Series finale review: ‘Parenthood’ – ‘May God Bless and Keep You Always’

And so we've come to the end of “Parenthood.” I published some thoughts on the series' legacy this morning, and I have a review of the series finale coming up just as soon as we put on our onion goggles…

“Boy, we did good, didn't we, Camille?” -Zeek

In this morning's piece, I alluded to a moment in this episode that worked me over emotionally as hard as anything a Jason Katims show ever has. Now that we're over the spoiler wall, I can say that it's the moment in the concluding montage(*) when we see Max graduate from Chambers Academy, smile wide and thrust his arms up in the air in triumph. As finale developments go – whether in the body of the episode, or in that long epilogue, which covers the next few years after Zeek's death – it wasn't particularly surprising. But Max's story had always been the “Parenthood” one that affected me the most, and after watching him and his parents struggle through so much for so long, seeing him go through this completely typical rite of passage – and celebrate it in a way that suggests how much emotional growth he'll soon go through – was like a dam bursting in my heart. It's a small moment, and a happy one, but it was all the payoff I wanted from six years of extreme highs and lows for Max, Adam and Kristina.

(*) Scored to a “Forever Young” cover by Sam Beam and Rhiannon Giddens.

And it's precisely because I reacted that way, and because of the deeply personal, something-for-everyone aspect of the show I wrote about this morning, that I can't ding Katims and company too much for giving virtually every character the happiest of happy endings, no matter how implausible or unearned some may have been.

Preparing for this finale, I thought back to how Katims ended “Friday Night Lights.” There, most of the characters get some of what they want, but in a more bittersweet way, as demonstrated by the resolutions for Tim and Tyra, or Luke and Becky, or the East Dillon Lions themselves. And that felt both true to that nature of that show and more dramatically interesting than if the whole thing had been sunshine and rainbows.

But even though they share a showrunner, some behind-the-scenes personnel, and a bunch of actors over the years – including the montage's introduction of Scott Porter as Amber's future husband(**) – these are not the same shows, and they shouldn't have the same kind of ending.

(**) So let's see: Amber has made out with Landry, had a baby with Luke and married Jason Street. Mae Whitman has always been a very public and unapologetic “FNL” fangirl, and that ending sure felt like a reward for six years of magnificent crocodile tears.

Specifically, while the nature of the unspoken audience compact between “Parenthood” and its audience – which asked us to love at least some of the Bravermans as if they were members of our own family, to identify with their struggles and cheer relentlessly for their successes – didn't mean that happy endings all around was mandatory, but it probably made it a good idea. I was always a Max cheerleader, even in times when his Asperger's made him insufferable, and while I think an epilogue suggesting his life would continue to be difficult would have felt honest, it also would have deeply bummed me out. Similarly, I imagine that if you were deeply invested in the Joel and Julia marriage, you would probably want to see things work out spectacularly well for them – to the point where they not only adopted Victor's biological half-sister, but had another baby after that – rather than get a glimpse of them still bickering over the foundational instability in their relationship, now with the added stress of infant care.

Is it probable that Crosby and Amber could make the Luncheonette work without Adam, at the same time that Kristina would get a fantastic new job that in turn would allow Adam to take over Chambers Academy? Not especially – it is really best to never, ever think about the realities of the Luncheonette, which is a building that Crosby doesn't even own, yet can keep afloat by renting out space upstairs – but, again, if you are Team Crosby, or Team Adam, or Team Chambers Academy, I think you wanted to see things work out. It's about as fan service-y an ending to a series as I can recall, but that isn't always a bad thing, and particularly not when the relationship between the show and its fans has been of this nature.

Zeek's death gives “May God Bless And Keep You Always” a tinge of bitter with the sweet, but it comes so late in the episode as to essentially be part of that epilogue, and Camille finally making it to the French cafe he always wanted to show was a lovely mixture of the two: she should have been able to go there with her husband, but you also get the sense that she'll be traveling a lot more in her third act (especially once Jason Street puts a ring on Amber's finger), just like she always wanted to. And before he passed, he got several more wonderful moments with his family, none more powerful than him asking Sarah if he's been a good father (after Sarah recalls how coming back home in the pilot episode led to all of this, a nice full circle moment). If even Zeek Braverman – after four kids, nine grandkids, and a great grandson, all as tight-knit as any TV family has ever been – still has doubts on that score as the end nears, what hope do any of us have to feel secure in our parenting?

Because Zeek's inevitable demise was held almost until the end, the bulk of the finale got to be devoted to one more Braverman celebration, as the whole family (including Haddie, but not her girlfriend) gathered for Sarah and Hank's wedding. The sequence felt like a nice summation of the series, not only because everyone was together, but because it had a mix of the funny (Adam again talking about the fever), the poignant (Camille and Zeek offering to take in Amber and baby Zeek), and combinations of the two (I laughed long and hard Ruby's friend simply reading Max as mysterious and intriguing rather than a kid with special needs, even as I was pleased to see him finally have success in this area). Big decisions were made (the Luncheonette, the adoption), but there was no big event beyond the wedding itself. It was simply our final chance to see the whole clan under one roof (or tent) before Zeek passed, which led to the first Braverman life cycle event with Adam as the patriarch.

As I said this morning, “Parenthood” could frustrate me almost as often as it could dazzle me. Even though it was based on a movie that had previously been adapted into a (short-lived) TV show, it felt unique, and the finale felt exactly like the way this special, potentially last-of-its-kind show should have ended.

Do I buy that everything would come up roses for the remaining Bravermans? No. Is it what the show needed to give us as our last glimpse? Abso-damn-lutely. The whole finale is fantasy camp, but that's just the way it had to be.

Some other thoughts:

* In the future, Jasmine is pregnant again, and Aida has a very impressive head of hair.

* Amber and Jason Street have a daughter, and Ryan appears to have cleaned himself up and gotten the help that he needed, based on how friendly all three parents are when he brings Zeek home. (It's the Luke Cafferty/Jason Street friendship many a fanfic author dreamed of! And it feels like a double-wink to “Friday Night Lights,” since there was a version of that show's finale that briefly featured Street.)

* Though Ruby felt like a distraction more often than not this season, those earlier episodes did make me appreciate how well she was fitting in with her new stepmom's family, both at the wedding and in the flashforward, where she and Drew seem to be thick as thieves. (Also, no Natalie at the big family dinner, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything.)

* Joel and Julia not only have four kids, but both Joel and Victor are wearing glasses.

* Max's hug of Nora at home plate during the baseball sequence was also a nice, economical way of addressing a relationship the show rarely had any time for: for all that being both a teenage boy and one with Asperger's made it hard for him to deal with a much younger sister, Max did eventually develop protective, loving feelings for her.

* Another great Zeek moment: his huge smile of understanding when he realizes why Sarah is in such a hurry to get married.

* Drew's toast was very solid: a long way away from the monosyllabic kid from the early years, but not like he'd suddenly turned into a Sorkin character.

* Something Todd VanDerWerff pointed out to me about the montage: Joel and Julia's new baby is a boy, which means they've essentially recreated the composition of The Original Six Bravermans: mom, dad, older boy and girl close in age, younger boy and girl close in age.

* Since the whole finale (really, the whole series) was about how people who follow their dreams get rewarded, it was perhaps a missed opportunity for Kristina's new job to not involve replacing Bob Little as mayor of Berkeley.

* Finally, this morning's post was accompanied by the season 1 cast photo (and therefore didn't include Joy Bryant or Tyree Brown, who were guest stars until season 2). As a further flashback, I give you the cast photo from the original pilot.

Maura Tierney as Sarah! Extra-tiny Sydney and Max! Blonde (but still the same size) Amber!

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at