This is where Parenthood begins to leave us.
The sixth and final season of the series about the cross-talkiest family in recent TV history began with an episode focused less on tear-jerking and more on story arc set-up. Personally, I was okay with this. In the premiere (title: “Vegas”), the Parenthood writers laid the foundation for what’s ahead in a way that suggested episode one was just a prelude to what could be 12 weeks of verklemptiness, interrupted by occasional bouts of heavy sobbing. In other words: if you didn’t cry this week, not to worry. Jason Katims and co. were just building. And if they continue to do that properly, the tears will come.
In lieu of über-emotional moments, this week’s Parenthood immediately and efficiently got right down to the business of explaining where our characters are at this moment in time, just a few months after we left them in their respective stages of marital separation and hospital-bed sex-having. The first episode confirmed a whole bunch of stuff, including: a pregnancy; the existence of a new relationship for Julia; the continued existence of Haddie’s relationship with Lauren, aka Tavi Gevinson; the (potential) beginning of a new blended family situation for Hank and Sarah; and the fact that it’s apparently possible to complete extensive renovations on a charter school in two days. But most importantly, the first episode confirmed this: that Zeek, who collapsed during a birthday trip to Las Vegas, may be facing some serious health problems during this final season.
Showrunner Jason Katims confirmed in a Vulture interview that a major storyline in this season of Parenthood will address a loss in the family, though he did not say who that loss would involve or what, exactly, may happen. After watching the first episode, it seems clear that the illness of Zeek, the family patriarch — which, depending on what that doctor finds, could be something fatal — is that storyline. It’s also the storyline in this episode that was handled with the most authenticity, heart and humor.
If you’ve ever had to deal with a parent who refused to accept medical treatment (hand raised) then you know how stubborn, ornery and illogical they can be. As Zeek, Craig T. Nelson was all of that, wrapped up in several layers of denial, white lies and insults aimed at fresh-faced doctors. When Zeek said that his fall off that casino chair happened because he “stood up too fast,” we knew he was lying. We had seen the look on his face just before the collapse, the look that suggested something wasn’t right and that Zeek absolutely, without question, realized it.
Yet he insisted on getting out of that hospital and back to the world of blackjack, where he could continue living it up while dressed like Hannibal Lecter in the final scene of Silence of the Lambs. That casino confrontation — when Zeek insisted he was staying put (“I happen to be in a major heater!”) while three of his four kids formed a protest circle around him but, eventually, gave in to Dad — was my favorite moment in this week’s episode. “This family is sick. Sick,” said Adam, who, as the perpetually responsible one, argued most adamantly for his father’s return to medical care. But even he eventually caved, sublimating his concerns about Zeek’s health and replacing them with the desire to pop his head into a group selfie. Maybe that’s what Vegas does to a person, what with its flashing lights, enticing chips, and the faint whiff of burned-off common sense that hangs heavy in the air, somewhere over by the slot machines. But that’s also what the admittedly childish belief in our own parents’ immortality will do, too. Dad might get really sick, and possibly even die, eventually. But not now. Never now. “He seems okay,” Sarah said, as much to convince Adam as herself.
That was a quintessential Parenthood scene, one with tons of overlapping dialogue, siblings playing the same roles with each other that they established at age three, and a palpable sense of how much chemistry these actors have developed over five seasons. It also was really funny. We spend so much time talking about the saturation of facial tissues in regard to this show that we tend to forget how good Parenthood is at finding the humor in what these Bravermans do. Now: did it make any sense at all that Adam and Crosby got to Vegas so quickly when it’s an eight-hour drive from San Francisco or a 90-minute flight away, without factoring in the ride to the airport or the trip through security? No. And would Adam have spontaneously taken that trip when he and his wife are less than 48 hours from opening a school that’s barely painted and has 0.0 desks in it? Also no. But that leap of logic got us to that wonderful scene, and it also gave us an equally enjoyable moment in which Crosby acknowledged that he’d previously visited a Vegas due to having “body glitter caught in my eye” and a “rash from a performer’s perfume.” Look, it’s the last season of Parenthood. I’m willing to suspend disbelief a wee bit more than usual in certain cases. (Read: the ones that don’t involve charter school renovations. More on this in a moment.)
Now, on to other matters, including the one scene in this episode that qualified as a true weeper.
Amber’s pregnancy. As last season’s hospital bed cry-sex between Amber and Ryan (not to mention promos for this episode) foreshadowed, Amber is indeed having Ryan’s baby. Mae Whitman did a lovely job of telegraphing the confusion, joy and resentment Amber feels about being pregnant at such a young age, a situation that mirrors the one in which her own mother found herself when she was pregnant with Amber. I also really liked the fact that it was Haddie in whom she confided first. Sarah Ramos was absent through much of the previous two seasons, returning in that fifth season finale primarily to reveal her same-sex relationship with Lauren. (Though Lauren was not present — because, you know, she’s starring in “This is Our Youth” on Broadway — the two are still together.) Putting Amber and Haddie in a situation where they could fight and then reconnect was a nice throwback to the relationship they shared in season one. When they were sitting on that football field, reminiscing about Steve (remember Steve??) — well, it was pretty darn close to experiencing a Friday Night Lights moment in the middle of a Parenthood episode. Something tells me, however, that Amber’s “I’m pregnant” conversation with Sarah — which had only just begun when this episode ended — won’t be quite so chummy and vaguely Saracen/Landry-ish.
The return of Hank’s ex. I’m pro-Sarah and Hank. (Their cappuccino scene together — “Nobody dictates to me. You know that ... I’m gonna go. Is that all right?” — was yet another funny, naturally-played highlight in this episode.) I’m also pro-Sandy being back in the picture because: (a) that means seeing Betsy Brandt on another show in which she has a significant relationship with a Hank; (b) it just means seeing more of Betsy Brandt period, which is a good thing (Have you seen her on Masters of Sex? So great!); and (c) you just know that, at some point, Sarah will do something with Ruby that Sandy does not approve of, and then Sarah and Sandy will have it out. And I would like to watch that.
The opening of the Chambers Academy. As previously established in this cry-cap, this was the one bit of business that was so unrealistic I simply could not swallow it. And I say that having previously acknowledged that the only way Adam and Crosby could have gotten to Vegas that quickly was by beaming themselves there via some Star Trek-esque portal that they keep in a closet at the Luncheonette. HOW was that school ready to open in two days? Is Joel’s tool box — the one he keeps in his car and dutifully went to retrieve when it was obvious Kristina desperately needed his help — actually some metal, Mary Poppins-type container that’s filled with endless wrenches and magical renovation pixie dust? If it is, can he please bring it to my house and sprinkle some of that stuff on what passes for my master bathroom? Lastly, for a school with a student body of fewer than 40 kids, there were an awful lot of students streaming into that place on day one. Okay, okay: done ranting. I wish Kristina Braverman all the best with this noble effort. I really do. And I hope Max thrives there ... at least until the place gets shut down because its plumbing is not up to code.
Julia and Not-Joel. So Joel and Julia? They’re still not together. In fact, Julia seems to have completely moved on and is now having the-kids-are-at-their-father’s-sad-dad-apartment sex with a new lover. He’s someone she knew in law school. Technically, his name is Chris. But I will be referring to him from here forward as Not-Joel. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Not-Joel. Most of them are not positive, and that’s not just because he’s ... well, not Joel. (Hey, Chris: do you have a magical tool box in your trunk? Yeah. Didn’t think so.)
To be fair to Not-Joel, he’s a pretty thinly sketched character at this point. All we know is that he’s an attorney and that he wants to jump on the Julia train at all times of day, regardless of the setting. But something about him seems a little ... skeezy and vaguely Ari-on-Entourage-ish. It’s notable, though, that he’s also a lawyer. If Julia always carried an air of superiority around Joel because she deemed her job as “above” his — and even though she didn’t mean to do that, she most definitely did — then this Not-Joel is someone she can more readily see as an equal. However, at least at this stage, Not-Joel is not the guy who’s going to happily stay with the kids when something unexpected and scary happens to Zeek. That guy is still good ‘ol Joel “Dependable, Hot and Handy” Graham.
Which brings me to the one weepy scene.
Cry Moment: When Julia got that selfie text from her siblings.
As soon as she saw Adam, Crosby and Sarah clearly living it up in Vegas with their Pop, confirming that her father was okay, she laughed. Then she lost it. The fact that Joel hugged her and then slipped in a kiss was sweet, but it was the way Erika Christensen transitioned from a chuckle to a full-on cry — “I’m going to kill them” — that got to me. Her tears suggested that there was reason for relief now. But in terms of confronting what’s really going on with her dad, it seems that she — and the rest of the Bravermans, and we, the Parenthood fans — are only beginning to tap into our emotions. Cry factor (on a scale of one tear to five): 2.