No matter what happens on tonight’s Parenthood series finale, there will definitely be crying. If Braverman patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) survives his surgery, there will be tears of happiness—plus a signature shot of the hospital room with the entire cast cozily snuggled in and some mellow Bob Dylan tune wafting in the background as everyone looks at each other affectionately. If he dies (as many are speculating) there will be tears of sadness, but, in true Parenthood fashion, these will also somehow be tears of happiness. That’s because nothing truly bad ever happens on Parenthood—and this has been the show’s most frustrating flaw.
I should probably back up before commenters point me toward Kristina’s cancer or Joel and Julia’s separation and inability to conceive a second time, or maybe Amber not getting into college. Of course the cancer storyline was emotional, but Kristina (Monica Potter) recovers, spectacularly so—surrounded by her family. In fact, soon after, she runs for mayor. Mayor! (She loses, but that ends up being a good thing! All she really wanted was to fix the education system and this way she can open her own school. Her own school!) I could go on. It’s true. All these tragic things happened, but miraculously, they all ended well. That’s because Parenthood’s true genius isn’t just that it manipulates your emotions so consistently that you can’t make it through an episode without crying. It’s that it does so by applying the same formula to every single conflict: drama plus advice from family equals no more drama. Take Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia’s (Erika Christensen) epic and unconvincing separation, which was neatly repaired when Zeek told Joel to fight for Julia, so he did.
This is the Parenthood mode of damage control: You sit down with a family member for a good chat and then all is well again, no matter how desperately unsolvable the situation was. This, incidentally, is part of the reason many, including Vulture’s Margaret Lyons, have pointed out that every single character on the show is THE WORST and thus the show has gotten progressively unbearable. The insane optimism of the characters, the airy can-do attitude, the blind confidence that anyone can just start a school or adopt a child from traumatic circumstances with limited repercussions (that last bit makes me long for The Fosters’ insane brand of realism)—it is all patently absurd. The only character who seems to even remotely live in the real world is Drew (Miles Heizer), and he gets scolded for professing his desire to study economics and generally attempting to make responsible decisions.
Of course, you could argue that I’m missing the point. The whole appeal of the show is the mythically close-knit family—how much they rely and depend on each other. But there are ways to make a show about this without resorting to magical thinking. Parenthood took a lot from its producer Jason Katims’ previous show, Friday Night Lights, but it should have stolen more than just the shaky camera and improvised-seeming dialogue. Friday Night Lights was deft at portraying its characters’ problems as actual problems—without sacrificing the warmth of the family dynamic at its core. People failed and their failures weren’t simply scrubbed clean. This is why I wanted the Luncheonette break-in to turn out to be Adam committing insurance fraud—I would have loved to see Parenthood face one impossible dilemma.
So what do I want from this finale? Not any kind of closure—I don’t think it’s possible for a show that isn’t really about anything, and has no major issues to resolve. Amber (Mae Whitman) had her baby in the penultimate episode—and, fittingly for this show, named him Zeek after her grandfather. While it may be tempting to dream about a spinoff in which Amber and Drew raise baby Zeek in an impossibly hip apartment that opens with a garage door, I guess I’m just ready for this chapter to end. And it will, happily ever after.