'Parenthood' and the Death of the Family Drama

Mae Whitman as Amber and Craig T. Nelson as Zeek in 'Parenthood'
Mae Whitman as Amber and Craig T. Nelson as Zeek in 'Parenthood'

This week's final episode of Parenthood — a melancholy, unwanted departure for so many of us — brings an even sadder realization. With the exit of Parenthood, primetime network television lacks a single quality family drama.

A friend said the other day, "You know, I like Scandal; I like shows that have big, WTF twists every ten minutes. But some nights, I just like to come home, turn on the TV, and watch something more quiet, about people living lives closer to my reality."

I'm going to have a lot to say about Parenthood later this evening — believe me, I have a lot to say about Parenthood's finale — but first, let's think about what its absence means and implies about current TV scheduling.

'I'll Fly Away'
'I'll Fly Away'

Like the friend I quoted, I like a wide variety of shows. I like How to Get Away With Murder. I like Nashville. I like The Flash. I like Empire a whole lot. But I also yearn for the kind of quiet domestic drama that networks used to program as quality loss-leaders. ABC never expected to get big ratings for Once and Again; neither did NBC for I'll Fly Away. But they knew they were going to acquire valuable viewer loyalty and prestige recognition.

At a time when broadcast networks are desperate to attract the kind of critical and social-media acclaim that cable and streaming TV dominate, why are the networks ignoring the family drama? Since the nets can't break the rules in sexual content, violence, and language that shows ranging from Orange Is the New Black to Game of Thrones can deploy, why not cash in (literally as well as aesthetically) on what the networks can do well, have always done well: Present dramas about families — all sorts of families, city and suburban families, gay and straight families, black, white, and Hispanic families? There are lots of female writers and producers, lots of writers and producers of color, who must have projects like this in folders on their laptops.

Related: 27 'Parenthood' Moments That Made Us Cry

NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, The CW: Get on the phone today, start soliciting material that's as good as Parenthood. Don't let the family drama wither. It'll never die. It's just that the longer you wait, the more likely it is that HBO or Amazon or AMC or Netflix is likely to corner this market too.

Actually, I don't think that last part is going to happen anytime soon. I suspect cable and streaming believe they have to keep making big taboo-breakers to continue to attract attention away from the still-huge numbers networks attract. So I'm just making an argument, a plea, for common sense among network programmers: Instead of your fifth copy of Homeland or your pathetic attempt to come close to The Walking Dead, why not go with a few shows that lower the volume while upping the quality of what you're programming now?

Be sure to catch the Parenthood series finale; it's a great episode. Talk to you later.

The series finale of Parenthood airs Thursday, Jan. 29 at 10 p.m. on NBC.