The majority of “Fraud Alert” feels vaguely like Jason Katims walked back into the Parenthood writers’ room after several weeks of being away, sat down at the head of the table, riffled through a bunch of notecards containing story points from the previous episodes, then heavily sighed. “All right, you guys,” he said. “This is a show called Parenthood. It’s about the complex, interwoven relationships among the members of a Bay Area family where everybody is way too into everybody else’s business. Here are all of the things you need to know.” Then, after delivering his disquisition on the various relationships on the show, he began to lay out particular story points he thought of interest. “Has anybody here thought that, perhaps, it would be good to establish why Joel is so susceptible to feeling betrayed by Julia for kissing Ed? No? How about laying out how Zeek has started to wrestle with his own mortality, and that’s made him even more of a cantankerous asshole than usual? Well, that’s just great. For God’s sake, did you think about how Drew and Amber are the kids of divorce and might have some helpful tips for Victor and Sydney? Goddammit, guys.” Then, after heavily sighing again, he sat down and wrote the entirety of “Fraud Alert” in 30 minutes.
I am not trying to suggest “Fraud Alert” is a perfect episode of television. It’s messy even by the standards of this season, and it sometimes seems like it’s trying too hard to get every single storyline from the season to roughly the same point. However, it very much feels like an episode that’s written at a point in a TV season when the writers desperately need to address a bunch of things that fans and critics keep bringing up. It’s an episode that aims to fill in a bunch of back-story that we probably should have known from the first, and it’s also an episode that then tries to move past all of that to push the stories toward some sort of climactic point. That it works as well as it does is probably credit to Katims’ skill as a writer. It’s not the sort of episode I’d put on a TV Club 10 for this show, but it’s definitely something that clears much of the air for the final three episodes.
In particular, this is the episode that really made me wonder if Katims and company are going to blink on this Joel and Julia storyline. The characters seem to have hit a point where it would be all but impossible for them to reconcile. When Joel tells Julia that he doesn’t think they should be working on their relationship, that’s strike number one. When Julia meets Ed for a date, that’s strike number two. It seems unlikely that they’d have a late revival in their relationship at that point, even as I know that’s absolutely the sort of thing this show would do. The argument between Joel and Julia was one of the better scenes of the season, I thought, even as it struggled mightily to crowbar in all of that exposition about how, like, Joel’s father cheated on his mother and so on. This is tricky stuff to work into the story, and the script finally just goes for the “I am going to tell you information both of us already know” from Julia, but I think it works. Joel’s just too taciturn to say that much about his mental state, and Julia’s probably still the person who understands him best at this point.
But I also liked how the script let little scraps of information stand in for a whole host of other things. Joel telling Julia that he resented her for not being able to support him when it was his turn to be the family’s breadwinner was effective, largely because of how broken Sam Jaeger sounded. (Clearly, this is information that’s being pulled from him against his will.) Yet the more this went on, the more it was easy to fill in many of the struggles these two have had throughout the course of the show—and even before then. Joel and Julia obviously got together when they were very young, and that’s likely playing into the way that neither of them is quite able to express themselves in these situations. They don’t really know how to be themselves, outside of being Joel and Julia, and even if this separation ends up being reconciled, I hope they’ve both learned a little bit about themselves from the whole process.
But you know what’s going to help make things better? Roller skating! One of the problems with season five has been that the Bravermans are not really ones to mope. They tend to fly on by their pain, instead figuring out ways to make lemonade from lemons and/or start up charter schools. Yet the 22-episode order has meant we’ve gotten a lot of moping, from just about all of the characters. What “Fraud Alert” understood that a lot of the other episodes this season haven’t is that Parenthood necessarily has to balance out the moping with the joy, and in the episode’s final montage, Katims finally pushes these people to a place where they start to move on to acceptance of their new status quos. What I loved was that, say, Drew and Amber trying to help Victor and Sydney understand how to cope with the pain from their parents’ separation wasn’t something the show pushed too hard. It didn’t need to remind us of who these people are, or how their pasts inform their presents, not like some of the other parts of the episode. Instead, in those final shots (from first-time Parenthood director Bethany Rooney), there was a sense that, yeah, life around these kids might be swirling chaos, but they have their cousins and each other to hang onto. (Also, people still go roller skating?!)
In addition to the Joel and Julia material—which felt like a frantic patch job but at least one carried out by a master—the center of the episode was the relationship between two fathers and two sons. Notice how Katims’ script and Rooney’s camera link the father-son bond between Adam and Max to the father-son bond between Zeek and Crosby, only with the father trying to help the son in one instance and the reverse in the other. Parenthood frequently uses the ocean as a place of healing and rebirth (I know this is poncey, but stay with me), and that’s the case here, too, as Adam takes Max surfing to help him cope with the fact that he’s no longer going to school (both because he doesn’t want to and because the school thinks that would be best), thanks to the kids who make fun of him. It’s just a way for Adam to get Max to smile or express something, and it’s victory enough when he does. Similarly, Zeek and Crosby’s long drive up the coast together—then drive back with Crosby following on motorcycle—is pitched as a way for Zeek to finally break down about how much he’s begun to realize his own age. These are both beautiful storylines, but they gain even more beauty from the way Katims and Rooney mirror them off of each other, flipping aspects of the one to play off the other.
That’s one of the things Parenthood has always understood, even at its worst. Sometimes, the approach Adam and Kristina try to take with the school—in which they yell and shout but don’t get their way—is going to fail, because you can’t force other people to see the world your way, no matter how much you’re in the right. (And can I just say that I hate when Adam and Kristina are in the right? They take to it like it’s their birthright.) Instead, what you inevitably have to do is make sure that you’re there to help those you love navigate the world when it’s at its most frightening and confusing. Maybe you’ll only be rewarded with a smile or a confession, but most of the time, that will be enough. Parenthood forgot that from time to time this season, but “Fraud Alert” ultimately works because it remembers it at the eleventh hour.
- Braverman of the week: Crosby’s had a bit of a rough season in terms of storylines, but when Katims puts any of these characters on a road trip, it tends to work out really well. This was another example of that maxim, as Crosby’s ability to help his dad move past his fears of aging to a place where he’s genuinely ready to sell the house was some of the best work his character has seen in quite a while.
- The “Fraud Alert” of the title is ultimately a minor part of the episode, but I liked the way that both Joel and Julia seemed sort of embarrassed to even have to talk about it. These sorts of things always come up as two people who’ve built a life together dissolve those bonds, and it’s always frustrating.
- Sarah meets up with Mark, only to find out that he’s engaged to someone else. (For a brief moment, I thought he was going to be engaged to Amber, which would have been hilarious.) Even when he’s writing himself off the show, Mark is the greatest man alive. (Hope you enjoyed craft services, Jason Ritter! You’re never coming back to this show again!)
- Sydney Graham adventures: Sydney, who has finally given in to her darker side, finds that Drew has arrived to babysit her. She smiles cruelly. She will toy with this young man until he breaks.
- Did anyone mention Haddie or Piecat, even tangentially?: What show do you even think we’re watching at this point? I can only assume that when Katims walked into the writers’ room, as outlined in the first paragraph, he tore down all of the Yellow King-style graffiti the other writers had erected in tribute to Piecat. “We’re not going to do that,” says Katims, munching on the bagel he stole from Jason Ritter.
- Bonnie Bedelia spends her time: I really love that shot of Camille shaking her head and rolling her eyes when Zeek and Crosby head off to have a storyline without her. There’s a whole wealth of information in that one facial expression.
- Last week’s ratings were up, randomly, and the show’s trend has been in the right direction since the Winter Olympics. This is still an incredibly expensive show, which doesn’t work in its favor, but I would be more surprised by cancellation than a renewal at this point, and I wouldn’t have said that even a month ago. I’m hoping for a 16-18-episode sixth-season order that acknowledges it will be the show’s last year.