SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Parenthood finale.
Kleenex sales are bound to slide in the near future, as fans of NBC’s Parenthood cried their last tears tonight during the finale “May God Bless and Keep You Always,” written by the show’s executive producer Jason Katims and directed by Lawrence Trilling.
Parenthood, developed by Emmy winner Katims and loosely based on the 1989 Ron Howard Imagine film, followed the Braverman family — patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and matriarch Camille (Bonnie Bedelia) and their four adult children Adam (Peter Krause), Sarah (Lauren Graham), Julia (Erika Christensen) and Crosby (Dax Shepard) and their families — as they wrestled heavy topics common to everyone, read breast cancer, teenage pregnancy, cheating spouses and bullying.
Parenthood came to a close this season in the wake of a brief cast negotiation standoff last spring. NBC deemed that Season 6 would be the series’ last, comprised of 13 episodes, with the 10th episode this season catapulting the series past the century mark.
While some TV dramas are known to end with a big bang — from enigmatic blackouts in a diner (The Sopranos) to blazes of glory (Walter White’s death in Breaking Bad) — Parenthood wrapped its six seasons tonight by making sure its characters had their affairs in order. Adam realized that his work resided in teaching at his wife Kristina’s (Monica Potter) progressive school, young Amber (Mae Whitman) gave birth to her baby, Sarah and Hank Rizzoli (Ray Romano) tied the knot, and Crosby kept his prized recording studio open despite Adam’s departure.
One character relishing personal triumph was Adam and Kristina’s son, Max (Max Burkholder), who throughout the series contended with his Asperger syndrome. The character was loosely based on Katims’ son, and in the finale we see Max emotionally connecting with a teenage girl, and excelling at his first real job: being the photographer at Sarah and Hank’s wedding. It’s a conclusion that Katims called “a major breakthrough for Max. He has been the heartbeat of the show. We’ve watched Max through many ups and downs, and the finale makes gains for him.”
And in what was expected all season long: Zeek died in his sleep from heart failure during the last four minutes of the show.
Katims told Deadline that in regards to the finale, “We broke the whole season and laid the groundwork for it on the first day in the writers’ room. The instinct was where everyone was going to wind up. We knew we wanted Julia and Joel (Sam Jaeger) to resolve their relationship, and that Hank and Sarah were going to get together. There weren’t many changes along the way that happened at the last minute.”
One of the few surprises for Katims during the season was when actor Jason Ritter, aka Mark Cyr (a role that nabbed Ritter a guest actor drama Emmy nom, the only one earned by the series during its run to date), became available at the last minute for Episode 9. Sarah attends the school play in which Hank’s daughter is the lead, and runs into her ex-fiance Mark who is the English teacher at the school. Mark notices that Sarah has moved on. “It wound up being a critical piece of the puzzle, to see the resolution between Sarah and Mark,” said Katims.
Throughout most of the finale, one feels Zeek could actually live, especially since he underwent surgery earlier in the season. This is assumed from a hopeful moment when Zeek offers his granddaughter Amber and her baby the opportunity to live with Camille and him. However, the inevitable happens.
Was there an alternative ending where Zeek lived? Not according to Katims. “The very first story we decided to tell this year was about losing a family member. I didn’t want to tell this story sooner in the series because I didn’t want to lose any cast members. We wanted it to be a big story, like no other we told before, and we built the whole season around it,” he said.
Zeek’s death aside, the finale possessed an upbeat tone. Katims explained, “I didn’t want the final episode to be all about Zeek dying. I felt that was ultimately what the season was about. I didn’t want the final episode to be sad because that’s not what the show is about. Parenthood is about strength and the love of this family getting through difficult moments.”
Soon after Zeek dies, we see the family fulfilling his wish: Playing a baseball game on a field covered in his ashes. “We wanted to watch this family in the end dealing with his death in a way that was ultimately uplifting. It’s about losing a wonderful patriarch. We witness the family coming together, continuing to grow,” said the Parenthood EP. There is a fast-forward in the finale showing Max graduating from Chambers, Julia and Joel receiving their newly adopted baby, and Crosby succeeding at the recording studio. “We didn’t feel like we needed to tell the story about mortality and losing a family member in order to make the ending feel rich and deep,” Katims added.
Katims said he was able to tap most every socially conscious topic during the final season with the exception of Haddie Braverman’s coming out, which he would have preferred to flesh out.
Essentially, there aren’t dangling issues remaining in the wake of Parenthood that will find their way into Katims’ NBC family comedy series About A Boy (loosely based on the 2002 film about a 11-year-old boy and a needy single mom’s connection with the bachelor next door). nor in his Silicon Valley-set medical drama project he developed with Parenthood’s Sarah Watson through his True Jack production label for CBS.
However, what did actually happen while Katims was running between the Parenthood and About A Boy writers’ rooms was “there was a lot of overlap” when it came to similar storylines. One of the subplots this season on Parenthood involved Max having his first big crush on Dylan (Ally Ioannides), then there was a scenario on About A Boy where young Marcus (Benjamin Stockham) sets his eyes on Shea (Izabela Vidovic). “I walked into the About A Boy writers’ room and told them I was pitched the same storyline on Parenthood two hours ago. There was a weird back and forth (between the rooms) and we had to rebreak some of the stories.”
While family TV shows are as American as apple pie, Parenthood was a step above its predecessors. Such shows as ABC’s Eight Is Enough mixed socially conscious topics of the 1970s and ’80s with comical mishaps, i.e. teen drugs, Christmas burglars, crushes on your fourth grade teacher, but with a laugh track. This evolved during the 2000s with HBO’s Six Feet Under (which also starred Parenthood’s Krause), which dealt with the gravitas of family affairs in a funeral parlor. Though emotionally piercing, Six Feet Under looked at family through a skewed, even absurdist lens. Parenthood captured the emotion of a family crisis head on with a precise poignancy that steered clear of tipping the scales into melodrama. Its weekly takeaways: counting your blessings and knowing that family is the best shoulder to lean on during a crisis. TV critics including the New York Times, The New Yorker and Time took notice, praising Katims’ finesse in handling, and bringing to light, those with specials needs, specifically with Max.
“Max is a special character because it started a trend in the writers’ room for everyone to bring their own autobiographies, and using them to tell stories,” Katims said. “My son is very different from Max, but he was an inspiration to tell these stories such as when Kristina and Adam start the Chambers Academy. We cast a lot of kids with special needs and they acted on the show and it was so rewarding on so many levels. I’m not going to say that I don’t steal from my own life, but the trick is to take the stuff that happens to all of us and to see how it works for the show. By the time we lay down all the beats, stories have changed.”
In the wake of the success of Friday Night Lights, together with Parenthood, Katims has been the go-to guy for propelling family feature film dramas into ensemble TV series. However, his adaptations are their own unique entities that take on a life of their own beyond the brand they were originally based upon. It’s almost as though Parenthood didn’t even need to be called Parenthood. The original Steve Martin-Rick Moranis film followed the Buckmans, not the Bravermans, after all.
“We owe a great debt to the movie” said Katims about Parenthood. “There was a perfect set-up in that movie for a TV show; the idea of doing four family units sprung from a patriarch and a matriarch.” However, in this day and age when you’re trying to launch a family show in a crowded TV atmosphere, being propped by a film title is a plus.
“It’s hard to launch a family drama nowadays without a big twist. Parenthood is a story about people’s lives — the title helps,” Katims said. “Very early on during the show’s launch, the title was something familiar for the audience. It grabbed people’s interest.”