Can’t Find a Braverman: Why the Last Season of ‘Parenthood’ Feels So Choppy

Colleen Hayes/NBC

Something happened last Thursday night that rattled me right to the core. I was watching Parenthood — now in its sixth and final season — and I actually found myself wondering, Wait, where the hell are the Bravermans?

This isn’t a question the show typically draws out.1 I began watching the series from the beginning a few months ago, and not once during the first 90-plus episodes I powered through did the question spring to mind. Quite the opposite: As I saw characters wrestle with cancer and heart disease, or watched sweet children grow old and get bratty, or yelled at my TV “take the money!” when millions of dollars for a ramshackle recording studio were dangled in front of two broke-ass dads, what tended to nag at me the most was the near-complete lack of anyone except Bravermans in the story.

I’ve seen Mafia movies that have less focus on the family. Where are the nosy neighbors? (Come on, this is Berkeley we’re talking about: There’d be a busybody anti-vaxer on each corner.) Why does every kid have that one same teacher who sounds like Patti Mayonnaise? Doesn’t anyone besides Jasmine have a family of their own? DOESN’T ANYONE HAVE ANY FRIENDS?!

The good news about this setup is that it made for excellent binge-watching conditions. I could nap through multiple episodes at a time and not miss much of anything; I never had to Google a new character or even so much as idly wonder, Wait, who’s this guy? There was an alluring and comforting sameness to each week’s — or, in my condensed case, each hour’s — plot. As with, say, an episode of Sex and the City, you could not only bank on every main character appearing every week, you could also be secure in the knowledge that they would all, at some point during the show, conveniently commingle around a table of food.

None of this happened last week. The sixth-to-last episode featured nary a glimpse of Sarah, who was “up in Napa” while her daughter and boyfriend each labored, in thankfully disparate ways, back at home. (Napa?! Since when is Sarah anywhere other than “standing right outside her children’s door”?) There was also no Adam, who was vaguely “away on business” — recruiting new cat-food-jingle singers, I suppose — as his son and wife staged very public meltdowns inside and in front of Chambers Academy.2 We didn’t encounter Joel and Julia, the will-they-or-won’t-they couple of the moment, whatsoever. (I like to imagine they’re still frozen there on the doorstep, Joel looking soulfully wounded and Julia furrowing her brow.) And there was zero Zeek, which I was actually quite fine with: You can hear the man roar, “BUT YOU’RE A BRAVERMAN, GRANDSON!” in the manner of Colonel Ludlow shouting, “SCREW ’EM!” only so many times before it loses its luster.

These Ghosts of Braverman Present are part of a situation that’s been going on with the show all fall. That’s because when NBC finally agreed to grant die-hard Parenthood fans one last season of closure, one of the stipulations was that it had to be done on the cheap. This has meant both a shorter run of episodes (13, in comparison with the 22 that comprised Seasons 2 and 5) and a less-complete cast: To save money, the regular actors and actresses are being platooned in and out. I’m no longer binge-watching, having caught up to the live showings. My timing was slightly unfortunate.

That’s because this season of Parenthood has been straying from the things that made the show so addictive in the first place: its strong writing, its appealing realism — OK, other than Kristina’s mayoral run — and, yes, its focus on the Bravermans and only the Bravermans. I continue to be baffled by the Joel/Julia situation, which could have been a believably bleak story line but has instead turned into a muddled, soapy mess. Everything involving Chambers Academy makes no sense. Last week, in lieu of any glimpses of Sarah, Adam, Joel, Julia, Sydney, Victor, Zeek, and, oh hell, Haddie, we instead spent nearly half the episode with Sarah’s boyfriend Hank and his troubled family.

(Ray Romano has done a fantastic job as Hank, please don’t misunderstand. But it is bizarre, with five episodes left in the series, to suddenly get more backstory on his ex-wife and monster daughter than we’ve gotten in six seasons on, say, Kristina’s troubled youth back in Cleveland.3 And it’s disappointing that it takes place in the form of such a rote story line: the teenager who promises she won’t have a party and then does.)

Tonight’s new Parenthood is the last one of 2014; the series will resume in January with four final episodes. It’s likely the required character absences are mostly out of the way by this point and everyone can settle back into their well-worn routines. But there’s also a lot for the show to resolve (or leave artfully unresolved) in the short time it has left.

Besides Joel and Julia’s future, and the Luncheonette’s financial woes, and Amber’s pregnancy, and the increasingly out-of-control Max, there’s also, according to the show’s staff, a major death yet to come. I checked Bovada and, unfortunately, you can’t make prop bets like “Lightning crashes / The old father dies / His annoying inflections fall to the floor / Lightning crashes / The new mother cries / This moment she’s been waiting for / Baby Zeek opens his eyes / Amber-colored eyes / And now it’s everyone off to the municipal softball field to scatter some ashes and have a meaningful, circle-of-life toss-around in slo-mo!”

Hopefully, the writers have a more surprising ending than that in store, of course — one that both celebrates and challenges the sometimes irritating but usually enviable Braverman family dynamic. But should they revert to the obvious, I think I’d still be satisfied. A greatest-hits compilation may not push many boundaries, but there’s a reason those songs were so popular. At this point, I’d just be happy to see the Braverman band get back together once more.

Filed Under: TV, Parenthood, NBC, Bravermanology, ray romano, tavi gevinson, Erika Christensen, Joel Graham, dax shepard

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes