Last night, Parenthood finished off their third season by tying up so many loose ends so swiftly and cleanly you have to wonder if the writers are nervous about their chances of renewal. I certainly hope they get a fourth season - this is one of the best-scripted television shows on air today. There are no bells and whistles, no false moments, no sensationalism; just good, authentic, well-constructed characters and drama.
Of course, what's ironic about this assessment is that the third season finisher "My Brother's Wedding" didn't quite demonstrate these usual hallmarks of the show, perhaps because the writers were trying to do too much to wrap up as many storylines as satisfyingly as possible. While there were still plenty of great moments, it also felt far more rushed than usual, with the rare feeling of being able to feel the hand plotting the action.
Basically, this stemmed largely from the idea that Crosby and Jasmine decided to get married in the closing moments of last week's episode, and this week, the wedding's on. Too fast, too fast! I have no problems whatsoever with Crosby and Jasmine marrying one another - in fact, I've really appreciated the steps Parenthood has taken to show these two finding a way to function in each others' lives in an even-footed, diplomatic, and caring way. Too much of the first two seasons saw Crosby playing the "fun dad" and Jasmine playing the "uptight mom" and the arguments that dynamic created didn't sit well with me - especially because it flattened the characterization of one of the show's few persons of color, and ostracized her from the core cast.
But this season saw Jasmine and Crosby finally finding their rhythm as separated parents, and in doing so, rediscovered their natural chemistry and attraction. It was rewarding to see Jasmine move out "bitch" territory, and equally as rewarding to see Crosby shift out of "man child" territory as well. Of course, they both picked up pesky significant others in the process - both of whom had to be done away with swiftly and cleanly in last night's episode. And boy, was it quick. Cello Girl and Dr. Joe both got the boot in a cross-cut montage over song, and we only heard enough to catch the apologies and the contrasting reactions. The idea that Crosby and Jasmine want to marry is not that foreign a concept considering the road towards emotional maturity they've been on all season, but it still felt out of left field - especially when they're dating other people and then rush into a wedding within the week.
Couldn't we have had more time to prepare? Especially when one of the most charming scenes of the evening was watching Zeek bark out the delegations for Backyard Wedding on a Whim. Funnier yet was the adult kids snapping to attention - Julia's "Sir!" cracked me up in particular, perhaps because no part of Julia's life has been laugh-worthy as of late. But more on that later. The more pressing issue belongs to Crosby and Adam, who got into a huge fight over the Luncheonette. This is nothing new. One of Parenthood's go-to sources of drama is in the clashing attitudes of the family's Responsible Brother and Immature Brother. This entire season has been devoted to the rehashing of this conflict, and the finale was no different.
Necessary back story: last week, Adam and Crosby met with a businessman who wants to purchase their homegrown recording studio for the hefty sum of $1 million. To Crosby, you can't put a price on a dream. To Adam, this is a business decision, and he's a man with a new baby and a kid about to go off to college - $1 million looks pretty good. So he met with the man again, got a higher offer, and wants Crosby to consider selling. This does not sit well with Crosby, who revokes Adam's status as Best Man, and also throws beer on him. Then Parenthood cheekily launches an all-out food fight far too immature for the salsa-slinging brothers - a welcome moment of levity in a tear-jerking episode.
The Adam vs. Crosby conflict is something that I personally find tiring after awhile. The formula is the same: Adam and Crosby encounter a situation, react in completely opposite ways, insult each other, and then make up. Although it's good drama, and would be unrealistic if it went away completely, it starts to feel repetitive after a few rotations. And what I found to be a misstep in the finale was the decision the brothers reached. For once, I had actually sided with Crosby in a debate, and everyone convinced him he should sell - until Adam's Best Man speech, wherein he tore up the napkin and proclaimed his love for working with Crosby every day. Thus, the Luncheonette would live on in the Braverman family.
I actually wish that Parenthood had done the exact opposite. While I want Crosby to have his dream, I think Adam needs the money more. This entire season for Adam has been about being able to support his family financially, after being laid off with a baby on the way. Kristina had to go back to work to help out with costs, and Haddie faces financial obstacles in getting her college education. This has been explored and highlighted all season long for Adam. The best resolution for his character would be to get that money and feel the pressure come off for a bit.
Now, I don't think this necessarily means that Crosby has to have unfulfilled development if he lets the Luncheonette go. On the contrary, by capping with Crosby's wedding, we realize that Crosby's season arc has been about his relationship with Jasmine and his emotional maturation, as he dealt with the fallout of his own mistakes. Crosby really grew up this season, and the development was natural and rewarding - in no way did I feel like Crosby was losing his identity by handling situations more maturely in his relationships with Jasmine and Jabbar. So getting married and selling the Luncheonette is actually a fitting conclusion to Crosby's S3 journey.
But instead, we got a Big Moment for Adam, as he stepped up to give the Best Man's speech in place of Drunk Billy (Riggins) and announced that he'd rejected the offer. It was a little too Benevolent Big Brother for me, and gave agency to Adam and not Crosby, which happens all too often in the Responsible Brother/Immature Brother dynamic - and kind of kicked the legs out from underneath Crosby's character arc this season. Not only that, but I have to wonder what fresh storylines the writers can mine out of keeping the Luncheonette for another season. Will we be retreading the same Adam/Crosby conflicts for another year? I hope not.
The other season-long storyline that wrapped up last night was the Zoe-Julia-baby thread, which unraveled so quickly I had to do a double take. As such, I actually found the resolution to this arc supremely disappointing - by far the most issue I've ever taken with this consistently-amazing show. I know many have viewed this plotline as just that: plot. Watching Julia hound a young woman for her baby is not terribly riveting in and of itself. However, the relationship that the writers created between these two women was the most rewarding to watch, all season long. And it was disappointing to me to see the resolution come in plot only, without really giving the characters' relationship its due.
There are a few things that irk me. Firstly, by having Zoe waltz off with the baby and no ties to Julia, it feels a little like everything - 18 episodes' worth - that went into building that dynamic just evaporated in a split second. And while it was extremely powerful to witness Joel and Julia back at Square One, I dislike strongly the idea that they were wronged or betrayed by Zoe. This is another case of Parenthood penning a situation where a female POC supporting character could too easily be called a bitch by an audience member not paying close attention to their side of the story.
Look, I know this is a show about the Bravermans, but the fact is that the first two-thirds of the season were developing Zoe into Julia's family and mining conflict and establishing a relationship in a "strange bedfellows" kind of situation. And I know that Julia wanted Zoe's baby and because Julia is a Braverman on the Braverman Show, we want her to get what she wants. But the character development that occurred in this storyline came not because of the baby, but because of Julia and Zoe interacting. These are two women who have been thrown together, and who change a little bit since knowing one another. But unfortunately, Parenthood ultimately downplayed Julia's change and zeroed in on Zoe's, only as a result of Julia's benevolence, and simultaneously played up Julia's commitment to getting a baby. Plot, plot, plot.
Like I said before, it's not compelling to watch Julia obsess about an unborn child. It is compelling to watch Zoe bring a different side out of Julia, wherein she defies High-Strung Working Lady Wants a Baby stereotype and becomes more nurturing, calm, and vulnerable. And what's frustrating is that we had so many moments reinforcing this idea all season long! The first two acts of Season 3 were about Julia and Zoe awkwardly finding a common ground to exist on, and learning to open up and trust one another. Julia set a place for Zoe at the dinner table without knowing if she'd show up, and took care of her at the hospital when no one else was there. And Zoe feared Julia's disapproval so much that she dumped her dead-end boyfriend to ensure that she and the baby could stay in Julia's life.
Of course, once Zoe moved in with Joel and Julia, the storyline started fracturing a bit, with Zoe distancing herself from the Grahams and behaving erratically enough to cause Julia to freak out. This is the least interesting aspect of their dynamic because it actively works against everything they'd built together so far, and only serves to introduce an over-sensationalized plot suggestion: could Zoe back out on her promise? And the idea that the answer to that question was yes made the season finale so upsetting to me. Every fascinating layer of this complicated relationship was completely thrown out in favor of Zoe's "betrayal" and Julia's heartbreak, and the writers ended everything even more tragically with the idea that Julia changed Zoe's life, and the return of Zoe's grandfather's watch to its rightful owner.
I just don't understand how the most compelling relationship of Season 3 could spiral apart so quickly and come to a close without any tether between them. I'm insulted even further that the last word on the matter was "You changed my life." Sorry, Julia, you don't get a baby, but you do get to be the White Savior to an at-risk Hispanic youth! Grumble. It's not like Julia didn't change Zoe's life, but there's so much more to this dynamic that having it reduced to that simple summary is a disservice to the characters, the audience, and to the actors that supplied an masterful balance of familiarity and tension to every scene they participated in together.
In the end, though, Joel and Julia got a surprise adoption in Victor, a six-year-old kid whose mother was incarcerated and is now in need of a home. Presumably this was intended to hastily wrap up Julia's S3 objective, while providing potential for S4 storylines, but I was still reeling from the sting of Zoe's swift and upsetting departure, and frankly I found it difficult to care. It felt like the writers had just shot themselves in the foot, and were now trying to put a band-aid on the bullethole. I call Party Foul on this whole scenario, which is such a shame considering how strong its origins were.
As for the Sarah-Amber-Drew arm of the Braverman clan, we got heaps of relationship drama with these three. Let's start with the most basic: Drew had sex. That's it. That's all you need to know. I'm not sure why Parenthood felt the need to make good on Drew's back-back-back-burner relationship with Amy, but the season finisher included the teenage lovebirds deciding they were ready for sex, and successfully going through with it. Frankly, this screentime could have been used for something that we're currently more invested in - perhaps in believably breaking up Crosby and Jasmine's relationships, or Zoe and Julia's relationship, both of which could have used the extra airtime.
Amber, however, only had one real thing to do: choose. She could either go back to work for Bob Little, or decide to date him instead. I actually think this storyline was well-crafted, starting with the idea that Amber first decides that she doesn't think she can do both. I liked that it wasn't immediately assumed that Amber had to choose between a job and a boyfriend. Secondly, I liked that Kristina chastised Bob for his relationship with Amber, because it's completely in-character, and it's nice to see Kristina's protective side. Plus, it's not often we get to see the parents interact with the nieces and nephews, and it's refreshing to see less-common character interactions. Thirdly, I liked even more that Bob defended himself simply by saying he was attracted to a smart, capable young woman. Even though the two characters were technically at odds, they both came with the same priorities: Amber's feelings.
In the end, Amber met with Bob and explained that even though she wants to be with him, she feels like she only ever makes decisions based on emotions - and that it usually isn't good for her. I loved this choice, because it feels like it's putting Amber on a character arc. Not unlike her mother, Amber is something of a wanderer, on a search for herself, and I like the idea that she chooses to explore a professional option as opposed to a personal one. It makes sense to me, and feels natural, even though it's sad. And I loved as well that Bob accepted her decision, and reassured her that she'll always have a job at his campaign. Altogether, it was well-handled, and served up a compelling and authentic mix of emotions.
Sarah's storyline, however, mostly rang with heartbreak. She herself faced a relationship decision: should she stay with Mark, knowing that they may not want the same things? Sarah and Mark's relationship has flirted with this construct for the latter half of the season, with the idea that their age difference creates a lot of conflict about their compatibility. Mark wants a baby, Sarah's not sure she does. Mark wants to travel, Sarah has kids she wants to keep close. It's certainly valid and compelling drama, although it's been somewhat redundant for the past few episodes. But, it was absolutely heartwrenching to witness Sarah breaking the conflict pattern by breaking up with Mark so that he has a chance to have the future he wants. But, Mark "made a tactical error" (bless this character) and realizes that perhaps they were putting the cart before the horse. He wants to be with Sarah regardless of what life throws at them - so he proposes. I love these two characters individually and together, and while I'm not sure exactly what marriage will bring them, I want to see them happy together. I'm along for the ride on this one, Parenthood.
Phew. Is that everything? I think it is. Ultimately, I am along for the ride on this show, because the writing has been so consistently solid since Day 1, even if I occasionally disagree with the choices they make for the characters. I love Parenthood dearly, and want to see it renewed for Season 4. Although the finale was somewhat rushed and had a few fumbled resolutions, I'm still invested in the characters and their stories. Plus, if we get a Season 4, maybe Zoe can come back and the writers can undo the mess they left her storyline in. Here's hoping! I'll be happy either way.
The Report Card:
Episode MVP: Amber
Best Tearjerker: Sarah's breakup with Mark