When “Parenthood” began its six-season run on NBC nearly five years ago, in March of 2010, the network was in last place. Faced with failure after failure while trying to recreate its “Must-See TV” brand, which once featured mega-hits like “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” the Peacock was looking for something, anything to bring it back to the glory days of not so long ago. Their highest-rated shows included “The Biggest Loser,” “The Office” and “The Sing Off,” but none could crack double digits in total viewers at the time and only one was a scripted series.
So there was considerable pressure on “Parenthood,” as hopes were high for the drama based on the popular ’89 film and featuring an all-star ensemble, a respected showrunner, award-winning producers and was following the popular trend of the time. On paper, it had all the ingredients necessary for a big, broadcast hit. The only problem? TV had moved past broadcast standards, and no one had told the big four. NBC righted its ship to become the number one network on TV today almost in spite of “Parenthood,” shifting away from its dynamic with hits like “The Blacklist” and “Sunday Night Football.” So on the day Jason Katims’ series wraps its all-the-more impressive run, let’s take a look at what TV was before, during and after “Parenthood” came around.
Why “Parenthood” Should Have Saved NBC
It’s impossible to think of just one actor when considering “Parenthood.” The enormous ensemble cast created its fair share of stars — mainly Sam Jaeger (now appearing in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”) and the talented child actors — but the core group consisted of not just television veterans, but television royalty. From the family patriarch played by Craig T. Nelson (“Coach”) to his prodigal son Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) on down to his rebellious daughter Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) and guest star-turned-series regular Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), “Parenthood” is the equivalent of a studio prestige picture aimed at sweeping the Oscars’ acting categories.
Three of the series regulars even stepped behind the camera during the show’s run to direct an episode: Jaeger and Dax Shephard both helmed an hour each, while Krause ended up directing three episodes. They were, of course, guided by some of the surest hands in the business. Thanks to his previous series, “Friday Night Lights,” developer/creator Jason Katims (the lifeblood of that series) had earned as much respect within the industry as one could get without winning an Emmy, and then he did just that for the final season of his first drama. Oscar winners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer served as executive producers for the series’ early episodes, lending a gravitas to the production side of things.
These factors would be more than enough for any network to go gaga over a new series, but “Parenthood” had one other element working for it, as well. “Modern Family” had debuted just six months earlier, becoming the breakout hit of the fall season and paving the way for a flood of imitators targeting the coveted four-quadrant audience. “Parenthood” hoped to be the drama equivalent of ABC’s ratings juggernaut, and its arrival came at a time when demand for a show just like it was at peak fervor.
Why It Didn’t
So what went wrong? Though it’s hard to say anything is “wrong” with a prestige drama lasting six seasons, earning critical raves and wedging its own slot in the cultural discussion surrounding television’s Golden Age, “Parenthood” simply couldn’t live up to its high expectations. TV was changing, as critics and audiences started to pay more and more attention to cable dramas. “Mad Men” was about to win its third straight Emmy for Outstanding Drama series when “Parenthood” first aired, continuing the still-running win streak of cable dramas in that category. Even a show as well-written, acted and executed as “Parenthood” still felt stale when compared to the revolution happening on other networks. Despite the acclaimed background of the show’s leads, only Monica Potter snagged any attention for the show at the Golden Globes, scoring a nod for the former in 2014. Jason Ritter, a recurring guest star, nabbed a nod at the Emmys in 2012, but that was the only time the Oscars of television showed any love to “Parenthood.”
As is bound to happen when critics and cultural landmarks change focus, audience attention shifted, as well. “Parenthood” started off with a respectable, if median, ratings average. The first season pulled in more than 8 million viewers for its premiere, but saw declines every year following until it earned just a little over 4 million for its final season premiere. Granted, the ways in which people watch changed along with everything else, but the numbers still reflect the problems broadcast networks faced during the course of “Parenthood’s” run. Viewing models were shifting, and anything with an out-of-date mindset suffered. “Modern Family” managed to feel fresh thanks to — ironically — its “Office”-esque presentation with a very millenial-friendly single camera format and brief running time. Twenty-two minutes of comedy is an easier sell than 42 minutes of drama, especially to audiences looking for something “new.”
Yet “Parenthood” stayed on the air for a number of reasons, with one of the larger ones being it was the best drama on the network — and that’s no slight to NBC or “Parenthood.” Angela Bromstad was in charge of NBC’s primetime lineup in 2009 when she first saw the script for Katim’s pilot, and she fought to keep the show on the air just as she did for many of the other mid-level hits (or worse) that came through the network. “30 Rock,” “Community” and “Friday Night Lights” all lasted longer than many other networks would have allowed because NBC believed in supporting quality over quantity (in terms of large figures). And “Parenthood” had quality in spades.
Why We May Not See Anything Like it For a Long Time
As many culturally astute viewers may have already presumed, “Parenthood” may be the last of its breed. Prestige dramas with A-list casts are getting passed over for reality shows (“The Voice,” “Dancing With the Stars”), spinoffs (“NCIS: Los Angeles,” “CSI: Cyber”) and superhero series (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “The Flash,” “Gotham”) that fit the same timeslot. Many of the dramas with just one or two big names attached are failing — “State of Affairs,” “Red Band Society” — while others work, but don’t offer the same allure (I, and many other critics, have yet to care about “The Blacklist” or “Madam Secretary,” despite solid ratings). The allure of star power across the cast is wiped out by its cost, as evidenced by the elongated negotiations between NBC and “Parenthood” producers in striking a deal for Season 6. The cast had to take pay cuts to get a shortened season greenlit, and it’s hard to imagine big names signing up on new shows for significantly less pay then they can earn at HBO or FX (check out that “Westworld” cast if you want to see some wattage).
Another issue that challenged the initial reception of “Parenthood,” and also leads me to believe it won’t be copied any time soon, is the rise of snark in America. Much has been said across cultural mediums regarding new generations’ preference for sarcasm over sincerity, and, more deeply, pessimism over optimism. After a false war, disappearing jobs and the stark realization of being forced into an adult world many are ill-prepared to live in, many films and TV shows have focused on the negative. Some feature characters stuck in arrested development while others have gone full-blown anti-hero, the success of which in shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have created an oversaturated market for the unlikable protagonists.
“Parenthood” tried to live in the real world, but maintain a viewpoint of positivity. It’s been the most sincere program on television, often mocked for its many scenes ending in tears, but never relenting in its goal to present parenthood as a difficult yet ultimately rewarding adventure. Katims and his writing staff never pandered to their audience, even when giving them exactly what they wanted, such as (spoiler alert) when Joel and Julia reunited only a few episodes ago. In an ideal display of irony, “Parenthood” became a show utterly unique despite being based on two pre-existing properties (the film and NBC’s first effort to make it into a sitcom in the early ’90s). The cast will be missed not because of the relatable allure of the familiar, but because these superstars came together to form an equal partnership on screen and off. They shared the spotlight as actors, allowing each player to carry their own burdens just as the writers constructed equally important narratives for each player over the six seasons.
The Braverman clan is a magical, idealistic but not unrealistic family. Their arrival in our lives may have been a decade too early or too late for the culture at large, but they deeply moved those of us who followed along every week. We may not see anyone like them again for far too long, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishment achieved by Katims and his cast. For all these reasons and more, “Parenthood” is something for everyone to be immensely proud of, as a creator, actor or a fan.