April 18, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Parenthood”


PARENTHOOD doesn’t have the luxury that higher-rated long-running shows do of deciding its own fate, so tonight’s season finale, written by series creator Jason Katims and directed by Lawrence Trilling, could end up as the last we see of it–we may not know for another month, when the networks will announce their fall schedules.  If this really was the end, the series will have exited in a satisfying fashion, while still effectively laying some groundwork for what would be Season 6 if NBC decides it can muddle through for one more marginally rated round with the Braverman clan.

By its nature, Parenthood has always threaded the needle between the imperatives of being a primetime network TV series and its ambitions of touching on the textures of real life, and that tends to make it uneven, with heartbreaking, genuine moments hand-in-hand with sometimes wince-inducing contrivances.  Season 4 had the compelling overriding story of Kristina’s (Monica Potter) cancer to lean on, and that made for a year that was more of a consistent piece, but Season 5 had a bumpier start.  The storyline of Kristina, with husband Adam (Peter Krause), leaping from her recovery into a campaign to be Mayor of Berkeley never rang true, despite good work by the regular actors and recurring guest star Jurnee Smollett-Bell (one of the many Friday Night Lights alumni to make their return to Katims’ world) as her campaign manager.  Kristina and Adam’s post-election decision to start their own charter school hasn’t been much more convincing.

Other plots also had their issues.  The one that had the home of Crosby (Dax Shepard), Jasmine (Joy Bryant) and their children infested by insects and the family forced to spend chunks of the season either with Adam and Kristina or with Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), felt forced, and an arc that had Camille go on her own to Italy for a painting trip was unfocused, as though Katims had originally planned to do more with it and then changed his mind.  Another major story, in which Sarah’s (Lauren Graham) daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) became seriously involved with troubled veteran Ryan (Matt Lauria, another Friday Night Lights star), suffered from melodramatic and predictable plot twists as their relationship proved to be doomed.  Worst of all was Sarah’s own relationship with the highly improbable Oliver (Tyson Rome), introduced as a womanizing tenant in the downscale apartment building where she worked as the super, who turned out to be a world-famous doctor for charity, who was soon taking Sarah to black-tie dinners where he was being honored.  His character made so little sense that it seemed like something the junior writers on the staff must have come up with while Katims was off developing About A Boy and not paying attention.

At the midway point of the season, Parenthood was looking as though perhaps it was time for the series to fold its tents, and for all of the talented writers and actors to move on.  After that, though, the show found its footing again.  The handling of the break-up of Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel’s (Sam Jaegar) marriage was sensitively depicted, with special attention given to the sometimes awful effects of the strain on their children Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae) and Victor (Xolo Mariduena).  Ray Romano’s performance as Hank has been superb since he joined the show (technically he’s a recurring guest star, but he was essentially a regular this season), and his character was greatly enriched by his developing relationship with Max (the remarkable Max Burkholder) as he became the boy’s mentor in photography, and by his resulting concern that he, too, may be on the Aspergers spectrum, and his attempt despite that possibility (“jump ball,” as the tests showed) to have a serious relationship with Sarah.  Romano’s work is probably too low-key to earn him Emmy attention, but he deserves it.

The season (for now) finale resolved some storylines while planting seeds for others, most obviously when Ryan reappeared as the victim of an accident in Afghanistan that he’d drunkenly caused and that was sending him back home, discharged from the army, to his slatternly mother (Annabeth Gish, in a brief but vivid appearance)–followed by a scene of Amber picking up a pregnancy test in a drugstore.  Julia and Joel enjoyed a day of family togetherness after Victor won a school contest, but the show nicely remained ambiguous as to whether this might actually bring the couple back together or if it only indicates that their separation will now be less bitter.  Sarah decided to give Hank what he’s wanted, another chance at a relationship with her.  Drew (Miles Heizer) was given the vintage Pontiac that Zeek and Victor have been working on all season, so he could drive to Portland to be with his college girlfriend Natalie (Lyndon Smith), another character who hasn’t entirely made sense this season.  Haddie (Sarah Ramos, now a guest star) returned from college to provide Parenthood with the one thing its all-inclusive family group has lacked until now, a gay character (news which Adam and Kristina accepted with unconditional love).  Zeek and Camille finally moved out of their house and into one that for show purposes might as well be identical, and the season ended with most of the family–Drew being up in Portland–around the recently relocated outdoor table as “The Times They Are A-Changin” played in the background.

They don’t change all that much on Parenthood, an imperfect but often beautiful series that isn’t like anything else on television, cable or network, one that proves every season that “sensitive” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.  It’s hard to justify the show’s continued survival on the basis of its ratings (except that plenty on NBC do even worse), but there’s a value to its integrity and its commitment to emotional truth that, one hopes, won’t be lightly cast aside.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."