Ken Tucker
May 26, 2010 AT 11:31 AM EDT

Few shows this season premiered as more of an underdog than Parenthood. An ensemble family drama arriving just after shows in that genre had peaked (I’m [not] looking at you, Brothers & Sisters), the series had to do a crucial bit of re-casting, with Lauren Graham replacing Maura Tierney, who had to leave for health reasons.* And while we know families can be diverse, would it be possible to believe in a series in which Craig T. Nelson is the father of Dax Shepard?

As it turned out, Parenthood steadily developed into one of the most engrossing, adventurous family dramas in years. Credit creator Jason Katims, who’s worked on good stuff ranging from My So-Called Life to Friday Night Lights, with knowing how to juggle multiple story lines while keeping the big cast evolving emotionally.

Last night’s finale was a good example of everything Parenthood does right. Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) had their hands full and their eyes bugging out as their “good girl” daughter, Haddie (Sarah Ramos), dyed her hair black and smeared on black lipstick in an adolescent reaction to her “bad girl” cousin, Amber (Mae Whitman) making time with Haddie’s ex-boyfriend. The ever-less-unlikely duo of dad Zeek (Nelson) and Crosby (Shepard) got drunk together and commiserated over their women-problems.

Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) tried to help Zeek out of the financial hole he’s in with his bad real-estate investment. Julia did what Julia usually does — tried and failed to avoid being judgmental about everyone around her. (Christensen has the trickiest role in Parenthood, in many ways, and nearly always pulls it off in a manner that only leaves you wanting to throw a pie in her face every other week, which I assume it how Katims wants you to think about Julia.)

The family secret that has set Zeek’s wife, Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), finally engaged in a juicy subplot), off on a middle-aged-angry art career — i.e., Zeek had an affair years ago — is now common knowledge among all the adult siblings. Sarah (Graham) had a lovely awkward moment when she gave her mother what must have sounded like Sarah as sage advice — “You don’t need an invitation to your own life” — only to hear it curdle into unintentional smugness even as it left her mouth. (Lauren Graham is great at playing abashed compulsiveness.)

If the drama that gave the hour action was the search for runaway Amber, Parenthood proved that it doesn’t need a lot of action to be excellent. The dialogue, the unexpected mixtures of one sibling with another (I found the tension between Sarah and Kristina especially choice) combine to give the show a richness that’s going to make it one of the show’s I most look forward to seeing again in the fall.

So what did you think of Crosby’s impulsive decision to move to New York to follow Jasmine and Jabar? How about the brief return of Jason Ritter to offer soft-spoken advice and pull at Sarah’s heartstrings one more time? Can we agree that if there’s another marriage in trouble next season, it’ll probably be that of Adam (the guy tries so hard to be laid-back, he gets tense) and Kristina (she’s not just tense, she’s wound-tight to the breaking-point)? And for any baby-boomer women out there: Could you possibly be won over by a man serenading you with a Herman’s Hermits song played on a ukulele?

And what do you think, in general, of Parenthood?

*(The encouraging news there is that Tierney is reportedly in good health, has appeared in a play in New York, and will return in the upcoming season of Rescue Me in her recurring guest role.)

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