The Good: Decent acting, One or two moments of plot development
The Bad: Utterly oppressive tone, Soap operatic elements, Goofy character choices.
The Basics: A significant change in tone makes Parenthood Season 5 the toughest season to endure yet and one not quite worth watching.
When I sat down to binge watch the fifth season of Parenthood, my wife and I had a discussion about how baffling it was that the series is always on the bubble. Constantly in danger of being cancelled, despite having an amazing cast and likable characters (and being unlike anything on television today), Parenthood has required fans to rally and lobby on behalf of the show each season to get renewed. After watching the fifth season of Parenthood, the only real surprise my wife and I had was that the show actually managed to get renewed for a sixth season!
I am a fan of complicated cinematic works with intriguing characters and I can live with depressing storylines. That said, the fifth season of Parenthood makes Magnolia (reviewed here!) look like a short, peppy movie. No, outside binging on the fifth season, it is hard to see why anyone would come back to the show week after week (interestingly, the inverse reason is one I usually use to argue why the show should survive despite low ratings – that people find it and buy it by the season more than watching week by week). The reason for my complete change of perspective on Parenthood comes from the change in tone that the fifth season has. In its fifth season, Parenthood is not only depressing, but it is utterly oppressive to watch. Watching Parenthood is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, almost from the first episode of the season and certainly the longer the season goes on.
Packed with conflict, Parenthood centers around the three generations of the Braverman family; Zeek Braverman (an ex-Vietnam vet) and his artistic wife living in Berkley, California. They have four adult children: Adam, Sarah, Crosby, and Julia, all of whom have families and children of their own. Adam and his wife Kristina have a young son, Max, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and a newborn daughter, Nora. Sarah has an adult daughter, Amber, and a college-age son, Drew. Crosby has a son, Jabbar, with his wife, Jasmine, along with the born-in-the-season premiere Aida. The youngest Braverman, Julia, is married to Joel and they have a daughter, Sydney, and an adopted son, Victor.
The fifth season of Parenthood picks up several months after the end of the fourth season (reviewed here!), as Jasmine had pretty much just discovered her pregnancy then and she and Crosby are shopping for baby products when she goes into labor. Hank has moved back to town and when Max’s camera breaks, he stops in at Hank’s studio to get it fixed. Sarah, who is now the superintendant of the apartment building where she has moved, is annoying Amber because she no longer has Drew to rely upon. The initial joy of Aida’s birth and Kristina’s new lease on life inspiring her to run for mayor against Bob Little quickly turn sour. As Joel becomes a serious contender for a housing development project, the abandonment his family faces leads Julia to an emotional affair with another parent at Sydney and Victor’s school. Camille, frustrated by Zeek’s reticence to try new things, abandons Zeek to go to Europe on a painting trip.
As the election nears, Kristina is devastated when Bob Little goes negative, drudging up all he can of Adam’s dirt to destroy her campaign. When Ryan returns from Afghanistan, he and Amber promptly get engaged, which causes a deep rift between Amber and Sarah. Drew’s college experience is dominated by the headgames of a young woman with whom he is infatuated (who wants a no-strings relationship, yet tugs on him when his ex-girlfriend comes to visit). Max’s friendship with Hank leads Hank to suspect that he, too, has Asperger’s Syndrome and Crosby’s life becomes complicated by both his house getting infected with mold and his mother-in-law’s insistence that Aida get baptized. But the story gets worst for Julia and Joel when Julia kisses Ed Brooks and Joel moves out and Camille’s return from Europe has led her to want to explore more of the world . . . and the only way to do that is for her and Zeek to sell the Braverman house!
Because the plots, which are heavily serialized, are an ongoing family drama, the plots are far less important than the characters. Unfortunately, in the fifth season of Parenthood, many of the character choices and plot developments have more of a feeling of being a soap opera than legitimate and organic developments. As a perfect example, as Julia heads down the road to an emotional affair, there is not a single callback to the relationship Joel had (that she was jealous of) in the first season with another parent. In other words, for people who actually appreciate the characters in Parenthood, the fifth season forces viewers to roll their eyes as characters make choices that completely betray their former experiences. In the fifth season, the principle characters in Parenthood are:
Adam Braverman – Thrilled to have his wife back again, he is less than supportive of her desire to run for Mayor than she wants him to be. When one of the more problematic acts recording at the Luncheonette is dropped by their label, he convinces Crosby to start their own label. More peripheral than usual, Adam works to support his family but has little to do on his own (though he clearly latches onto Hank for hope that Max might have a real future),
Kristina Braverman – Having survived cancer, she has a new lease on life. Determined not to simply work for a candidate she does not believe in, she runs for Mayor of Berkeley. Pushed by an efficient campaign manager, Kristina has a rough time of raising money and winning over hearts and minds until a debate where she openly uses Max to score political points. Refusing to go negative, Kristina holds to her values through the entire election. When Max is treated poorly by his history teacher near the end of the school year, Kristina becomes determined to open a charter school for Berkley’s special students,
Max Braverman – A child with Asperger’s, his last year of middle school is riddled with social problems. While he has fewer outbursts, he becomes inflexible when spending time at Hank’s studio doing photography (which causes complications with him and Hank’s daughter and his aunt Sarah). He loses his best friend and is bullied at school, which causes Kristina to once more take up
Sarah Braverman – The eldest daughter of Zeek and Camille, mother to Amber and Drew, she has a new job as a building superintendant and she starts a new career as a photographer. She competes against Hank for a bid for a surfing magazine and when she wins it, she has to turn to Hank for guidance and supplies. One of her tenants annoys her, until she realizes that the man is not the womanizing cad he appears, but an amazing humanitarian. Even so, she finds herself gravitating more toward Hank, especially in the wake of her fall-out with Amber,
Amber Holt – Sarah’s daughter. She impulsively accepts Ryan’s impromptu proposal when he returns to the United States. Soon, though, she begins to question whether or not the relationship is viable (thanks to Sarah’s meddling) and she starts forcing issues with Ryan. While working at the Luncheonette, she starts to draw the eye of a musician and she gets empowered by doing some vocals of her own. In the wake of Ryan’s decision to return to Afghanistan, she and Drew go through their depressed phase together,
Drew Holt – Sarah’s son, he is a Freshman at the University Of California at Berkeley. There, he becomes confused by Natalie, a young woman who lives in his dorm and seems to be deep and interesting, but just wants casual sexual hook-ups. He does not get along with his slovenly roommate and works with Adam and Crosby to develop an appreciation of Joni Mitchell (to try to win over Natalie). When Natalie’s headgames begin to unsettle him, Amy’s sudden appearance gives him more of the type of relationship he actually wants. When his roommate sleeps with Natalie, he moves in with Amber and discovers the joys of pot,
Crosby Braverman – Now happily married with Jasmine, he gets seriously sleep-deprived when Aida is born. While he initially tries to support Jasmine with the nighttime feedings, he soon reverts to form. Even so, he works to be a good dad and is sure to take Jabbar out from time to time. He quickly comes to loathe the lead singer of the band Adam signs and he is distressed when his mother-in-law insists on Aida being baptized. He is forced to accept that Camille is selling the house and the mold that infests his home is his fault,
Jabbar Trussell – Crosby and Jasmine’s son, he is largely a nonentity this season, though he begins ballet, much to Crosby’s chagrin,
Jasmine Trussell – Taking care of Jabbar and Aida, she becomes a level-head that keeps Crosby in line. She is unwilling to fight her mother when Renee insists on Aida getting baptized. She helps campaign for Kristina and is upset to learn that Crosby is not registered to vote. She is actually the sane voice that gets Oliver Rome to head back to the studio when he temporarily moves in,
Julia Braverman-Graham – Wife of Joel, mother of Sydney and Victor, she is late to signing up for parent assignments on the kids’ first day. She ends up on the sustainability committee with Ed Brooks. As she and Joel get more and more distant, she turns to Ed for emotional support. Unable to find work as a lawyer thanks to her vindictive ex-boss and shocked when Ed’s marriage falls apart, she attempts to find meaning in her life. When she admits Ed kissed her, Joel leaves and she struggles with their separation and his unwillingness to fight for their marriage,
Joel Graham – Now a serious contender as a developer, he wins a bid on a housing complex, working with a famous architect, Pete (who is a woman). He becomes deeply focused in the project, to the neglect of his children and Julia. At a school fundraiser, he sees Julia and Ed (who is drunk) and attacks him. When Julia admits she has had an emotional affair with Ed, Joel walks out. Refusing to accept Julia’s apologies, he starts spoiling their children and dealing with life on his own. Abandoned by most of the Bravermans (like Crosby and Jasmine who replace him as Aida’s godfather when the baby is christened), he only experiences a pull when the children are involved,
Sydney Graham – Pretty much a nonentity until Joel leaves, she snottily accuses Victor of breaking up the family,
Victor Graham – After his teachers reveal that he is very far behind in his reading level, he is struggles to read better. After much debate, he is pulled back from fifth to fourth grade, which causes him all sorts of issues. However, his reading improves when Zeek tutors him by having him read the manual to the car he (and Victor) rebuild,
Hank Rizzoli – The photographer returns to Berkeley having failed to start a decent life with his daughter in Minnesota. He almost immediately begins to bond with Max, who starts coming in and showing off his photography. He is compassionate toward Max and tries not to use the boy for information on Sarah. Coincidence has him running into Sarah when she is with, alternately, Carl Fletcher and Mark Cyr, though working with Dr. Pelikan gets him to the point where he is able to express to Sarah how he actually feels. He actually starts working for Sarah when she wins the surfing brochure account,
Camille Braverman – Furious over having her life constantly put on hold, she tries to frame her “third act” with Zeek, but finds him resistant. She takes a stand for herself by going off to Italy to paint after Zeek refuses to talk about selling the house and he gets the antique Pontiac instead. She is eager to expand her horizons and she returns from Italy with the desire to go off to France for a similar opportunity. When her children seem to side with Zeek over her on the issue of selling the house, she feels even more alone than before,
and Zeek Braverman – Abandoned by his wife after he picks up a classic car to start rebuilding, he starts helping Victor read by getting him to assist with the repairs. After Camille makes her dissatisfaction known to him, he builds a firepit for her at the house. When she goes off to Italy, he struggles with his day to day maintenance of the house. Finding he cannot live without Camille and fearing that he might have Alzheimer’s, he becomes more flexible when she returns to the States, even though she wants to continue doing things without him.
On the acting front, Parenthood Season Five has all of the principle performers acting perfectly within their (now) well-established characters. Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger make the separation of Julia and Joel absolutely agonizing to watch (even when the plot pushes them in unfortunately predictable directions). Monica Potter makes Kristina seem perfectly mayoral during her campaign and when Max Burkholder delivers one of Max’s saddest monologues to date, Potter and Peter Krause react in the most heartwrenching ways possible without uttering a single line. Miles Heizer continues to impress with his subtle performances of Drew’s internal conflicts in his character’s arc with Natalie.
More than anyone else, it is Mae Whitman who gives the performance of the season. In Parenthood Season Five, Whitman has an erratic arc that has her character falling for Ryan, a man with many of the same character faults as her father. Amber is occasionally brilliantly self-aware and at other times entirely moronic. She also gets back into drinking and marijuana despite having the show’s most painful history with them (which she recalls in one episode where she confesses to Ryan that she was in a terrible car accident). While her character is written somewhat inconsistency, Mae Whitman’s performance is anything but erratic. Instead, Whitman is a pro and the scene where she ends up in the bar at which her father works, Whitman gives a genius performance of a drunk person that it is absolutely captivating. Seriously, it is a crime she was not even nominated for an Emmy.
But even the few moments of amazing performances are not enough to save the fifth season of Parenthood. This is a season as agonizing to watch as animal experimentation videos from the 1940s. The fifth season of Parenthood is unpleasant and only die-hard fans will want to watch the entire thing (and in as short a timeframe as possible); those tuning in to any single episode from the fifth season of Parenthood are unlikely to ever want to return to the show. The struggles these characters go through in the fifth season are excruciating and those who do not have an emotional connection to the Bravermans before these episodes will be too saddened by what they go through here to want to watch more of them than even one hour’s worth of their struggles.
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© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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