1. Season 1, Episode 1 (“Pilot”)
The first time Parenthood hit me like a blow to the chest was in the pilot episode in a scene that only lasts a few minutes but the effects of which reverberate in every episode of the series. Max (Max Burkholder) can’t attend a recital because there are candles burning in the hallway of the school, and Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) can’t understand why Adam (Peter Krause) isn’t forcing Max to just walk past them; after all, Zeek raised four kids, so he should know. It’s Adam’s gut-wrenching line to Zeek — “Dad, there’s something wrong with my son” — that instantly brings tears to my eyes, just thinking about it.
I’ve become a parent since Parenthood started, and there’s something painfully honest here about a parent’s need to comfort, to keep a child safe, to attempt to fix the things that are wrong — even when fixing isn’t an option — that Adam’s line crystalizes so perfectly. It’s the first time he’s acknowledged Max’s neurological condition, and saying it aloud makes it suddenly, bitterly real. And Adam’s tearful plea to his father for his help is so poignantly wrought that its very simplicity yields a keening heartbreak. Every single time. —Jace Lacob
2. Season 1, Episode 2 (“Man Versus Possum”)
Though Parenthood has a strong and beloved pilot, the first scene I can recall from memory is from the very end of the second episode when Adam and Max play in pirate costumes in the backyard. When the series begins, 8-year-old Max is on the cusp of being diagnosed with Asperger’s, and earlier in this episode, Adam and Kristina (Monica Potter) take him to see a specialist named Dr. Pelikan (Tom Amandes), who suggests that, instead of the adults trying to change the way Max acts at first, they should try and act the way he does. “The first step is not to wrench Max out of his comfort zone,” Dr. Pelikan advises. “The first step is to join Max where he is.”
The pirate costume is a big deal for Max, and something he refuses to take off at any time, and so in a beautiful attempt to bond with his son, Adam puts on a pirate costume and chases the boy around a tree with a tennis racket. It’s one of the sweetest moments in the series, even after all these years, as both Max and Adam are so visibly joyous. Max is able to express himself, and Adam is able to share a bonding moment with his son. As the camera pans to Kristina looking on from inside the house, tears inevitably fill my eyes. They’re not sad tears. They’re happy tears, or what I like to call Parenthood tears, because the scene, ever so brief, shows the value in the smaller moments in life, and shows viewers that Max is going to be OK. —Emily Orley
3. Season 1, Episode 13 (“Lost and Found”)
I knew early on in the series that I was going to really enjoy the relationship dynamic between Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Amber (Mae Whitman). After Amber sleeps with Haddie’s (Sarah Ramos) boyfriend in the first season, Sarah’s loving and supportive conversation with her daughter reminds me so much of interactions I’ve been lucky enough to have had with my own mom throughout my life. Despite the fact that Amber made a huge mistake and was acting self-destructively in a way she knew would hurt her cousin and her family, Sarah didn’t yell at her or reprimand her. Instead, she said, “You know, you try to act so tough, but I just know who you are and I want you to know I see you. I see how smart you are and how funny you are and how brave you are and I’m just so proud of you and I’m just so glad that you’re my kid.” It’s both heartwarming and tear-inducing in its own right as a standalone scene, but as the episodes and seasons continued on, it became clear that this would set the tone for the remainder of Sarah and Amber’s relationship. No matter how many times either of them may have messed up, they had unconditional love for each other, because that’s what families do.
Amber’s tough exterior in the earlier seasons is a personality trait that I share and connect with, which is why this conversation feels so familiar to me. Unconditional love means confronting a lot of situations that might normally frustrate you from a place of sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. This is something my mom has shown me, and something that Sarah never hesitates to show Amber, and sometimes that’s all we’re really looking for from our parents and supporters: to be seen. —Krystie Lee Yandoli
4. Season 2, Episode 11 (“Damage Control”)
If a teenager knows any kind of painful awkwardness, it’s the first time your significant other meets your family. When I watched Haddie bring her boyfriend Alex (Michael B. Jordan) home to have dinner with her family, I couldn’t help but cringe and think about the awkward times I’ve had to confront similar situations. Being in high school is hard enough, and being in love in high school is harder still, let alone having to go through the experience of bringing your boyfriend or girlfriend home — to a very involved family like the Bravermans — and hoping that everything goes smoothly. It was really brave of Alex to be so honest with Kristina and Adam about his past as an alcoholic high school dropout and someone who used to eat at the food bank he eventually came to run. Adam and Kristina saw him for who he really was and respected his decision to be honest, although they didn’t think his lifestyle was appropriate for their 16-year-old daughter.
Later on in the episode, Kristina and Adam tell Haddie they don’t want her to see Alex anymore because his situation makes them feel “uncomfortable.” Haddie tearfully responds, “Why does it matter what you’re comfortable with? I feel comfortable and I feel happy!”
This is also one of the most relatable things about Parenthood — the ways in which the show really gets it right when it comes to struggles between parents and their children. When you’re a teenager, you think that you know what’s best for you and your parents have no idea what you’re feeling or thinking, and that they don’t have the right to tell you who you can date. When you’re a parent, you try to be helpful and prevent situations in your children’s lives before they become disasters. The truth of the matter usually lies somewhere in between those two sides of the spectrum, but when you’re going through the struggle of wanting your parent or child to just hear where you’re going from and knowing what the right thing to do is, it feels like the biggest problem you’ll ever face. Ironically enough, you eventually grow up and probably won’t still be dating that person that you fought so hard to see. —K.L.Y.
5. Season 2, Episode 22 (“Hard Times Come Again No More”)
For anyone who has ever had a close relationship with a grandparent, or really any family member — blood or developed through friendship — this scene is excruciating to watch. Amber spins out of control after being rejected from Berkeley University. She gets in a car with a friend, while they’re both drinking, and ends up in a terrible automobile accident. After being released from the hospital, Zeek takes a banged-up Amber to the junkyard to show her the aftermath of the wreckage. He makes her look at the car closely to see just how close she came to being seriously injured, if not killed. “Amber, I was two years in Vietnam. Do you know what I thought about? What I dreamt about? Was coming home, was having a family, having grandkids. I dreamt you, Amber… You do not have my permission to mess with my dreams,” Zeek says to his sobbing granddaughter (and to sobbing viewers, because at this point in his speech, I’ve surely lost it).
Since Parenthood started, two of my grandparents have passed away. But through Zeek’s words, I can hear them still. And what this show has done so successfully, over and over again, is highlight the unique and special bonds between all family members. Sure, the smashed car and Amber’s cut-up face add an extra level of emotion to the scene, but really it’s just a grandfather telling his granddaughter how much she means to him and how loved she is by him. —E.O.
6. Season 3, Episode 18 (“My Brother’s Wedding”)
People talk regularly about Jason Katims’ sob-inducing work on Parenthood and his similarly toned Friday Night Lights. But a lesser known fact is that Katims wrote the My So-Called Life episode “Life of Brian,” in which Brian Krakow is the narrator and Rickie has a moment at the school dance that was as triumphant as LGBT culture got in 1994. In other words, for those of us who watched that episode then, we should all get together to celebrate 20 years and counting of having Katims, the architect of tears, write for us.
In Season 3, Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) face that they won’t be able to have a second child biologically to give Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae) a sibling. Along comes Zoe (Rosa Salazar), the coffee girl at Julia’s law firm, who happens to be pregnant. Julia, an efficient problem solver in the mold of her responsible brother Adam, conscripts Zoe into a situation that should be good for both of them: Julia and Joel will adopt Zoe’s baby. What unfolds throughout the season is as complicated as you can imagine, as the two women — similarly sharp, thoughtful, and loving, but from very different backgrounds and class positions — grow close. There’s a sense of dread, of course, because the wrenching question of whether Zoe will actually be able to give up the baby looms over everything.
And when she decides not to, there’s no fiery confrontation or recrimination; Zoe doesn’t turn out to be a different person who tricked Julia. And Julia, ultimately, gets it, though she’s heartbroken. In the penultimate episode of Season 3, Zoe goes into labor, and Julia is by her side all the way — a partner in every sense. Later, Julia returns to the hospital with Joel and Sydney. They think they’re coming to see their new son. Instead, Julia looks into the nursery and sees Zoe with the baby, in love and clearly not willing to separate. Julia holds it together for Sydney’s sake, but then goes and weeps by herself in an empty hospital room. It would be impossible to exaggerate what a beautiful, wrenching job Christensen does here.
That whole sequence is wonderful. But it’s the scene in the finale, the last one we ever see between Zoe and Julia, that killed me. As she was giving birth, Zoe said to Julia, “I love you.” In this scene, as Zoe’s mother waits for her in a cab, Zoe says to Julia, “Julia, you changed my life.” Those are two different things, of course, but here they might mean the same. When Julia grabs Zoe’s hand, it’s to give her back the watch Zoe had asked her to give the baby — it’s now Zoe’s to give. When Julia turns to leave Zoe, she wipes her tears and looks resolved. She doesn’t know, but will soon find out, that she’s to have a son after all: This episode ends with Victor (Xolo Maridueña), an older boy whose mother is in jail, coming into their home for the first time.
As an actor on film, Christensen has never found a role that allows her to show her range of talent that Traffic did. But Parenthood has allowed her to display every shade. And I sometimes wonder whether I will miss Julia and Christensen most of all when the show is over. —Kate Aurthur
7. Season 4, Episode 1 (“Family Portrait”)
I’ve never been a huge fan of Haddie’s character in Parenthood, but the scene when she leaves for college is one of my favorite in the entire series because of how relatable it is. The night before I left to go to Syracuse, my entire family came over to both see me off and celebrate this new part of my life. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and siblings all filled the house I grew up in. We enjoyed my mom’s pasta and laughed with each other, dancing around in the backyard to whatever music we could find on someone’s iPod. This has always been my version of normal: growing up in a big, traditional Italian-American, Catholic family with lots of people who are always in your business, even when you don’t want them to be, who love you unconditionally, and who would never miss a moment like the night before you left for college. What some people consider big, significant occasions we just think of as a regular family dinner.
The night before Haddie leaves for Cornell, her whole family also comes over to the house. There’s a certain kind of chaos they all bring into her home and her life, partly just because there are so many of them but also because of all the personalities the Bravermans contain, and you can tell by the look on her face that she’s going to miss all of the chaos she had been complaining about for so long and yearning to get away from. This is a familiar feeling — wanting to go away to college and escape from home so you can forge on into your own future and do your own thing, until the moment comes when you leave. That’s when you realize how much you’ll miss it, and how much you’ll miss them.
Similarly, when Adam and Kristina say good-bye to Haddie at the airport and she finally expresses her sadness in front of her family, I felt like I was reliving my own experience of going away to college. I didn’t think I was going to be sad or emotional, because this was a moment I had spent so much time planning and waiting for, a journey I was so excited to embark on. But I underestimated how sad I was going to be, how it would all hit me like a ton of bricks as soon as I said my good-byes to my parents. —K.L.Y.
8. Season 4, Episode 5 (“There’s Something I Need to Tell You…”)
I enjoy family dramas, but I’ve noticed that it can be difficult for those shows’ writers to construct plausible reasons for the group to be together. On Brothers & Sisters, for instance, the get-togethers often made little sense: These four adult children were too busy to all be constantly hanging out at their mom’s house in Pasadena! But one of Parenthood’s many skills is that the Bravermans are alike enough — and family-first enough — that their gatherings always feel unforced and real.
Which brings me to one tearful one from Season 4. Kristina has been diagnosed with cancer, and she and Adam have told Haddie, their daughter who has only just begun her first year at Cornell. But the rest of the family doesn’t know about her illness. As the Bravermans assemble for pizza, Haddie walks in, looking worried. The rest of the family is happy to see her, of course, but they react with hesitation: Why is she there? It can’t be for a good reason. Even under the circumstances, which he knows, Adam is thrilled to see his daughter, and proud that she’s come to be with her mother. All of which brings Kristina to the inevitable: telling them that she’s sick. It’s a lovely scene, and one that combines the show’s strengths. —K.A.
9. Season 4, Episode 10 (“Trouble in Candyland”)
Of course, the Season 4 scenes involving Kristina mentioned (and soon to be mentioned) here are those involving the absolutely gut-wrenching battle she faced after being diagnosed with breast cancer. After all, those are the moments that have left permanent scars on all of Parenthood viewers’ hearts: the silent scene between Kristina and Adam in which she told him the news of her diagnosis in the parking lot as Max gleefully played with puppies in their peripheral vision; the night out when she realized she was losing her hair; the time she shaved what she had left of it off… I needn’t recount them all for you because I respect and value your tear ducts and mental health.
But one of the smaller scenes amid Potter’s outstanding Season 4 performance (for which she was robbed of official recognition) was one that actually made me smile: While Kristina is taking an herbal break, Julia comes over to ask the supermom for advice regarding Victor, who’s struggling at school, only to find her stoned (medicinally, of course), but trying to keep her cool. Watching Kristina “dope it up” (her words), scarf down candy, and serve up the realest talk she’s ever given was a true treat. I never thought I’d laugh at a Season 4 Kristina scene, but Potter proved me oh so very wrong. —Jaimie Etkin
10. Season 4, Episode 11 (“What to My Wondering Eyes”)
When I was 10 years old, my mother died from breast cancer, so when Kristina Braverman was diagnosed with the disease, I knew Parenthood — a show that reduces me to a blubbering mess even when I don’t overidentify with the characters’ struggles — would leave me absolutely inconsolable every single week. And it did. It really and truly did.
Every single step of Kristina’s journey — beautifully realized by Monica Potter, who did not receive an Emmy nomination that year and I can’t even talk about how absurd that is — had me clinging to my box of Kleenex. But there were not enough tissues in the world to sop up my emotions as Adam watched the video Kristina had left for their three children — Haddie, Max, and Nora (Ella and Mia Allan) — in the event that she died.
First of all, the idea of recording a video like that is the most heartbreaking thing I could possibly imagine and I’m not even a parent. How do you even begin to encapsulate every thought and feeling you’d like your loved ones to hold on to every time they’d rather cling to you? How do you apologize for missing a lifetime of memories? How do you begin to say good-bye to a child you never actually had a chance to know?
Watching Kristina speak to her baby daughter, Nora, was by far the most devastating moment of this entire ordeal since Kristina brought Nora into this world assuming they’d have all the time in it together. Should she die, this video would be the one tangible piece of Kristina that Nora would turn to as she grew up in order to remember her mother’s face, her mother’s voice, her mother’s love.
At the end of the video, Kristina tells her children, “I may not always be with you the way that I want to be, but I will never leave your side,” and that is a sentiment I’ve long clung to but never heard so eloquently verbalized. In the end, cancer did not claim Kristina, but Parenthood still found a way to craft a beautiful tribute to all the women who have not been as lucky and to all the children, like me, who have been left behind. —Jarett Wieselman
11. Season 4, Episode 13 (“Small Victories”)
Drew’s (Miles Heizer) relationship with his girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) comprised one of the fourth season’s romantic arcs, as Drew began having regular sex with his first girlfriend, and it took an unexpected turn when Amy discovered that she was pregnant. In this episode toward the end of the season run, Amy gets an abortion, against the wishes of Drew. After he drives her home from the clinic, Amy tells him that she needs space, a lot of space.
But it’s the scene in which Drew turns up at Sarah’s door that drives home the painfulness of the situation. Sobbing, Drew can’t even choke out the words to tell his mom what he’s feeling, and Sarah draws him into a comforting embrace, telling him that it’s OK. For a scene with so few words, it packs a lot of emotion, and Miles Heizer sells the maelstrom of conflicting emotions at play within Drew. Sometimes, what you really need, no matter how old you are, is your mom to comfort you. —J.L.
12. Season 4, Episode 14 (“One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”)
Of the four Braverman siblings, some pairings got more screen time than others: Adam and Crosby (Dax Shephard) certainly spent many hours together, particularly thanks to the Luncheonette, and Adam and Sarah shared many brother-sister bonding moments as the eldest Braverman children. But one duo we didn’t see much of was the younger two: Crosby and Julia. This rare scene in Season 4, however, brought them together and basically made up for dozens of lost memories we didn’t get to witness between the baby Bravermans.
During a dinner with their respective spouses, Julia excuses herself as she struggles to get her mind off what’s going on at home with Victor, who has yet to warm to her as his mom, to say the least. Surprisingly, it isn’t Joel who runs after her; it’s her brother Crosby. In a rare moment, Crosby acts like an adult, supports his sister, and offers the wisest words to ever come out of his mustachioed mouth: He tells Julia she was the one he tried to mirror when figuring out how to be a parent to the son he didn’t know he had, Jabbar (Tyree Brown), and also reminds her that he hated their mom, Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), when he was Victor’s age. Then, he gives her the most genuine bear hug of all time. It was selfless, moving, funny, and just plain perfect. It is Crosby’s true shining moment. —J.E.
Good moments for Max are the ones in which I’ve happy-cried the most on Parenthood. But this one reached I’m-sorry-I-can’t-see-the-screen-anymore-because-my-glasses-have-fogged-from-the-combination-of-tears-and-sweat-I’ve-amassed-from-jumping-up-and-down levels. (Thank goodness it was the final scene of the episode, amirite?) I didn’t know I could care so much about vending machines and/or Skittles, but if anyone could make me care, it’s Max Braverman. When Kristina finally succeeded in making good on the promise on which Max had built his Student Council presidency campaign, it was the true definition of triumph. Seeing this nearly season-and-a-half-long struggle come to end as rainbow-colored candies fell from the sky might’ve been a little cheesy, but who the fuck cares when it’s also one of the series’ most satisfying moments? Sidebar: I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you I have listened to Delta Rae’s “Dance in the Graveyards” — the song that plays during this scene — 847 times, according to my iTunes. And no, I hadn’t heard it before watching this episode. —J.E.
14. Season 4, Episode 15 (“Because You’re My Sister”)
When Victor entered the mix at the end of Season 3, he had a big story to tell. After a tumultuous year, where Julia admitted she was waiting to fall in love with her own son and Victor threw a bat very close to sister Sydney’s head, the foursome finally became a real family. And it was a lovely thing to watch unfold. Not all stories have happy endings, and not all foster care placements work out. So to see Joel, Julia, Sydney, and Victor all work really hard to make their little unit cohesive was so uplifting. And then to see the physical adoption, after months of emotionally ensuring Victor became a Graham, was the sweetest cherry on top.
In true Parenthood form, the whole family showed up at the courthouse to witness Joel and Julia adopt Victor and welcome him, legally, into the Braverman clan. The massive group crams into a judge’s quarters, and before the judge can finish reading the legal obligations, everyone starts chiming in about the responsibilities they’ll take on when it comes to Victor. Zeek, Adam, Sarah, Amber, Crosby, Jabbar, and even Max all list off ways they will make Victor feel like he fits right in before Julia and Joel — and Sydney — can agree to love and care for Victor (which they do!). And as everyone leaves the room, Victor runs off and yells “Thanks, Mom” to Julia. A first for her and music to everyone’s ears. It was a perfect moment, which, even in Parenthood’s world, is hard to come by. —E.O.
15. Season 5, Episode 15 (“Just Like At Home”)
If anything positive came from Joel and Julia’s near-divorce, it’s this scene during Julia’s first night home alone while her kids spent their first with their father, post-split. Each of Julia’s siblings separately came up with the idea to pay her a visit. They turned off the Adele (and the “Don’t Kill Myselves,” as Crosby joked) in favor of some wine and takeout, and tried to assure Julia that she was far from the blackest sheep amongst the Braverman children. They got pretty deep into the Malbec and pad thai before Adam got “The Fever,” turned up Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” and GOT. DOWN. What could be better than booze, schmaltz, noodles, and the art that is a Braverman dance party? Booze, schmaltz, noodles, and the art that is a Braverman dance party with the worm (Exhibit B above) and a split (Exhibit C above), that’s what. —J.E.
16. Season 5, Episode 17 (“Limbo”)
Over the last few seasons of Parenthood, Amber and Drew’s sibling bond blossomed into a beautiful and strong friendship that has become a cornerstone of the family drama. And when Amber realizes that she has weed in her freezer, the Holt siblings get high at her apartment (“Hell is other people,” says Drew, quoting Sartre —“Star Trek?” Amber responds, completely baked — and things get deep: “We make the meaning?”), before realizing that they have to attend Aida’s baptism dinner at Camille and Zeek’s house. But it’s their stoned reactions to everything at an already awkward dinner, including their innately GIF-able attempts to share a glass of red wine and eat asparagus like normal people, that make me howl with laughter. It’s a small moment of sublime humor in an otherwise emotionally fraught Braverman family scene in which matters of religion and real estate erupt into chaos and bruised feelings. It’s Drew and Amber’s sly friendship, however, that keeps the scene from slipping too far into pathos. — J.L.
17. Season 5, Episode 18 (“The Offer”)
Every parent lives and breathes to protect their child, so it’s been endlessly compelling to watch as Kristina and Adam struggled to balance that parental instinct with the need to let Max experience the world. But the world, as we all inevitably learn, can be a cruel place, a lesson this family learned the hardest way imaginable when Max attempted to go on an overnight class trip.
Kristina and Adam were called to pick their son up early following an altercation with a classmate — we learned this kid peed in Max’s canteen, which is just the most reprehensible — and, on the car ride home, Max asked the question every parent fears: “Why do all the other kids hate me?” An inquiry that made my eyes tear up like Adam’s and left me wanting to climb into the backseat and hug Max, like Kristina. —J.W.
18. Season 6, Episode 12 (“We Made It Through the Night”)
No other show on television is capable of making me “feel” more than Parenthood, and sometimes that means laughter instead of crying. One of the show’s funniest moments to date happened in the final season’s penultimate episode as Amber was going into labor (or so she thought) and Sarah tasked Hank (Ray Romano) with driving them to the hospital.
In the words of Miss Vivian, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” Hank is the Goldilocks of drivers — first he’s too slow, then he’s too fast, and it’s unclear if he ever gets it just right — but the show found the comedic sweet spot in this short but hilarious moment where Amber’s need to get to the hospital was outweighed by her desire to, you know, not die en route. —J.W.
19. Season 6, Episode 12 (“We Made It Through the Night”)
It’s been difficult to enjoy the final season of Parenthood with that pit in the middle of your stomach serving as a constant reminder that we’ll be parting ways with the Bravermans far too soon. It’s been a bittersweet season, to say the least, and nothing embodies that more than the moment Zeek and Sarah shared in the series’ penultimate episode in his bedroom. After a quiet family dinner erupted into chaos, Sarah followed her father upstairs to check on him and told him that she and Hank were getting married. Watching Zeek’s face go from pure joy to sheer terror — thinking he wouldn’t be able to walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with his little girl on her wedding day — made that pit sink deeper than I knew it could go.
It’s hard to articulate the feelings we all have about letting the Bravermans go, but the lyrics of the Luke Sital-Singh song, “Benediction,” that played in the background of Sarah and Zeek’s gut-wrenching scene — “I’m sorry we don’t have forever” — do a pretty damn good job. —J.E.
The Parenthood series finale airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC.
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