Editor’s Note: This month, Zimbio editors are looking back, and reflecting on how influential films, TV shows, and celebrities changed us — and the impact they've had on our lives and pop culture...
Parenthood signed off the air more than three years ago and since then, one thing has become painfully clear to me: There will never be another show like it. Sure, there are plenty of TV shows about families, but few can capture the authenticity or the grittier, uglier sides of being in an ever-evolving familial unit.
For six seasons, Parenthood dared to defy the narrative of a picture-perfect family and it never shied away from focusing on the hardships and burdens that come with loving someone unconditionally. For the people who worshipped it, Parenthood was the kind of show you couldn't wait to watch. Equipped with a box of Kleenex and a bag of potato chips to cuddle with, I eagerly awaited the drop of each new episode. This was the show for which I willingly put reality on pause because it was so worth it.
Based on the popular 1989 film of the same name, Parenthood debuted with pressure on its shoulders. NBC was clearly looking for a drama series that would be its next big hit. On paper, Parenthood seemed like a runaway success: It boasted a stellar cast, had a talented group of writers, and was helmed by Jason Katims (My So-Called Life, Roswell, Friday Night Lights). So what went wrong? Well, for some reason people just didn't watch it. For hardcore fans of the show, this is difficult to swallow, considering that we are currently living in a This Is Us era. Perhaps Parenthood premiered too early? Maybe it could've had a fighting chance in today's TV landscape where more people crave comfort-food shows.
The Braverman family was filled with misfits, the popular crowd, overachievers, underachievers, and an onslaught of miscellaneous individuals. They were were a big family and proud inhabitants of Berkeley, California. Zeek (Craig T. Nelson), the family patriarch, remained the anchor of the series and his wife, Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), provided a portrait of a woman coming into her own towards the end of her life. Their eldest child, Adam (Peter Krause), was the prodigal son who often had to swallow his pride when learning difficult lessons, while the second oldest, Sarah (Lauren Graham), faltered time and time again until she finally learned how to walk in her adult shoes. Next in line was Crosby (Dax Shepard). Oh, what a delight it was to watch this man-child grow into a thoughtful and successful entrepreneur who kept his creative soul fully intact. Then there was the youngest Braverman sibling, Julia (Erika Christensen), a tightly-wound lawyer who struggled with her unyielding passion to work and her desire to stay at home and raise her kids.
Thanks to the rowdy, deeply-flawed Bravermans, Parenthood lived in the real world. For every heart-wrenching cry that I let out, there was an equally joyous bout of laughter that I got to experience. In fact, the Bravermans often took restorative time-outs. They could go from being calm to full-out yelling in a matter of seconds. Their signature, bubbling emotions fogged up the screen until I was encompassed in every emotion they were feeling. Their occasional inability to listen to each other made me smile as I recalled similar moments in my own life where I lost patience and blew up on my sisters. This was the joy of watching Parenthood. It never relented from the idea that being part of a family was a chaotic but ultimately rewarding adventure.
In addition to the baby-boomer grandparents and their four vastly different and grown children, there were also a zillion grandchildren at the heart of the series. Any other TV show could have failed some of these characters, but not Parenthood. It somehow found a way to linger in the painful moments of each messed-up Braverman and bring to light their ugliest and most endearing qualities for the audience to witness.
The best example of this would be none other than Amber Braverman. We first met Amber when she was a rebellious teenager, hit hard by the disintegration of her parents' marriage. Amber fell for her cousin, Haddie's, ex-boyfriend, and partied heavily until she got into a car accident that almost killed her. She then failed to go to college and got pregnant under some very tricky circumstances. Despite this trauma, Amber proved two very important things about herself: 1) She was the best damn crier in her family. 2) Her helplessness was a symptom of her growing pains. Even when she was totally out of control and so deeply lost, Amber's struggles never felt cliché. Yes, a lot of that can be attributed to Mae Whitman's insane acting skills, but the writers deserve half of that credit. This young woman was a well-constructed character who made one terrible decision after another, yet she always retained the viewer's sympathy. We trusted that Amber would eventually find her path and she did.
Even characters who were extremely infuriating to watch were ones worth paying attention to. Old-school Zeek often felt like an archaic artifact, spewing things you would imagine only Clint Eastwood would utter in private. By the end of the series, Zeek changed in small ways that made big impacts on his children and grandchildren. He became an emotional crutch for Sarah, Amber, and Drew (Miles Heizer) — proving his heart could grow in ways I never anticipated. Then there was Kristina (Monica Potter), who was the definition of a helicopter mom. She constantly shifted from a scale of pleasant to sickeningly aggressive. Her desire to monitor her childrens' every move was burdensome yet also understandable, given that Max (Max Burkholder) was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Of course, let's not forget Joel (Sam Jaeger) and Julia. Easily the shakiest couple on the show, these two experienced a very real separation that was riddled in distrust and bruised egos. So, when they finally came back together in the end, after working on themselves individually, their reconciliation felt earned. It wasn't merely a ploy to give the audience a happy ending.
Parenthood was never afraid to put its most beloved characters in harm's way. In fact, it reveled in pushing them to the edge, just to show us how unpredictable life can be. You can't anticipate what's coming, but you shouldn't let that fear hold you back.
What I remember most about Parenthood was its ability to make me cry, whether it was out of joy, sadness, or relief. Even the opening credits were scored to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" and only someone with a heart of stone could ever shrug off that song.
In spite of being a drama series, Parenthood was rooted in realism. Its rich layers and characters were equally agonizing and amusing. It discussed relatable conflicts like fighting with your in-laws, growing up in a broken home, dealing with the repercussions of abortion or teen pregnancy, and wanting the best for your kids in an increasingly bleaker world. It gave us stories worth remembering and emotional resolutions that hit right in the gut.
Honestly, watching Parenthood felt like a gift and every season, I feared that this would be the end of it all. That NBC would cancel it due to low ratings, despite it being a critical darling. When that finally came true, I was a wreck. I can't remember ever crying so much at the end of a series finale as I did while watching the curtain drop on Parenthood. It was a show that I loved with my whole heart and I knew, even while it was on air, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of series.