Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saying goodbye to Parenthood

2015 is the year of the final season.  So many of the internet's favorite shows are coming to an end this year, from the heartwarming NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation to the crackerjack FX drama Justified, both of which began their endgame a few weeks ago.  Later this year, we'll also see the end of what has been my favorite television show of the last few years, Mad Men.  But the first series to give us a conclusion is NBC's tear-inducing family drama, Parenthood, which began its final season in 2014 but returned in 2015 to air its last four episodes.  Now that we've reached the end -- the finale, "May God Bless and Keep You Always," aired last night -- it's time to take a step back and look at the journey that led us here.

How was the final season overall?
Showrunner Jason Katims made it a point in pre-season interviews to emphasize that the final season was going to be about "the cycle of life" and "examining mortality in a new way," which immediately caused fans to conclude that Zeek was going to kick the bucket.  It made sense that he'd be the Braverman to die, given that he's the oldest member of the family and his health problems have been bubbling at the surface of the show since its inception.  But is there anything "new" about doing the exact thing that the fans suspected would happen, I wondered.

Just as soon as the "Zeek is going to die" prophecies began popping up, people also started to speculate whether the show would opt for a fakeout, teasing Zeek's death for most of the season, only to have another Braverman pass away at the very end.  Would Camille suddenly die in her sleep?  Would Crosby's motorcycle accident be the end of him?  Would Amber not make it through childbirth?  Ultimately, this Braverman Death Watch was pointless, because Jason Katims doesn't generally do twists.  He trades in recognition, not surprise.  So the stories he tells are less about point A and point B, and more about the interesting textures and nuances he finds on the line that connects the two.

With the death of Zeek pretty much a foregone conclusion, Parenthood was able to really dig into the journey to get there, and in turn it actually did manage to handle mortality in an interesting way.  I'm not sure I've ever seen another show handle aging, the passage of time, and multi-generational familial connections like this one did in its final run.  Season six was filled with moments of people just taking a step back to reflect upon the years that have accumulated under their noses, wondering where it has all gone.  That scene in "Happy Birthday, Zeek," where Amber tells her grandfather that she's pregnant and he just gives her a beaming embrace, says it all.  One day, you're 71 and then you're 72, you feel like you've just become a grandparent and you're already going to be a great-grandparent.  It's hard to wrap your head around, especially when every picture you look at feels like it was just yesterday.

Like Zeek, it's kind of a miracle that Parenthood itself survived as long is it did.  Look no further than the varying episode counts for its previous seasons -- 13, 22, 18, 15, 22 -- to see how tumultuous its history was.  The show's numbers were never enough to label it a hit, but it managed to land on the right side of the bubble year after year, to the point where it became one of NBC's most reliable show.  Though the fifth season's ratings were consistent, they were still not high enough to justify the show's cost, and Katims had to fight tooth and nail for a final season that would wrap up the characters' stories.  Sacrifices needed to be made, however, resulting in shortened 13-episode order and a budget restriction that ensured each cast member would only be able to appear in nine out of those 13 episodes.

Those restrictions effected the show negatively many times during the season.  Somewhere around episode seven, I lost count of how many times a character had to explain another character's odd absence by saying that person was "out of town."  Those awkward expository moments were minor, but the lack of characters in almost every episode led to some pretty floppy storytelling.  Each hour was filled with wonderful individual moments, but they didn't cohere as well as they would in previous seasons.  And for only being 13 episodes, season six had all the structure of a wet noodle.  Instead of telling a tight final story, we spent a great deal of time with people like Hank, Sandy, Ruby, and Oliver Rome.

And yet, it's hard to hold those things against Jason Katims and his crew of writers, especially when the season was still largely terrific.  Zeek's health issues gave the show a centering force, it was a big event that pulled every other storyline into its orbit at one point or another.  Take a scene in "A Potpourri of Freaks" for example, where Julia visits Zeek to check in on him, but it also becomes a way for her to have a sounding board about her marriage.  The stakes become raised when everyone has to worry about their own problems along with the fact that the patriarch of the family may be dying.  Season four did the same thing with Kristina's cancer arc, but instead of it feeling repetitive in season six, the show used that familiarity to draw parallels through family history.  And like that cancer arc, Zeek's heart problems brought out some of the series' best performances, particularly from Craig T. Nelson, who evolved over the season from obstinate determination to withered fear to quiet resignation.

Even without the looming threat of Zeek's death, season six was marked with a distinct sense of finality.  So many of the show's relationships were in limbo -- Joel and Julia's separation, the Sarah-Hank-Sandy-Ruby quadrilateral, Adam and Crosby's ownership over The Luncheonette -- and just waiting for a big push to knock them in an ultimate direction.  One of Parenthood's central themes has always been how joyful it is to connect with someone you love and how painful it can be when your wants and needs conflict with those of your loved ones, so it was nice to see the show digging into those ideas one last time through these storylines.

It's those moments of emotional acuity that carried the show even through its overstuffed final few episodes, as it rushed to conclude storylines and toss at us a wedding that nobody really wanted.  (Hank is a great character and Lauren Graham's performance throughout the series was always able to maintain some goodwill for the consistently frustrating Sarah, but the two of them don't make any sense together, no matter how much mental calculus you do.)  It's all worth it when they're able to fit moving little scenes like Amber's baby shower in "How Did We Get Here?," or Zeek telling Camille he's not having another surgery in "We Made It Through the Night," in between the sweeping story beats.

Did the finale stick the landing?
A large chunk of the finale takes place at Hank and Sarah's wedding, which gives it a bit of a meta vibe, as if all the characters are attending a wrap party for the show that is their lives.  Though it can be dangerous when a show decides to make its finale such a fan-service heavy victory lap, here it's just nice to see everyone so joyous and relaxed.  The camera plays the role of a silent observer, just kind of gliding across the dance floor, catching these minute pieces of interaction between the different members of the Braverman clan.  In those scenes, there is so much evidence of what the show did well for many years, those warm, intimate moments between relatives who have struggled and triumphed together.

At his core, Jason Katims is a big old softie, and much like the series finale of Friday Night Lights, "May God Bless and Keep You Always" suffers from a major case of Katims-itis.  This episode hands out more happy endings than a shady massage parlor; it's a little ridiculous.  There's wrapping things up in a bow and then there's choking them with a million different bows -- this finale does the latter.  On Friday Night Lights, the neatness felt earned because those characters faced so many hardships and losses throughout the show's run.  The Bravermans had their difficulties, sure, but they always got their way in the end.  This ending just felt like one more victory for everyone.

It certainly doesn't help that some of the happy endings felt like they were plucked out of the ether without any logic or reasoning.  Hank and Sarah's marriage was fine because at least the season somewhat built to it.  Ditto Max having a modicum of romantic success.  But to just introduce another baby for Joel and Julia to adopt?  To have Kristina give Adam a financial out that she'd apparently been sitting on for months?  That's harder to stomach.

And the reason it's disappointing that everyone gets a happy ending is because for a while, the season seemed to be flirting with the idea of people having to give up on their dreams, but realizing that it's not the end of the world.  Crosby would sell the Luncheonette, Adam would leave Chambers to take a corporate job, and it wouldn't be ideal, but it also wouldn't be a tragedy because they had so many other things to make them happy.  That would've been a rich conclusion, especially on a show that was about always having family to lean on, no matter how bad things get.  But Jason Katims' magical thinking took over, and the show's final message was that anything can work out if you just believe it will, and if you throw yourself into it completely and fully.

For a second there, I even tricked myself into believing that Zeek wouldn't die.  Part of that was because of the overload of happy endings, which made me wonder whether Katims would suppose that you could even temporarily stave off death through sheer force of will.  But it was also because the finale had already cashed in on so many of Katims' initial promises of examining mortality, without resorting to killing off Zeek.  He and Camille deciding to take Amber in to live with them was a lovely example of the circle of life: they're living out their third act by shaping baby Zeek's first act.  And even something as small as Hank telling Max that they've learned so much from each other has a beautiful circuitry to it.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire episode occurs in the middle, when everybody is gathering to take a big family wedding photo and Zeek and Camille are standing off to the side, just looking at them.  It's a brief moment of them taking it all in, and you know that they're thinking, "Look at all that we've created.  All of these branches and leaves, they all trace back to our roots."  It says everything that needs to be said about the final season's themes.  You're going to have children, your children are going to get older, they're going to have children.  Life goes on.  Zeek dying feels like unnecessary punctuation.

In that respect, it seems like the writing staff came up with the idea of Zeek's death when they were first conceiving the show's endgame and just stuck with it, even as a better story avenues arose along the way.  But even if you accept that him dying onscreen was an inevitability, it feels like an odd footnote to the episode.  The whole season has been spent pre-emptively grieving Zeek, so maybe any more would've been overkill, but the whole thing just didn't feel right.  And the baseball scene that follows, with all of the Bravermans rounding the bases -- of the diamond and of life -- feels a little too cheery and cheesy.  Then they pull a semi-Six Feet Under and show what these characters have in store for them over the next few years.  That's when it truly became clear that Jason Katims bit off a tiny amount more than he can chew.

Still, even when the micro elements don't work, "May God Bless and Keep You Always" pieces them together for a satisfying macro experience.  So did the finale stick the landing?  Absolutely.  Even now, only a few days later, I find myself more charitable toward the parts of the episode I had a problem with.  And there are just so many amazing moments that I didn't even get to mention: the return of Haddie(!), Sarah and Zeek's conversation at the beginning of the episode, Drew's Best Man speech.  Sure, there were too many easy endings, but is it really so bad when it happens to people you've loved and cared about for so long?  This finale, then, was like the entire show in a nutshell: slightly bumpy and a little too gooey, but the highs were extraordinary.

Where do we go from here?
And just as a person reaching the end of their life would look back on what they will leave behind, we must start pondering Parenthood's legacy.  It was always going to be in the shadow of Friday Night Lights, especially since the latter was still airing when Parenthood first started.  With the deal that allowed Friday Night Lights to air its seasons on DirectTV months before they hit NBC, it was easy to classify it as a cable show, and consequently label Parenthood as its lighter, lesser network sibling.  But eventually -- right around Friday Night Lights' ending in 2011 -- it was able to carve out its own niche and become something more than just "FNL without football."  It had a softer, more commercial sensibility, which allowed it to be more of an overt tearjerker, and its emotional moments were often bigger than the muted Friday Night Lights.

Much like its spiritual predecessor, it will be remembered as one of the best and most unique dramas of this generation.  So much of the television landscape is about high stakes, focusing on violence and immediate danger to generate story.  Meth dealers, crooked cops, and serial killers scraped out the conventional family dramas that gained popularity in the 80s and 90s.  But Parenthood proved once again that you could make a show that focused on the small stakes that come in the middle of life and be just as compelling.  There's beauty and drama in the tiniest pockets, the show successfully argued.

All of its conflicts arose out of everyday existence, and that made it easy for audiences to insert themselves and their own experiences into the series.  This, of course, led to the show being criticized in ways most other shows weren't.  Hitfix critic Alan Sepinwall nailed it in his farewell piece earlier this week, when he wrote:
"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 quickly be 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."

Particularly in the last two seasons, reviews seemed to be less about the storytelling or structure of the show and more about the integrity of the characters.  When a Braverman did something horrible or infuriating -- and it seemed to happen more and more with each passing episode -- people treated it like they would normally treat a dead-end plot point or an uneven episode.  That's just what happens when the characters are so relateable.  We see alot of our own family in the best and worst of the Bravermans, which is why it could be so maddening when they didn't adhere to our own personal standards.

So now that it's all over, what can you do to fill that Parenthood-shaped hole in your life?  Jason Katims does have another show on NBC, About a Boy, which has yet to hit the heights of Friday Night Lights or Parenthood (and probably never will), but consistently churns out pleasant B-grade episodes.  But in terms of genre, Parenthood was one of the last examples of the limping beast that is the family drama.  Where there was once a few of these at a time on network television, the genre has moved further and further to the corners of the channel guide to places like ABC Family, which has The Fosters and Switched at Birth.  Both shows -- particularly The Fosters, which is having an excellent second season -- do their fair share of small, lived-in moments between members of a large family.  But the truth of the matter is that we may not ever get something quite like Parenthood ever again, or at least not for a long time, so hopefully you cherished it while it was around.

I know I sure did.

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