Parenthood Recap: Gluten-Free and Tear-Filled

Photo: NBC
Episode Title
Happy Birthday, Zeek
Editor’s Rating

This week’s Parenthood was the dictionary definition of Parenthood doing what Parenthood does. It was a three-hanky affair (at least!), complete with charged arguments, Bravermans meddling in the business of other Bravermans, and highly emotional scenes made authentic and affecting by actors doing effortlessly natural work. It was also an episode that featured Lauren Graham awkwardly entering a room while wearing a king’s crown she purchased at Party City. Just mentioning that to ensure that no one ever, ever forgets that happened.

So, was it a little corny when all the kids covered that Ben Harper song, which previously was covered by Jack Johnson on the Curious George soundtrack, for Zeek’s birthday? Sure, but Max’s blatant contempt for the exercise leavened some of the mawkishness. And once again, were there some Adam-and-Kristina-related believability issues, which shall be addressed shortly in the new, potentially regular feature of this cry-cap called “The Weekly Airing of Grievances About Chambers Academy”? Of course. But Zeek’s 72nd birthday party, with all its confessions, confrontations, and gluten-free fruit-tart drama, was such a touching, well-executed setpiece that it elevated the entire episode, making this perhaps the most satisfying Parenthood since season four.

Every story line in this installment involved at least one character initially failing to grasp some pretty obvious facts: that their daughter has become a bully; that a school cafeteria chef can’t modify an entire menu just because of one kid’s issues with casein; that your father is always, always going to sugarcoat the truth about his medical situation; and that open-heart surgery is a necessity if you’re Zeek Braverman and you want to stick around to see your great-grandbabies grow up. There was a message in all of this, one subtly embedded in Max’s complaints about not being able to take the elective he wanted and Zeek’s insistence that he could opt out of what he deemed an “elective” procedure: In life, sometimes there really aren’t electives. Circumstances are what they are, and the only option is to face them and — if I may put this in McConaughey parlance — keep L-I-V-I-N.

That’s what Zeek Braverman ultimately chose to do when he decided to get the heart surgery Dr. Leland recommended, even though — and this seemed like a crucial detail — that same doctor said he wasn’t sure Zeek’s leaky valves were the direct cause of his Vegas collapse. It’s only episode two, but already it seems like a certainty that, even if his surgery is a success, Zeek isn’t long for this world. If Papa Braverman is indeed on his way out, Craig T. Nelson is beginning to usher him toward the door with the same glorious, gentle stubbornness that has characterized his portrayal of the ever-unfiltered patriarch since Parenthood began. There were several tearjerker moments in this week’s episode. But the two biggest weepers of the bunch really hit home emotionally because Nelson was right in there with another actor, anchoring the hell out of those scenes.

Before we turn fully to the cry portion of this week’s cry-cap, we need to talk about Sydney. Actually, we need to talk about Julia and Joel talking about Sydney.

I watched this episode ahead of time via a press screener. But when Julia abruptly exited that parent-teacher conference, then yelled at Joel when he attempted to initiate a conversation about their relationship — “You destroyed us! All of us!” — I could preemptively hear the sound of Parenthood fans nationwide shouting at their TVs: “How dare you, Julia Braverman-Graham?!” Was Joel a bit hasty about his decision to move out of the house? Yes. But did he alone break that marriage and their family unit? No. No way. (Also, I’m not even sure the separation can be blamed for Syd’s rudeness to poor, bullied Melody. Let’s be honest: Sydney’s always had brattiness in her blood, clogging up her veins. Hey, maybe she’s the one who needs open-heart surgery!)

Julia is still clinging, with all ten of her manicured nails, to the idea that she has to be perfect. That’s why she can’t admit to Sydney’s teacher that she and Joel are separated. That’s why she can’t admit that her marriage actually got destroyed because two people, not just one, inadvertently snapped it in half. That’s why she’s so eager to “move on” with Not Joel even though she hasn’t told Real Joel that Not Joel exists. Only a little time has passed since last season; about two months, based on Amber’s pregnancy trajectory. At this stage, Julia shouldn’t be this impatient with Joel or feel so rushed to start a new relationship. But it’s easier, somehow, for her to start over than to acknowledge that she screwed up, made a mess, and let people down, no one more than herself.

When this series started, many mom viewers probably saw Julia as the polished, perfect working mother they wished they could be, the one who makes everyone else in the PTA mumble, “I don’t know how she does it.” Now that the series is almost over, we can see Julia for what she actually is: just another parent trying her best and punishing herself (and others, like Joel) when she misses that mark. The Parenthood writers (and Erika Christensen) deserve immense credit for building that character into the multidimensional, flawed human she’s become. 

Now it’s time for “The Weekly Airing of Grievances About Chambers Academy”! On the agenda this week: Should Max Braverman be the one running this school? I’m beginning to think so. First: He’s right. There should be a photography elective. Hank would probably teach it for free, they could hold the class at Hank’s studio, the kids would love it, and Max would finally shut up about it! Honestly, it makes about as much sense as replacing the catering staff with “Adam Braverman’s Amazing World of Cyool-inary Arts,” a course that turns students into cafeteria workers and is just one paring-knife accident away from a major lawsuit. More important, the class is, as Max quite rightly described it, a blatant example of “slave labor.” On the plus side, it  gives those kids something to aspire to. Who knows? Maybe one of them could grow up to be Lunchlady Doris.

I will say this: The writers have at least been winking at the audience in ways that suggest even they realize this whole Chambers Academy thing is more than a little ludicrous. They did it last week, when Joe, the useless contractor, mocked Adam and Kristina for opening a school for their son. They did it again this week, when Kristina was feeling overwhelmed by her decision to run her own educational institution and asked out loud: “Who do I think I am, Oprah?” (It’s like she’s saying what we’re all thinking!)

Now: Did I still get kinda teary when Kristina talked about Edgar’s mother and how she was so appreciative of what Kristina and Adam had done for her son by forcing him to prepare a chicken for almost 40 kids? Of course! If you cut me while I’m making fun of two adults for forcing autistic children to do manual labor, do I not bleed?

Anyway. Let’s get to the major cry moments — four big ones this week.

Cry Moment 1: Adam confronts Zeek about his surgery. As soon as Peter Krause — all chin-shaky and throat-lumpy — said, “You could die, Dad. What do I do then?” I was pretty much a goner. Like most Americans — at least the ones who watch this show and also previously watched Six Feet Under — I simply cannot take Sad Krause. It breaks my heart. I was in even worse shape when Craig T. Nelson told his son to scatter his ashes in center field at Marine Park and play baseball over him, a comment beautifully foreshadowed by both Zeek and Adam getting distracted by MLB games earlier in the episode. Dad, sons, the specter of death, and baseball — this was Parenthood’s Field of Dreams moment, and it made me cry the same way I do every time Kevin Costner and his dad have a catch. Cry factor, on a scale of one tear to five: 4.

Cry Moment 2: Amber tells Zeek that she’s pregnant. Now at bat: Mae Whitman, the cry equivalent of Parenthood’s home-run hitter. She knocked one out of the park again here when she announced to her grandfather that she’s pregnant, then collapsed in Zeek’s arms while sobbing out, “Are you disappointed in me?” That was a question she really wanted to ask her mother but could only muster the courage to ask Grandpa, because she knew the answer would be no. Why wasn’t Zeek more disappointed in her, or at least concerned about the prospect of her becoming a single mom at such a young age? Answer: He’s her grandfather. While he undoubtedly went megaballistic when that same confession came out of Sarah’s mouth 20-some years ago, hearing it from a granddaughter is a different — sorry, more sports metaphors — ballgame. At this stage, for Zeek, it only meant joy. Nelson and Whitman are, and always have been, just lovely when they’re in scenes together. This was total puddle-of-tears time. Cry factor: 5.

Cry Moment 3: The montage of everyone dancing at Zeek’s party. The Amber-Zeek scene released the Cry Kraken. So that’s why my eyes were still gushy during this semi-corny montage. Yes. That is why. Cry factor: 2.

Cry Moment 4: Sarah and the baby pictures. You kind of knew that at some point, Sarah would greet Amber’s pregnancy news by busting out some baby pictures. Even so, when she did it and said, “I forgot to tell you about all the good stuff,” some eye juice leaked out. Then, when Amber’s face crumpled and she admitted she was scared: Oh, Lord. It was Tear-Duct Faucets, Go! The king of this episode was undeniably Zeek Braverman. But as Amber, Whitman — an actress with the potential to take down Claire Danes in the Facial-Contorting Emotional-Breakdown Olympics — was its queen of beautifully ugly cries. Cry factor: 3.