This week, on Parenthood: Sarah and Zeek go to Vegas, Max takes one for the team, and Ruby is a teenager
Parenthood begins its final season by picking up almost exactly where season five left off. “Vegas” may take place months after “The Pontiac” but for the most part, everyone is in the same place. Amber is indeed pregnant, with Ryan still out of the picture, Kristina is launching her school, and Zeek and Camille are happy in their new home. The only surprise Katims and co. throw the audience is Julia’s new office fling, which may become something more. It’s a surprising move given where the last season ended, but a not unwelcome one.
Most of this premiere functions as a restatement of the characters’ relationships and perspectives, reassuring the audience that the Braverman clan is doing well. Even Amber seems surprisingly together, considering. It’s a bit disappointing to see the show go down this predictable path—almost anything else the series could’ve done with Amber would be more interesting—but at least this arc (because there’s no way Amber’s not keeping the baby, what with Parenthood being an American network TV series) should give Mae Whitman plenty of screentime. Viewers will have to wait to see if the writers can come up with anything fresh or interesting for her to do. For the time being, it’s just nice to see Amber relax and catch up with Haddie, who was notably absent last season.
Just as expected is Zeek’s health scare. This is a storyline viewers have been anticipating for at least a year and all involved play it well. There’s no sense of danger (the series isn’t going to kill off Craig T. Nelson in the premiere), but everyone’s reactions are relatable and affecting. Despite the emotion of this development, it’s a comfortable one, and that descriptor fits much of this premiere. After the turmoil of Julia and Joel’s separation, Sydney and Victor now seem well-adjusted, Aida has taken her first steps, and despite his grumbling, Max comes through in the end for his mother. It may not have been intended as such, but Max’s assessment that the Chambers Academy is not for him is a canny one. While he will no doubt benefit from it, Kristina created the school as much for herself as Max and it would be wonderful if, in its last season, Parenthood actually explored this side to the constantly self-sacrificing Kristina.
By far the highlight of “Vegas” is the return of Betsy Brandt as Hank’s ex-wife Sandy. Brandt is great in her few scenes, sliding seamlessly into the ensemble. Ray Romano has been excellent on the series, but his storylines have frequently ended up dominated by Sarah’s love triangle shenanigans. This could still be in the offing here, but bringing Ruby and Sandy back as recurring presences and seeing Hank have to actually parent, and parent a difficult teen at that, is incredibly promising. The series benefited tremendously by adding Romano to the ensemble and always shines when it gives him more to do, particularly when emphasizing his connection to Max Burkholder’s Max. Counterpointing that relationship with what could come with Ruby should be very interesting and give Romano, Brandt, Burkholder, Lauren Graham, and Courtney Grosbeck (Ruby) plenty of fantastic material.
Not everything works entirely. Adam and Crosby’s reaction to Sarah’s handling of their father overplays the comedy and ends up broadly wacky, prompting tonal whiplash when they arrive in Vegas and immediately assume the worst. Also, Joel and Julia’s relationship may have been strained and in need of boundaries, but with construction far from done only two days out, Kristina really didn’t think to call the contractor (all but) in the family?
On the whole, however, “Vegas” is a confident and pleasant start to what looks likely to be a satisfying final season for Parenthood. Hopefully Katims and the rest of the writers have some tricks up their sleeves and will give the characters a few left turns before the finale, but either way, the journey should be fun. This premiere may not be particularly surprising, but it’s familiar rather than tired, and that’s a distinction not all shows in their sixth season manage.