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The Parenthood finale has intense nostalgia for a world that increasingly doesn’t exist

Camille (Bonnie Bedelia, left) and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) tell Amber (Mae Whitman) she can move in with them.
Camille (Bonnie Bedelia, left) and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) tell Amber (Mae Whitman) she can move in with them.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The best section of the Parenthood series finale — about as good a wrap-up as this imperfect, messy season could have hoped for — was the long middle section set at the wedding of eldest daughter Sarah (Lauren Graham) to Hank (Ray Romano). What was remarkable about this sequence was just how little happened in it.

The series' few remaining conflicts were gently wrapped up. Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia (Erika Christensen) opted to adopt another child. Max (Max Burkholder) met a girl who seemed into him. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), near the end of his life, looked out at his happy brood and felt contentment. It was a wedding scene in the truest sense of one of Shakespeare's comedies — the tiniest of punctuation marks at the end of the story, a chance to get to know that everybody will be all right. (Even Zeek, who passes away a few scenes later, got to meet his first great grandchild and see his large family at its finest.)

But Parenthood was a show that could satisfy, even in sequences where nothing happened. It didn't really need to have a pulse-pounding story, because it was about those tiny moments between loved ones, the quiet conversations we have when no one else is listening and we're with someone we love more than anything.

That was both the show's greatest strength and what ultimately undid it. In the final two seasons, the show was simply unable to come up with any larger stories to compensate for the fact that everybody was basically okay on a micro-scale. That left the series flailing for things to do, forcing it to launch unnecessary stories about mayoral campaigns, strained marital problems, and unplanned single motherhood that it would occasionally ignore when things got too real.

But that timeless quality also gave the show something very strange that became all the more obvious in the series finale — in its own way, Parenthood is a show that's nostalgic for a present that's rapidly becoming past. This is a show that may as well have ended with the American middle class sailing into the west, Lord of the Rings style.

The economics of the Bravermans

For the first half of its run, Parenthood was a show that was acutely aware of the economic circumstances of its characters. The four siblings of the Braverman family varied in monetary circumstances from the comfortably well-off Julia and Joel — who could afford to have Joel stay home with their daughter because of Julia's job as an attorney — to Sarah, who had to move back in with her parents and struggled to find a job that would stick.


Sarah (Lauren Graham) rushed her wedding so her dad could attend in the Parenthood finale. (NBC)

By and large, that disappeared from season four onward. Brothers Adam (Peter Krause) and Crosby (Dax Shepard) launched a risky recording studio venture in season three, seeing it almost fall apart, only to spend most of seasons four and five doing just fine for themselves, even as the real world music industry was completely falling apart. (The final season suggested the studio was not long for this world, before the finale completely reversed this, somewhat inexplicably.) Sarah's economic circumstances suddenly seemed much firmer, and while Julia left her job to care for her newly adopted son, she and Joel never seemed to worry about money.

I'm not saying this as a complaint, not really. The show's best season is its fourth, even with the increasing disconnection of the show's economic world from reality. But I think showrunner Jason Katims very cannily leaned into the fact that viewers probably wanted a bit of a break from the real world, where the economic picture for middle class families (like many of the Bravermans) have only gotten worse and worse.

At its best and worst, then, Parenthood was a complete fantasy. Like all fantasies, it gave us a world unlike our own, where we got to live vicariously through others for a while. It became a safe space to think about familial obligations and romantic relationships, without other prisms interfering. As the Bravermans wandered through their catalog-spread lives, it became that much easier to set aside your own problems for a week and think about something — anything — else.

The end of an era

The paradox here is that, as Alan Sepinwall has noted, Parenthood is the last of the big network family dramas, and, thus, ostensibly more "realistic" than lots of other TV genres. Family dramas first saw major popularity in the '70s with The Waltons, then hit its height in the '80s and '90s with shows like thirtysomething and Party of Five.

Family dramas were softer than traditional dramas (about cops and doctors and the like), because they didn't have life-or-death stakes anywhere near their centers. They were, instead, about the sorts of issues most viewers might confront in their everyday lives. They tended to be about the minute details of everyday life, the intricacies of navigating a marriage or parent-child relationship. They had just a hint of soapiness in their stories of people forming relationships and then falling apart. They tended to confront real-life issues like alcoholism or the rise of gay rights. They all, inevitably, had an arc where somebody got cancer (usually in the fourth season, weirdly).


The family of Adam and Kristina gathers for a photograph. (NBC)

This sort of small-scale realism was a slight twist on the sorts of independent films and kitchen-sink stage plays that had dug into the realities of American working- and middle-class lives. The family drama offered a glossier spin on that material, even as the country itself was returning to one where more and more families lived paycheck to paycheck.

Thus, the end of Parenthood marks the end of another era — the era when a family like the Bravermans even felt possible in a dramatic context. Now, by and large, these big, sprawling family shows forthrightly confront class issues (as on ABC Family's often excellent Switched at Birth) or they're comedies, where the burden of adhering to reality can be much looser (as on Modern Family).

Parenthood, then, ends the era when the white, upper middle-class existence defined the existence of enough TV viewers that even a low-rated show about such a thing could survive or even thrive on the TV schedule. As if to further prove this point, the biggest show in years is Fox's Empire, a huge, over-the-top soap about a black family of hip hop moguls. It's a crazy soap first and foremost, sure. But it's also a family drama — just one that looks nothing like any other show that label might be appended to.

The end of Parenthood

I don't want to damn Parenthood with faint praise. When it was on, it was one of my favorite shows on TV, and in its finest moments, it got at a kind of emotional truth few other shows could touch. The moment, for instance, when Julia realizes she won't be adopting the baby she thought she would near the end of season three still guts me.

But I'm also appreciative of the way that the series finale pulled back and back from the characters, until they seemed like a collection of stock figures moved into positions around a diorama. The series of flash-forwards Katims employed at the episode's end (interspersed with Zeek's funeral) let us know that the Bravermans would be okay, would all go on to live out their dreams and have happy, successful lives.

In a way, that's comforting, isn't it? In its final few seasons, Parenthood sometimes seemed almost heedless in its pursuit of the idea that if you just followed your dreams, everything would be okay. As we too often see in our own lives, that's just not true, but that it could be true for some fictional characters it was easy to deeply identify with could be very satisfying.


Amber (Mae Whitman) greets baby Zeek, the newest Braverman. (NBC)

The audience for Parenthood was hugely committed to the show, even if it was, ultimately, a pretty small one. (Ironically, the show is ending because a series with this big of a cast proved too expensive to keep renewing, even though the series' loyal viewership has gone from tiny to mediocre to downright respectable as network TV has collapsed around it.) That audience will almost certainly be satisfied with this ending, which leaves the characters in wonderful places.

But that finale is also filled with a kind of mournfulness for a world that has passed on, right out from under the show's feet. There's probably room to do a family drama about the issues more and more Americans face now. That show probably won't look anything like Parenthood, but it was sure nice to visit the show's world for six seasons.

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