It’s no surprise that the fifth season opener of Parenthood — which airs Thursday, Sept. 26, on NBC — generates some tears. Parenthood, overseen by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and revolving around the sprawling Braverman clan of Berkeley, California, is now virtually synonymous with emotional catharsis, after all.
As I stand on the precipice of my own impending parenthood, it’s the show that compels me to confront my own feelings on a weekly basis, realistically and perfectly capturing the highs and lows of American familial life, rendering each moment, whether it be the heartbreak of first love or the familiarity of old lovers, as something tenuous and all too brief.
In fact, if you haven’t been watching Parenthood, however, you’ve missed out on some of the very best writing and acting on television today, a true ensemble of adults and children who imbue their characters with such nuance that it’s often difficult to remember that the Bravermans aren’t real people with real lives. In an era of Scandal, Game of Thrones, and Homeland — collectively, Big Twist Television — the subtlety of this emotionally resonant drama is too often overlooked in favor of more overtly dramatic fare. Which is a mistake: Parenthood might be subtle, but it’s also brutal, packing an emotional wallop in each installment that has millions of people reaching for the Kleenex, whether it’s a beautifully wrought moment of nostalgia, pain, or beatific joy.
The fifth season premiere (“It Has To Be Now”), however, provides the perfect entry point for those who have been on the fence about whether to take the leap (though, honestly, why not just catch up on Seasons 1–4 on Netflix straightaway?), due in part to an eight-month time jump after last season’s pitch-perfect finale, which could have, on several levels, functioned as a series ender if NBC hadn’t wisely picked up the show for a fifth season. (Even better: We’ll get 22 episodes this season, something that hasn’t happened since Season 2.) The leap forward in time manages to paradoxically both shake things up for nearly every member of the Braverman family and settle things as well, resulting in a season opener that effectively marks a new chapter in this ongoing family saga.
Crosby (Dax Shepherd) and Jasmine (Joy Bryant) quickly give birth to a new baby, throwing their semi-ordered existence into stark chaos, further fracturing the couple who is on shaky ground at the best of times. Kristina (Monica Potter) is cancer-free and itching to return to politics, which she does in a spectacular fashion that puts her at odds with her husband Adam (Peter Krause), who wishes that his wife would not push herself so soon after her recent illness. Sarah (Lauren Graham) has moved out of her parents’ guesthouse and now works as a building super, taking photographs of dogs and building a life for herself without Hank (Ray Romano) and teenage kids to think about. (Miles Heizer’s Drew, now enrolled at a university across town, has more or less shut her out of his life, despite some emoji-laden texts.)
Elsewhere, Julia (Erika Christensen) is itching to return to work, even as her relationship with Joel (Sam Jaeger) is further tested by the arrival of the beautiful Pete (Sonya Walger) in their lives, as Joel bids on a lucrative construction contract. (While we’re meant to think that it’s Joel that Pete has her eye on, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s Julia who is being set up here as the object of Pete’s desire.) And Amber (Mae Whitman) faces uncertainty in her relationship with Ryan (Matt Lauria), who has been redeployed to Afghanistan with the military. Their disconnect is palpable and troubling, particularly after experiencing the happiness they finally found at the end of Season 4.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot of the episode, lest I spoil some of the surprises within, but I will say that there are plenty of heartwarming moments — particularly those that intersect with the episode’s theme of seizing the moment rather than waiting for a perfect time that may never come — and some unexpected pairings as well. The tartly avuncular dynamic developing between perpetually acerbic Hank and gangly Max (Max Burkholder) is a pleasant detour, diving deeper into the similarities between both characters while reminding the audience that there are still surprising character combinations to be explored even five seasons into the show. (Did I mention that Sarah doesn’t know that Hank is back in town?)
And the episode’s final sequence — one that viewers will undoubtedly be tweeting about as it happens on the air — fulfills the show’s sob quotient in the most beautiful and understated way possible. For those of you jumping on for the first time: Make sure you have tissues handy.