As ‘Parenthood’ ends, will the network family drama end with it?

Senior Television Writer
01.29.15 27 Comments

NBC

Though the Bravermans love them some baseball, “Parenthood” never had a regular sports component like producer Jason Katims’ previous NBC drama, “Friday Night Lights.” Perhaps to make up for this, “Parenthood” fans added a competitive aspect to their viewing: trying to outdo their fellow fans over how much a given episode made them cry.

It was really something to witness these past six seasons, as comments and tweets and messages would fill up the internet the night and morning after each new episode aired: fans boasting that, truly, their sobbing at Kristina’s cancer, or sniffles over Max’s struggles to fit in at school, or their weeping over Amber’s weeping, was the most possible of anyone watching. Not even “FNL” – that beautiful, ruthless tear-jerking machine – ever made its audience quite as intent on announcing the state of their tear ducts.

While I never felt that competitive spirit myself, I also never tried to hide the emotional effect “Parenthood” could so often have on me – an effect so profound that I was willing to ride through many bumps over the years, including this final season, just to get to those dusty, cathartic moments Katims and company provided. But in solidarity with all the other Braverman cultists out there, let me say this:

There is a moment in tonight’s series finale (10 p.m., NBC) that made me bawl as much as anything in that show’s history, if not in the combined runs of this show and “Friday Night Lights.”

And I suspect it is not the one that will make many of you cry the hardest, or at all.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Parenthood” – and one that could well make it the last of its kind on the broadcast networks – is the way that its sprawling ensemble cast provided so many different ways into the show, depending on the interests of a particular audience member. Some were drawn in by the struggles of Adam and Kristina to deal with the Asperger’s diagnosis of their son Max, while others appreciated Julia’s struggle to balance work and motherhood (and the tension her career created at times with stay-at-home dad Joel), or enjoyed seeing Crosby grow from an irresponsible manchild into a caring father and husband, or could relate to Sarah’s struggles as a single mom raising a difficult teenage daughter, or to Zeek and Camille dealing with an empty nest, or to the problems of the respective grandkids when they actually got storylines of their own.

It was never exactly a show with something for everyone – the Braverman clan represented a very specific, primarily white, affluent and Berkeley liberal slice of life – but the broader themes about parenting and family provided multiple access points, and allowed for a much greater diversity of opinion than often comes from ensemble dramas. I would encounter fans who couldn’t tolerate Max, and others who felt great sympathy for him. Discussion of the Joel and Julia marriage – and then their separation in recent seasons – would often resemble partisan political discussion, where Team Joel and Team Julia seemed to be watching wildly different series.

As a result, the moment that wrecked me in the finale may roll off your back, just as the 10 tear-jerking moments that Drew McWeeny and I chose for the list below may make you raise an eyebrow at the absence of so many of your own favorite moments or characters.

The reactions to “Parenthood,” including my own, always seemed so deeply personal that discussion of individual episodes often dealt much less with what the show was doing right (often small, intimate, lived-in moments between siblings, spouses and other family combos) or wrong (usually bigger picture details, like serious financial problems that would be quickly waved away) than with our evaluation of the behavior of the characters. We were judging them not as fictional creations of Katims and company, but as actual humans whose choices in parenting, love, and career we could applaud or condemn as we saw fit.

That speaks to the tremendous work the show’s writers, directors and actors did in breathing life into the larger Braverman family – even when, say, Kristina was annoying the heck out of me, I understood exactly where she was coming from and bought into her as a three-dimensional human being. But it also speaks to the nature of “Parenthood” as a low-concept family drama of a kind the broadcast networks don’t make much of anymore(*). Because none of the Bravermans were involved in the kinds of jobs that generate basic story – no cops, no doctors, and the show had even less interest in Julia’s corporate law job than it did in Sarah’s brief stint as a playwright – virtually all of the plot had to be generated out of interpersonal conflict, most of that involving people who were related by blood or marriage and therefore couldn’t get away from one another. There’s not only a much higher degree of creative difficulty in that – such that I can’t get too mad at the writers for the number of times Sarah got involved in love triangles, or at the way certain story arcs long outlived their usefulness – but also a lower potential reward in terms of audience. “Parenthood” was never NBC’s biggest problem, ratings-wise, but nor was it the kind of big hit that could justify the expense of such a large and impressive cast. (This final season had to make do with each castmember missing at least a couple of episodes to keep the budget down, and the absences were at times distracting in their clumsiness, like Adam randomly being out of town in the midst of a big Max meltdown.)

(*) Next week, NBC is replacing “Parenthood” with “Allegiance,” which is a drama about a family… of spies.

These kinds of family dramas – referred to in some corners of the business as “soft” shows, because of their lack of an obvious narrative hook, as well as their potential ratings – never dominated the airwaves, but the broadcast networks usually had room for a few at a time, whether “Family” itself, or “Party of Five,” or Lauren Graham’s previous job on “Gilmore Girls,” or the many outstanding series (“thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life,” “Relativity,” “Once and Again”) produced by Katims’ mentors Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz. Now, the genre has been mostly pushed to cable, and while there are creative successes there (ABC Family has both “Switched at Birth” and “The Fosters,” for instance), even that environment seems tilted more towards flashier concepts with more mystery and/or violence.

To a degree, this emotional space – and the blend of tears and laughter that “Parenthood” made its stock in trade, so that Adam could get upset over Max’s diagnosis one minute, and brag about the “fever” that inspires his cool dance moves the next – has been given over to half-hour shows with more indie movie sensibilities, like HBO’s “Togetherness” or Amazon’s “Transparent.” And those are great shows in their own right, but they’re also so specific where “Parenthood” – because of its size and the wide range of interests of its creative team – was so often universal.

“Parenthood” could be messy. It could be all over the map (as is, I fear, this essay on it). It could do absolutely ridiculous things like having Kristina run for mayor of Berkeley (and almost win!) and open a charter school in the same season, and it could do incredibly heart-rending things like Zeek’s lecture to Amber at the junkyard (“You do not have my permission to mess with my dreams”) or Julia confessing that she doesn’t feel love for adopted son Victor. It was maddening. It was wonderful. I will miss it terribly, and I wonder if we will ever see its like again.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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