TV’s Most Authentic Post-Recession Teenager

Slate's Culture Blog
March 8 2012 10:44 AM

Character Studies: Amber from Parenthood

Still of Lauren Graham, Miles Heizer, and Mae Whitman on Parenthood.

Photo byNBC– ©2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

While Gossip Girl characters dance burlesque at bars, attend fashion shows, and hobnob at high-profile book events, a mostly hidden gem on NBC’s Parenthood has a life that actually looks familiar to a young woman navigating recession-era America. That gem is Amber Holt, the now 19-year-old daughter of Sarah Braverman (Lauren Graham).

At first, this pint-sized rebel seemed like an afterschool-special archetype. We met her in the 2010 pilot when her nervous nelly of a mother walked in on the then 16-year-old with her 19-year-old rocker boyfriend. By the end of the 45-minute episode, Amber had gone missing on moving day and managed to land herself in a holding cell with her younger do-gooder cousin Haddie.


Happily, though, she’s become more complex since then—a complexity ably conveyed by Mae Whitman, whom you may recognize (or not) as George Michael’s girlfriend Ann on Arrested Develoment. Amber has difficult but entirely believable relationships with both of her parents, avoiding her drug-addict father because she’s worried about turning into him and keeping distant from her mother because she doesn’t want to make her ashamed. After getting rejected by her dream college, for instance, she hid the rejection from her mother, drank her way out of embarrassment, and, as a result, landed in a pretty bad car accident. (It was sweeps week.)

What makes Amber most fascinating, though, is that while she doesn’t follow any stereotypical, TV-character trajectory, she’s nonetheless weaving her way, gradually, towards becoming a grown-up.

After sleeping with her cousin’s ex-boyfriend and plagiarizing her mother’s homework assignments, she learned to apologize. She sang at an open mic while her absentee father sat in the audience, taking what was, for her, an important risk. And she’s gone through a tremendous transition—emotionally, intellectually and physically. She chopped all of her hair off for a cute asymmetrical do that would make the 20th century’s best modern woman (Daria, of course) jealous. More importantly, having realized that her career options as a high school graduate are limited, she went to her mother for help, something the Amber of Season 2 would not have been able to do.

In the first half of this season, she held down an unglamorous post as a barista, a job that prompted some of her better one-liners. Recently, though, she took an internship in a councilman’s office, and was then promoted to his assistant—though she continues to worry that she got the job because the councilman wants to sleep with her.

She’s still insecure, in other words. But her burgeoning career has demanded that she deal head-on with the heart of her insecurities, the feeling that she’s just not good enough. That’s what makes her the most interesting part of Parenthood—and the most relatable character on TV for this generation of young women. She may yet take another ten steps back; that is, after all, the easiest way to make drama out of a teenager’s life (recall that sweeps-week car accident). But Whitman’s unexpected charisma makes it just as interesting to see her take three steps forward as well.

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