There’s this notion in society that television is less on an art form than film.
While I can agree that there are cinematic qualities of film that are impossible to replicate, to me, the highest form of art is being able to make people feel enough that they want to continue engaging for years.
In this art form, Jason Katims is one of the greats. From the highly-underrated yet critically-acclaimed Friday Night Lights to one of the best shows I have ever had the pleasure of watching, Parenthood. After six beautiful seasons, Parenthood wrapped up its last ever episode on Jan. 29. It took an entirety of five minutes for the waterworks to start and they literally continued until the end of the episode.
It’s easy to follow a show through six seasons; it’s not so easy to be emotionally invested in one. It’s Katims’ ability to analyze the subtleties in human relationships and accurately portray those intricacies in delicate but true-to-life moments that made Parenthood so watchable. Without being too “after-school special,” it revealed what is of most importance in life: love, relationships, forgiveness, openness, and family. Each episode reminded me what appreciation feels like without feeling like it was selling something; after each episode I had an overwhelming urge to call my parents, just to talk.
The secret behind Parenthood was its ability to stay small-scale and capture the intimate moments behind human interaction instead of trying to say too much. It was honest storytelling based around characters whose every detail Katims has previously figured out; to the writers, The Bravermans were a real family. Single parenthood, PTSD, military relationships, autism, breast cancer, adoption, and all other typical drama storylines were all present in Parenthood but it wasn’t interested in presenting a cookie-cutter storyline. There is a moment in the series where Julia Braverman reveals she doesn’t feel love towards her adopted son yet. This statement, although most likely felt by a lot of new adoptive parents, has been rarely expressed in television instead adoption is usually portrayed as an instant click.
Parenthood is easy to dismiss, solely based on the premise. Family dramas, especially ensemble dramas, have the habit of skimming the surface of half-baked conflicts that never reflect the gravity of the same problem in real-life. Of course, when looking at the show critically, it’s important to recognize that the Bravermans were not the “every-family” – they were white, upper-middle class and Berkeley liberal – but the show still felt so personal because it replicated the moments that actually define relationships. Anyone with a close relationship whether friendly or familial knows that it’s not when having a perfect night with spot-on life advice that you realize how much you love your dysfunctional group, it’s when you find yourself fighting about decade old irrelevancies or doing the funky chicken with your siblings after a few bottles of wine. Not every family has to be as large or as close or as present as The Bravermans; sometimes your family is biological and sometimes your family is chosen but they always represent your purest experience of love.
Despite having all the markers of an ABC Family drama, Parenthood dodged the holier-than-thou moral absolutism that exists within ABC Family. Occasionally young people smoked, occasionally middle-aged parents smoked and no one had the worst night of their lives because they got a little high. In fact, no one was scolded, reprimanded or given a lecture about the dangers of marijuana or for having an abortion, or for any of the other things that just happen with life.
One key feature of Parenthood that has been I often realize that I am not crying out of sadness, it’s sentimental due to remembering the beauty in the emotions of a certain situation and that is a true rarity.
Parenthood had the wit, the cinematography, the character development, and most importantly, the feels to be the potential game-changer than NBC desperately needed. The shows like Brothers and Sisters, not based around people doing something or around a specific idea, shows that just exist to show how people feel in large, encompassing facets of life like family are dwindling.
There’s no narrative hook in family dramas, and perhaps society’s dwindling attention span and growing restlessness has resulted in a need for more action, or at least potential for action. The end of Parenthood arguably marks the end of family dramas that don’t have to have a hook.
There’s a real gap in our family dramas. ABC Family is perhaps the last network to do this, with The Fosters, which I think has the potential to be up there in the family drama hall of fame but lacks an edge to each storyline. It’s heart-warming but perhaps a little naïve, most likely due to the lack of adult storylines other than Stef, Mike, and Lena. But even The Fosters have a (much-needed) hook of an interracial lesbian couple raising a houseful of adopted, biological, and foster children.
Parenthood might just be the last ensemble drama that we ever see, most definitely the last we see with actual substance. But, why? It had the potential to save NBC in a time where they were desperately in need but it failed. Perhaps it was because of the crappy time slots it was always given – always pitted behind two awful shows and having to contend with Shondaland Thursdays – or maybe just the sheer cost of having such an A-list cast. Despite a loyal fan base, decent ratings, and better writing – better than a lot of shows that continued to get renewed (thinking of you New Girl) — after every season, Parenthood was always stuck in renewal purgatory despite its loyal fans fighting. NBC was once at the top of its game, with shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and 30 Rock, so Parenthood seemed like an absolute knockout. NBC has always been in a tumultuous place with good TV, just look at what happened to Community, a show loved by anyone who ever watched it.
I don’t know if it’s possible to have another ensemble show where every actor can hold their own, especially one as well-written as Parenthood. While we know that It’s hard to definitely say why this is but television trends have begun to shift from the network drama in favour of the cable drama. Indiewire noted that TV is moving from sincerity to sarcasm and this is definitely true. TV is also favouring the anti-hero and the superhero over families. Shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife, and Breaking Bad repeatedly clean(ed) up at the awards but despite being left out of the big award shows repeatedly, the only exception being Monica Potter’s 2014 Golden Globe and Jason Ritter’s Emmy nominations, Parenthood held its own.
Ensemble dramas that center around a grand theme instead of twists and turns have no place in television anymore. As sad as this may be, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t good TV anymore, in fact, there is arguably more amazing television now than ever before, it’s just different. So, in celebration of Katims’ six-season run and The Bravermans’ last call, pour one out for shows like Brothers and Sisters, Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, and the now-controversial 7th Heaven (minus Stephen Collins, because ew). We’ll always be Team Braverman forever.