Parenthood‘s fifth season was only its second with a full 22-episode order (the other was season two). For some characters, that resulted in what felt like two distinct story arcs while the show depended on Julia and Joel’s marriage troubles (and, to a lesser degree, Sarah and Drew’s stories) to pull the season together. It’d be easy to say that season five didn’t have the emotional heft of its predecessor but what would be the point of pointing that out? Season four was defined by Kristina’s cancer storyline- one of the most beautifully told television arcs in recent history- how is even the most nuanced divorce drama supposed to compete with that? Heading into season five, Parenthood had two major hurdles- find enough story to organically fill a larger season order and try not to fall too short of the bar set by season four. Though the season was far from perfect, in my estimation it easily succeeded on both fronts.
Pre-Christmas, or what I’m going to call “Part I” of the season, was largely centered on Kristina’s mayoral bid and Amber’s engagement to Ryan. This was unfortunate for all sorts of reasons. Let’s start with Amber- I liked Ryan (casting FNL alum Matt Lauria helped his cause and his relationship with Zeek was worth watching) but I’m always a little annoyed when TV characters get engaged even though every viewer knows they’re not going to get married (yes, hello Sarah’s ex-fiance Mark Cyr, fond memories all around). Anticipating the inevitable breakup, one can’t help but feel like the writers are wasting our time a little bit (remember when New Girl pretended they were going to marry off CeeCee? Ridiculous). The redeeming thing about this storyline was that the focus wasn’t all on the relationship and planning the wedding we knew would never happen. Instead, the smarter-than-average Parenthood team used the idea of marrying Ryan to bring up all of Amber’s latent Seth issues (aka her screwup addict father, played unrealistically by reliable nice guy John Corbett) and drive an intriguing wedge between her and her mother. Sarah has long suffered for good stories and this “my daughter’s following the same path I did” arc was a highlight for her. After this story came to a head with Ryan’s re-enlistment, Amber hit the backburner for awhile, serving mostly as a sounding post for Drew until she could come back in April for a dramatic 2-episode wrap-up to the Ryan portion of her life.
Kristina’s run for mayor of Berkeley was similarly frustrating for its TV-trope-ness but without the interesting character conclusions that lay beneath Amber’s story. After the intensity of season four, the Adam/Kristina branch of the Braverman clan was due for a lighter story. The Emmy-worthy drama was shifted onto Erika Christensen this year so that we could once again experience fun things like Peter Krause’s adorably terrible dance skills and the Adam/Kristina over-share flirt dynamic we’ve all come to love. But we all knew that Kristina was never going to be elected. This isn’t Cougar Town, if someone on Parenthood became the mayor of their city, they would be expected to occasionally be shown actually running the city (honest to god, one of the major characters on Cougar Town was elected mayor in season four and Nothing Changed). There was some ridiculous business where everyone blamed Adam for “not being supportive” when really he was just experiencing slight hesitation about the campaign as a way of channelling the audience’s feelings of “wait, didn’t you Just have cancer and aren’t you wildly under-qualified for office and isn’t this a Terrible Idea?” and we all had to put up with Jurnee Smollett for awhile (Jurnee Smollett is totally annoying, guys. Worst FNL cast member ever). I thoroughly enjoyed watching Crosby attempt to help with the mayoral run (I enjoy anytime Crosby tries to help and is kind of useless), but Max’s run for student council president remains the best political storyline this show will ever have (Loved that. Of course it was in season four. Damn you, season four and your perfection!).
Crosby and Jasmine also had some interesting Part I-specific storytelling as they struggled with the new baby from hell. Cros didn’t get a lot of play this year (though he did have an awesome cameo on fellow Katimsverse show About a Boy) but his incredibly honest frustrations with baby Aida and desperate quest to love his daughter provided some of the most heartfelt moments of the season. His late-season mold storyline? Not quite as inspired.
Here is where I acknowledge that there was some Luncheonette storyline involving a temperamental band, Adam and Crosby expanding into management, and a drummer (bassist? I don’t know, some non-lead-singer guy) flirting with Amber only to disappear when her storyline no longer needed added conflict. The only takeaway from this story that it facilitated one scene where Jasmine was a little bit likeable. This is news because Jasmine is most often written as an unreasonable shrew harshing well-meaning Crosby’s vibe.
My least favourite storyline of the season belonged to Drew and his freshman struggles now that he’s at college. Especially when contrasted with how brilliantly Shameless dealt with the same time in Lip’s life this season, I could not have cared less about Drew’s crush on some chick (the sassy surrogate from 90210, btw) who just wanted to keep it casual then got really jealous when his ex showed up so she slept with his dumb roommate then Drew got jealous so he confronted her and finally they decided to be together just before summer when she had to go back to Oregon so he took the car Zeek gave him (lovely moment, wasted on Drew) and went straight to her instead of having a lovely “goodbye to our childhood home” dinner with his family. The best thing about this story was hands down the more-complicated-than-he-seems roommate who I really hope reappears for sophomore year. I will admit that there’s a slight chance that this story was not actually terrible but that I personally hated it because I find Drew incredibly unappealing and wish the show would stop giving him romantic storylines. Or storylines at all. I wish Drew could just go to Haddieville (meaning, send him far away and bring him back for one episode a year).
Speaking of Haddie, her one episode this year was the finale where she returned (looking great, by the way- she finally figured out what to do with her hair) to cautiously announce that she’s dating a chick only to be embraced by her parents who were just so Adam and Kristina about it (meaning, amazing). While I always appreciate a low-key coming out story and I’m all for a low-drama relationship for Haddie, I will say that it annoys me when writers spontaneously decide to make their characters gay after many seasons of seemingly meaningful heterosexual love interests (it especially annoys me that this seems to only happen to female characters). If you’re making a point about the indefinability of love and fluidity of human sexuality, fine (great, even). But no one ever seems to be making that point. They seem to be deciding that their character is now gay, usually without being able to ground that decision in anything established earlier in the series (because they were clearly created as a straight character, until the writers got bored). Occasionally the new relationship will kick ass Willow/Tara style and all will be forgiven (unless Kennedy happens) and Haddie’s new relationship seems totally adorable (let’s explore it some more in season 6 rather than just sending them back to school right away) but it’s a pet peeve I just wanted to air, since the topic came up.
Adam and Kristina’s Part II storyline was tangentially related to the race for mayor in that Kristina ran on an education platform inspired by Max’s struggles in mainstream education as a kid who has both Aspergers and a high IQ and in Part II they further those ideas and plan to start a charter school, enlisting the help of Max’s dreamy niceguy teacher (Happy Endings transplant Zachary Knighton) and in-need-of-a-project Julia. (Sparks flew between those two. I was shocked to find that I was totally on board with it). It’s slightly ridiculous, but far less ridiculous than Kristina running for mayor or Adam buying a recording studio, so sky’s the limit I guess. I’m hoping for more Knighton next season now that he’s on board as the new headmaster and I feel like there’s some decent story territory here moving forward. Besides, it always felt like this is where the characters were headed, so I’m perfectly fine with them finally getting there, even it seems a little extreme.
The other big change that will have an interesting effect on season six, should NBC be smart enough to order one, was Zeek and Camille’s decision to sell their house. I’m not a very big Cam fan so sending her off to Italy in Part I was perfectly fine by me, though it did prompt some unwelcome moping from Zeek in his free time when not working on fixing up an old car with Victor (and sometimes Jabbar and Sydney). The car storyline was a really great way to bond Victor into the family (especially to Zeek- a lovely new dynamic) and give him a positive story when he really needed one (he was understandably pretty mopey all last year and, considering the general mood in the Julia/Joel household, it was nice to see him smile a bit this year). The only stupid thing about the great car story was that it went to Drew in the end. Ugh, Drew. In the finale, Victor mentioned that Zeek had his eye on an old Mustang for them to work on next, but my understanding from earlier in the season was that the car represented Zeek clinging to his old ways and his old house, where there was room to store and work on a car like that. I’m okay with Camille and Zeek selling their house- if only for the nostalgia and resentment it inspired in their kids (and a series of great scenes of Adam and Crosby helping them move)- but there had better be room for that Mustang at the new place because Victor deserves to have somewhere he can go to get away from Sydney.
Related note: how horrific is Sydney?! She’s always been at least a little bit annoying but the past two seasons she’s becoming positively intolerable. She’s whiny, entitled, combative, belittling, mean-spirited, and LOUD. So very very loud. When she didn’t want Joel to leave in the finale, she threw a tantrum of such ridiculous proportions that I couldn’t quite believe it. I know this wouldn’t have been as nuanced or realistic, but did anyone else fantasize about Julia and Joel coming back together over the death of their daughter? I don’t think there’s a single character on TV as ridiculous as Sydney Graham; it’s as if she’s from a completely different show. A lesser show. She could be from Glee.
Which brings me to her put-upon parents, the pair tasked with the emotional heft of the season. Julia and Joel had, until season five, been the most drama-free characters on the entire show, in large part because he was so easy going and she was so incredibly functional that when troubles arose, she just dealt with them and moved on. When Julia quit her job at the end of last season, I didn’t anticipate the huge and character-perfect ways that it would reverberate for them. Lots of excuses were given for the breakdown of this seemingly perfect marriage over the course of the season- potential love interests on both sides (I always enjoy a good David Denman guest spot), Joel’s demanding workload, Victor’s troubles in school (the decision to hold him back opened some really interesting doors)- but when Joel finally verbalized the core of the problem, everything clicked. All the excuses folded into the one issue and it related to the very fibre of the characters and their power dynamic dating back to the very beginning of the series- Joel didn’t feel respected; when Julia left her job and Joel went back to work, there was a distinct feeling that the work he was doing as a contractor was inherently less important than the work she had been doing for years while he stayed home with Sydney. One of the few storylines that started to fester in episode one and was sustained through the entire season (with only the hope of resolution in the finale), Julia and Joel’s marital troubles had the space and time to develop gradually, making the drama feel more real than when your typical TV couple hits a rough patch right around sweeps time.
Parenthood has enough characters that sometimes Julia and Joel- arguably the main arc of the season- would carry their story in only a scene or two in any given episode and the way the other characters were engaged in their story created even more interesting angles. For me, the highlight of the season was the pair of subplots wherein Crosby struggled with what essentially amounted to losing a brother. Joel had been a part of the family for years so, beyond comforting Julia (which the siblings did with a particularly memorable dance party), it was interesting to see the family cope with the idea of losing Joel from their own individual lives. For Crosby, that meant being unsure of whether he could turn to the man he has always turned to when he needed help fixing his floors. Or, most heartbreakingly, having to ask Joel to step down as Aida’s godfather. That scene tore me to pieces as the only Braverman to visit Joel’s sad, single apartment looked his (pending) former brother in the eye and told him “we’ve really loved having you as a part of this family”. Hold on for a moment while I sob. The other best moments in the story came from how beautifully Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger balanced the loyalty and guilt and confusion of helping the kids through their separation. Mind you, the brilliance of the writing and performances in those moments came very close to being ruined by the monstrosity that is Sydney but thank god for the season four addition of Xolo Mariduena to the family because his soulful performance as Victor completely saved those remarkable scenes. It was no “Kristina has cancer” storyline but there were moments of the Julia/Joel breakdown that came close on that Parenthood scale of emotional shrapnel.
The season ended the way each episode has always begun- a beautifully lit backyard family dinner accompanied by some really great music (mirroring the opening credit sequence). The whole gang was there with the exceptions of Drew and Joel- the latter because his marital troubles are still unresolved and the former because he was chasing his girlfriend in Oregon and clearly excluded to make Joel’s absence feel less catastrophic. We left off the season as new chapters began for Camille and Zeek (who sold their house), Adam and Kristina (who started their school), and Sarah and Hank (who got back together). Poor Crosby didn’t get to grow much at all this season (he’s overdue for his Big Story) and Julia and Joel seem to be finding their way back to where they once were. Amber is moving on from Ryan, Haddie is happy with Lauren (Tavi Gevinson) and, I guess, Drew is happy with Natalie. We didn’t actually hear much from Max this season (compared to past seasons at least, not compared to the other kid characters) but his friendship with Hank has been really important (Hank’s discovery of his own Aspergers was fascinating to watch) and his growing isolation at school led to some of the season’s most memorable moments.
With so many chapters closing and the full-circle final scene, the fifth season finale of Parenthood was clearly designed to function as a satisfying end should NBC decide to pull the plug. But NBC doesn’t have much going for it; it’s a spectacularly badly run network with very little foresight when it comes to picking critical hits. What it does have is Parenthood– a rare network drama that garners cable respect- and I don’t think even a dumb network would be so dumb as to squander that.
Finale Grade: A-
Season Grade: B+