The Parenthood season finale was one great scene, a few very good ones, and then a bunch of chaotically messy business. It was like the series reached a climax point at the end of February sweeps, with the story where Adam and Kristina had to tell Max that he has Asperger’s, then attempted to figure out a way to kill time for the next four episodes. This is not to say these episodes have been BAD, per se, but that they’ve been straining much more than any of the other episodes this season to think of something to say. And then came tonight’s finale, which actually was kind of bad. At times, it almost felt like the series was cramming the entirety of what would be its third season into 40 minutes of television, and it just didn’t work. What would have been wrong with pushing Sarah’s play to next season, say? Granted, the show might not have had Richard Dreyfuss at that point, but, man, the play was just the most egregious example of how overstuffed this finale was.
Let’s break down, sibling by sibling, just how much was going on in this episode to demonstrate why it was so problematic. Oldest to youngest, then!
Adam Braverman (and all associated with him): Adam’s main storyline is, as with the last few weeks, his sheer panic at the thought of his daughter having sex. Unless his main storyline is the fact that Max has a freakout in the hospital where the family waits to hear about what happened to Amber and says some pretty hurtful things that Sarah is there to hear. Unless his main storyline is a search for Max’s missing retainer. Unless his main storyline is the fact that he just got fired from work. Unless his main storyline is the cliffhanger about Kristina being unexpectedly pregnant (and thank God this show didn’t do a “who’s pregnant?!” cliffhanger).
In a way, Adam’s section of the episode exemplifies what’s wrong with the episode as a whole: There’s just too much going on. It feels like the show is trying to bring a whole bunch of stuff to a head here, but the only storyline we’ve really been invested in in this four-episode mini-season has been Haddie’s decision to have sex with Alex and how that’s affected her parents. (Granted, we dropped in at work last week to see that crazy boss Cody was firing people left and right, but that hardly counts as story development.) The scene where Adam is fired and has to admit it to his wife felt right, cathartic in a lot of ways, with some nice beats where he gets unexpectedly, seethingly angry. But everything else felt kind of crammed in around the edges. Had the episode focused more steadily on Amber and her recovery, the Max scenario might have been a nice beat for the show to play, giving Adam and Kristina something to do. (Similarly, Alex’s cool head in a crisis would have worked in that fashion.) Instead, the episode kept piling things on top of this idea, and the climax of the Max storyline felt like it came out of nowhere, even though the whole storyline was contained to this episode.
Sarah Braverman (and all associated with her, which means Amber, since Drew mostly just stands off to the side and mumbles nowadays): Here’s the heart of the episode: Amber got into a car accident by being a total idiot. But she’s barely alive, lucky to be so. Thus, Sarah is caught between the twin impulses of every parent in this situation: She wants to hug Amber and thank God she’s alive. She also wants to wring her neck. Decisions, decisions. And yet at the SAME TIME, her play is about to go up with a staged reading THAT STARS ZEEK, FOR SOME REASON, EVEN THOUGH I THOUGHT THAT WAS A JOKE?! So Sarah’s constantly bouncing between working through the awkward territory associated with Amber’s recovery AND going to rehearsals.
The episode attempts to shoehorn the climax of the Amber storyline into the climax of the play storyline, and it just doesn’t work. Mae Whitman is fantastic in this episode, even if it seems like all she has to do is cry, but the episode’s greatest failing is that it largely loses track of her after the heartwrenching teaser. A finale set entirely in that hospital waiting room could have been great TV. Hell, a finale built around Amber’s slow recovery, showing how her gradual healing parallels everybody else’s situations, might have worked too. (It almost seems like the episode tries to do this, but the timeline’s all wonky, as we’ll see in a bit.) Set this episode firmly from Amber’s point of view, and you just might have an all-time classic, instead of whatever this was. (Parenthood often struggles with the point of view question; it’s always better when it limits itself to one or two of the characters.)
And, finally, I know I shouldn’t complain about the theatrical stuff, since I’ve worked in the theatre world off and on over the years and, thus, it’s like a cop complaining about how CSI gets it ALL WRONG, but I still find Sarah’s journey to the top of the theatrical world utterly preposterous. Even if we assume that her play is as amazing as everybody says it is (and it’s not), it would still take far longer than the time allotted here for her to have her triumph. And all of THAT said, the real problem with all of this is that Sarah’s play, well, sounds kinda awful. The dialogue is hokey and unfunny, and the plot generally sounds like a plot from Parenthood transplanted on stage. The problem, then, is that TV scripts from dramas like Parenthood wouldn’t really WORK on stage, where everything needs to be slightly heightened. This is a weird misfire of a storyline, even if I liked Richard Dreyfuss and the shadow Bravermans, whom I hope get a spinoff.
Crosby Braverman (and all associated with him): There’s not really a lot to this. Crosby bought the house. He lets Jasmine know he bought the house. She’s uninterested. He lets her know she can move on, and he’ll stop trying to pursue her. Somehow, Joel gets her to give him a second chance or something. That’s it. And while none of it’s bad (indeed, it may be the most consistent storyline in the whole episode), it also feels rushed, even for a storyline that’s been playing out for months now. I would have loved to have seen the moment where Jasmine caved, where she decided to give this another shot, because it really doesn’t feel like she’s changed in the slightest. Crosby did some groveling, Jasmine caved in, and all of their issues will be there waiting for them in the future. Is this the best for Jabbar? Probably. But this was yet another storyline that probably could have used an episode of its own. Hopefully, we get some follow-through with the two in counseling or something next season. (A good marriage counseling storyline hasn’t been done on network TV in ages. That said, a good storyline where two separated parents try to do what’s best for their kid hasn’t been done… ever? I’m straining to think of one. That could have been really interesting.)
Julia Braverman-Graham (and Joel and Sydney and a magical Asian-American woman with a baby): Oh, hey, look. Julia’s wandering the halls of the hospital after Amber’s gotten the all-clear (and is apparently the ONLY BRAVERMAN STILL THERE FOR SOME REASON?!), and she bumps into Sydney’s teacher from last year, who is currently going into labor early. She helps the teacher through the next few hours and is horrified by just how painful birth was. She forgot how bad all of that was, she tells Joel, as the little family enjoys a tea party and Joel gets to wear a bitchin’ giant bow tie. She’s done. She’s not having any more babies. Well, it’s nice that we got all of that over wi…
Oh, what’s that? She’s going to go to the hospital and HOLD the baby? Oh, for God’s sake. And of COURSE she wants a baby now. Women on TV are uniquely susceptible to new baby smell.
So now Joel and Julia are going to try to adopt. And I think that’s a strong story choice for them. Really. I do. I’m adopted myself, and it would be fun to see a TV show portray the legal hurdles and the emotional storylines and blah, blah, blah. But the way that the show signaled to Julia that she wanted another baby was kinda bullshit, relying entirely on an obscure character from the past, who just so happens to be pregnant and just so happens to be in the right place at the right time. It’s all way, way too convenient, and it just smacks, again, of the writers having no idea what to do with this character.
And yet, in the midst of all of this, the Parenthood writers are able to just casually drop in a tremendously great scene, one of the best the show’s ever done, as Zeek takes Amber to the junkyard to see what’s remaining of Gary’s car (and speaking of which, Gary lives to corrupt another day). This is really a great piece of writing, and it’s a fantastic performance, too, as Craig T. Nelson really lets you feel just how wounded Zeek is by the idea that Amber would try to mess with his dreams. I’ve always loved Zeek’s cocky, self-assured nature, his feeling that being a Braverman is the best thing in the world, and all others should just get out of the way. This was one of the best expressions of that, and a terrific scene buried in the middle of a bunch of crap.
And it’s not like there weren’t other good moments here. Kristina’s look of weird excitement mixed with panic when she revealed she was pregnant was aces. Adam’s angry outbursts were very good. Max and Adam’s little talk about empathy was solid. Heck, I even enjoyed Adam taking Alex aside BEFORE THE PLAY, NO LESS, to tell him to use a condom. But the episode as a whole was far too overstuffed, as though the writers briefly got frightened that if they didn’t wrap all of this up, they might never get a third season to do so. I understand that impulse. Really, I do. But the vast majority of this episode might have been better playing out as the first six of season three. Instead, we got a mess. And that’s hardly the best way to send us into the hiatus.