'Parenthood' Series Finale Review: Bye-Bye, You Beautiful Bravermans

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Wrapping up a beloved TV series that has a large cast is always tricky. Wrapping up a show that also deals with family issues and whose success depends on involving viewers with earnest emotion is even tougher. By this standard, Parenthood pulled off its task on Thursday night, and I’ll warn you right now: I’m going to be very specific and very spoilery, so don’t read if you haven’t watched.

There have been other self-consciously artful shows about parenthood (from the underrated, unexamined The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet in the 1950s and ’60s to the Ed Zwick-Marshall Herskovitz morality plays thirtysomething and Once and Again) but no show has captured the messy, complicated, unfair, joyful, and agonizing state of the condition the way Parenthood did. Show creator Jason Katims did this with a risky method: He had form match content, which is to say that, from week to week, Parenthood was messy, complicated, and agonizing (to its viewers as well as to its characters). To quote myself from an old review, it was a drama of emotion, unlike so much of the rest of hour-long TV, which is dominated by the drama of action.

Related: 'Parenthood' Boss Jason Katims Breaks Down the Gorgeous Series Finale and Picks His Favorite Cry Moments

Katims thus assured Parenthood of a smaller audience than a broadcast network might have liked, because a mass audience is uncomfortable with discomfort. But discomfort and doubt — primarily over the role a parent ought to play in a child’s life — was at the core of what Parenthood wanted to explore, and to which it remained admirably true right down to this very last episode.

The hour was initially structured around the wedding of Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Hank (Ray Romano) — its sped-up schedule due to the failing health of Braverman paterfamilias Zeek (Craig T. Nelson). But, as written by Katims, the wedding prep gave way to ancillary plots. As if they didn’t have enough to grapple with Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) were suddenly, out of the blue, offered the chance to adopt Victor’s birth-sister. (Typical Julia immediate reaction: No, “we have to work on us.” Julia and Joel, always masters of therapy-speak.) Adam (Peter Krause) interviews for a thankless-sounding job for Mountain Spring Water, although it’s hard to imagine he would get any less thanks than he did keeping the Luncheonette in vintage Dead wall posters.

Toward the end of Parenthood’s run, the media and fans united around the idea that this was a show engineered to make you cry. Me, I think that’s selling what Katims was doing short, but God knows I was sniveling like a baby when Zeek told a pre-marriage Sarah that she was always his favorite, and asked, “Have I been a good father?” Credit Katims with inserting the realistic notion that, yes, sometimes parents really do have favorites, and it can be a gift to that child to just come right out and tell the chosen one the truth. We know what Zeek means: Sarah is the one who’s needed the most help, who has had both a very strong will and very bad luck in relationships, and if she has now settled for what may not be the most passionate one in her life (you just know that her early, pre-Parenthood romance with John Corbett’s Seth was the zestiest), well, Hank is what she needs right now: reliability. And kudos to Ray Romano for coming in so late in the series to become such an essential part of the show; as he proved in Men of a Certain Age, Romano’s dramatic acting is finely shaded.

The wedding itself was fine, and if Sarah’s long white opera gloves were ridiculous, they were very Sarah.

Related: 27 ‘Parenthood’ Moments That Made Us Cry Like a Baby

The family function served to get everyone together, and this provides me the opportunity to pause and say: The secret hero of Parenthood has always been Haddie. As played by Sarah Ramos, she remained to the end the most intelligent and beguiling of the show’s characters, the least knowable even as she was offering everyone around her her heart. Haddie was deployed most often as the “normal child” contrast to Max Burkholder’s Max whenever she wasn’t being used to exemplify an equally one-dimensional exemplary child. But Haddie consistently burst such confines. In large part this was due to Ramos, who gave an extraordinary performance consisting many times of silent glances and an alert, often amused watchfulness. When she was featured more regularly, I used to sometimes think, during commercials, that I wanted to see the alternative TV show starring Haddie that was continuing when the episode had moved on to another Braverman. Burkholder gave a remarkable performance, year-in, year-out, but Ramos made more than she had been given in a thinly-sketched role.

Moving on: I was glad that one of Zeek’s other bits to parental duty extended to giving Dax Shepard’s Crosby the confidence-building talk the latter needed to re-launch the Luncheonette himself. And I’m sure I’m not alone in having seen weeks ago the inevitability of Adam becoming a teacher rather than continue as a businessman: Like Haddie, it’s the responsible ones who rarely get the attention they need. Krause, when you look across the whole series, was amazingly consistent in his excellence, and Monica Potter and the writers gradually acknowledged that Kristina had to remain both excessively emotional and utterly well-intentioned, with Potter adding just the right spice of occasional loopiness to keep the character from being too intense.

Related: The ‘Parenthood’ Love Story You Didn’t See: The Scoop on That Surprising Finale Cameo

As the previous paragraph suggests, plot and character motivation was problematic on Parenthood, for good and bad. Indeed, Parenthood is one of the most frustrating shows I’ve ever loved. In any given week, I would be talking to the screen about plot lines raised and dropped, only to resurface weeks — or months — later: “Where did Victor go?” “Are you really going to reduce Jasmine to a hectoring wife?” “Does Joel have to cry in every episode?” From a technical standpoint, the series was superb. Credit not only Katims for this, but also frequent director Lawrence Trilling, for devising a consistent yet flexible visual style. Coming off of Friday Night Lights, Katims’s early seasons of Parenthood hewed to FNL’s shakey hand-held camera movements, its nosey, poking insistence on holding close-ups of characters in distress. Trilling gradually refined that, favoring the kind of fluid montages that did a lot of narrative work the big cast required. While also, to be sure, allowing for the messiness that was Parenthood’s version of domestic realism.

Anyway, back to the finale: Zeek died. He finally gave up the ghost with poor Camille in the next room, nattering on about Max’s wedding photography. We kind of knew Parenthood had to send Zeek off, but I’m glad it wasn’t in a blaze of glory. As good as Craig T. Nelson was at making Zeek loud and boisterous — an old hippie with impulse-control problems — I valued the actor even more in his quiet moments, and having him go out quietly was lovely.

Cut to a baseball field, where, over a music soundtrack, some of Zeek’s ashes were spilled on the pitcher’s mound, and a Braverman collective spread out for a happy game. Intercut with this were glimpses into the future, such the consistently under-used Bonnie Bedelia must have identified with her Camille taking off for Europe; maybe Bedelia’s “third act” can be a good role in a Euro-indie film. I leave it to you to decode the rest, counting the number of kids Joel and Julia were seen romping with, tallying the number of Friday Night Lights alums eager to hug Mae Whitman’s Amber.

In the immortal words of Hank, instructing Max on what to photograph during the wedding period: “Get all that joy; all that crap is good.”