parent at Victor and Sydney's school. As they grew closer, Julia confided in Ed more than she should have. When Julia had been anxious about Joel's friendship with Raquel, she learned to swallow her suspicion so Sydney's friendship with Raquel's daughter could flourish. But Joel remained distrustful of Ed, and perhaps for good reason -- Ed fell for Julia and ultimately kissed her, then made a scene at a school auction after she cut off contact with him. And Julia compounded a dreadful situation by lying to Joel about the kiss, before finally confessing.

It's easy to see how viewers have broken down into Team Julia and Team Joel. The former argue that Julia's made significant errors in her marriage, and is being punished, rather than forgiven, by a man who's relishing being the better spouse and parent. The latter feel -- again, entirely understandably -- that Joel has been put in a series of terrible positions by his wife, first when Julia quit her job, and later, when she embarrassed him at work, made choices without his input, and embarked on a friendship that put their marriage at risk. 

I can see both sides. But rewatching Parenthood's first season to check my recollections, part of what's made the dissolution of Joel and Julia's marriage so poignant is that all the signs were there from the beginning. The Raquel storyline was so unnerving precisely because it highlighted every issue that has come to a head in this season. Julia was anxious that her work meant she wasn't an engaged parent in a way that left space for someone else to come in and replace her not just with Sydney, but with Joel. Joel treated Julia's feelings like they were inappropriate, rather than being reassuring. Years later, Joel reacted angrily when Julia confessed that Ed had kissed her, but when we first met them, Joel expected Julia to react with equanimity as Raquel touched and kissed him on the cheek in front of Julia, gestures that may have been platonic, but were still perhaps overly familiar. And Joel, even then, was grappling with the fact that he wasn't working, but managing that emotional process internally, rather than with Julia as his partner. They weren't communicating, and they weren't fixing their problems. But they also didn't have the stressors that would later tip them over into a marital crisis. 

And that's ultimately why I think Joel and Julia's storyline has been so stressful, and has resonated so deeply. We want to root for them, and as the marriage has struggled, we've been eager to assign blame rather than to accept that the couple's problems might have been inevitable. We were participants, we were Team Braverman-Graham, and it's easier to try to say that one of them changed the rules of the game than to share their heartbreak and admit that we, too, didn't see it coming. 

Other parts of Parenthood's current season, notably Kristina Braverman's ill-fated run for Berkeley mayor, have been rockier. But the Joel and Julia storyline has demonstrated why Parenthood has gained creative strength -- and earned a larger episode order -- this season than in the two that preceded it. Family stories may not be as inherently dramatic as fantasies about wars or zombie apocalypses. But seeds planted years ago can blossom into gorgeous flowers, or into pernicious weeds that choke out promising crops. Julia's careless younger brother Crosby accidentally fathered a child, who ended up being the connection who helped him fall in love with his ex again -- the two are now married with a baby. The contrast between feckless Crosby and careful Julia has been particularly painful this season, as all the instincts that made Julia an excellent, aggressive lawyer have failed her as a mother and a wife. But in both cases, Parenthood planted the basic facts of their characters and the dynamics of their great loves years ago, and like farmers who have observed their growth, we're getting the harvests now, for both good and ill. 

And the dissolution of the Braverman-Graham marriage is a reminder that sometimes using death to amp up the stakes on television means foregoing dramatic opportunities. If you kill a character, you may get a momentary burst of shock and a source of lamentation for fans for years to come. But that character's story potential is also largely over, except as a source of in-story grief. If you keep characters alive, though, and locked in situations where they have to continue dealing with the harm they've done to each other, you've only begun to explore that phase of their story. That's why Joel and Julia's story is so powerful. Their marriage may be over, but they still have children to raise together and a community to share. In other words, one of the most complex, painful phases of their story is just beginning.