In this day where television series tend to lean towards worlds inhabited by zombies and vampires, being transported in time to the 1960s or new spins on classic fairy tales, a show like NBC's "Parenthood" is a rare thing. The Jason Katims-developed series, however, is doing just fine holding its own in its third season by weaving stories about the grounded-in-reality relationships in the world of the Northern California-based Braverman clan. As Katims told our Jim Halterman last week, despite not having the same issues to deal with as, say, "The Walking Dead," there are still plenty of challenges in crafting a family drama in the 21st Century. During their chat, Katims talked about balancing comedy and drama, the crafting of a main character with Asperger's syndrome and allowing the actors to feel as free as possible during shooting as well as teased some of the storylines currently playing out on the addictive drama.
Jim Halterman: In general, as you develop and create more series, does the job get easier in some ways or is it always just full of challenges?
Jason Katims: Well, I think it gets a little easier running shows. I don't think it gets easier creating shows. I think running shows, as you do it over time, the job doesn't change that much but you become a lot calmer doing it. [Laughs.] You learn to really trust and lean on all the incredible team that you get to work with - directors, producers, writers, etc. - that, I think evolves over time and does become easier. I think in terms of actually creating the show and doing the pilot, I don't know that that gets much easier because that's creating a world from the beginning and trying to figure out...often when you do these pilots you're under pretty stressful time pressure and you're trying to write it very quickly but you're trying to create characters, create a format that you will want to and hopefully the audience will want to live with for many episodes and seasons.
JH: Looking at your credits, most of what you've done has been pretty grounded in reality...
JK: ...there was 'Roswell' so we do have aliens...
JH: Right! But in this day and age, a straight family drama has become a rare thing. What challenges were there in developing "Parenthood" and not instilling a higher concept?
JK: It is very tough to do a show like that in a time when you have so many choices for viewership [and] so many places that people can go and it's sort of getting people's interest right away. You come in and you're basically pitching 'Here's a show about people and their feelings.' It's not really the best pitch! I was really lucky to have partners like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and also the good will of the network where I was doing 'Friday Night Lights' and I think there was a lot of trust that even though the concept of the show didn't have a high concept idea, the network trusted that we'd be able to tell these stories in a way that was unique and compelling and they kind of encouraged me to do it so I was lucky in that regard. But it is tough to do a show like that.
JH: One thing that stands out to me about 'Parenthood' is the flow of comedy of drama that just weaves in and out and, from a viewer's perspective, seems effortless, which I'm sure it's not. What are the challenges in doing that, which you also did so well in 'Friday Night Lights.'
JK: Thank you very much. That's really nice to hear because that's a big thing that we really try to do in the show. To me, I feel like on 'Parenthood,' and people do comment on the comedy fairly often, but especially with 'Friday Night Lights' and other shows I've done I think of them as straight dramas but there's really so much humor in them. To me, the humor is what opens you up as a viewer and allows you to get emotionally invested in the characters; I feel it's an incredibly important part of trying to do shows that hopefully will get under the skin of people and get them to feel really connected to these characters. On 'Parenthood,' it's really great to be able to do a scene that's highly comedic and fun and then, back-to-back, you're having something very heavy and dramatic going on and that's one of the things I love about the show. What drew me to doing the show to begin with was that you'd have all these storylines going on at once and that they would sometimes inform each other and sometimes work to counterpoint each other. To me, that kind of storytelling is very exciting and I love when you get to do a big ensemble and many stories going on at once and so it really allows you to switch tones from comedy to drama fairly drastically.
And then the other part about it is that we try...the only thing I would say about it is that we always try with the tone of the show to make it balanced. A very, very comedic scene is never played where it's over the top. We're lucky to have this incredible cast and every single person in the cast is so capable of doing the deeply dramatic material and then very light comedy material. In any scene we try to find the things to ground those comedic scenes and also find the humor in the dramatic. One of the storylines that I'm really excited about this season on 'Parenthood' is the storyline with Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) trying to adopt the baby from Zoe the Latte Girl (Rosa Salazar). One of the things I find so great in that story is that you have these scenes with Julia and Zoe and sometimes they're playing these very, very straight scenes but they make me laugh because the actresses just find these little moments together and it's the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort. Of course, Lauren Graham (who plays Sarah) is always finding humor in even the most dramatic moments as well as the rest of the cast. It's exciting to be able to do a show that is able to live in both worlds.
JH: Since you shoot the show in a way where the actors can feel their way through a scene and improvise a bit, is that where that effect comes from?
JK: It's definitely part of where it comes from and I think it's in every aspect of the show. I think it begins with the writing and in the scripts there is a lot of humor in them as well as there being a lot of emotion and I think that carries on through to how the shows are shot and performed, absolutely. I think definitely giving the actors freedom allows for those comedic moments and basically spontaneous moments that we otherwise wouldn't see happen.
JH: Let me ask some specific storyline questions. I'm personally very concerned about the Sarah/Mark relationship since Lauren Graham and Jason Ritter are so great together. But will Sarah helping her ex, Seth (John Corbett), cost her that relationship?
JK: I think what I really love about that story is that from when we were sitting down and talking about that storyline with the writers it felt like such a real dilemma. I think between this line that is drawn between these two men...it's not literally a romantic triangle. It's not written that way where she's literally in the triangle but it certainly is one. To me, it's one of the most compelling stories that we've done this year and, honestly, the three actors are so wonderful and Lauren's chemistry with both Corbett and Ritter is so fantastic and so different from each other. On one hand, her connection to Seth is this deep relationship and, while troubled, it's undeniable this connection that they have and undeniable how deep it runs and how long they've been together versus this sort of excitement and newness and the potential of the relationship with Mark, Jason Ritter's character. It felt like a real dilemma that we wanted to play out. We want it to play out in a way that felt real to us.
JH: The Max stories always blow me away. I know you have a son with Asperger's syndrome so that's where that story comes from, but in the early crafting of the show, were you confident that that story would capture viewers interest as much as it has?
JK: It's amazing what's happened with that storyline. When I first started to write the pilot, I was very much on the fence about whether to do a story about Asperger's or autism and at various times in the development of the pilot I took it out, put it back in and then when the show got picked up, I was really intimidated by the idea of how to tell that story beyond the pilot. The main thing, what happened is kind of amazing. How, first of all, Max Burkholder (whose character is also named Max) has embodied that character is sort of a miracle to me. That was one of the things that I was most concerned about was having been living this in my life and knowing it so intimately how would a young actor like Max be able to portray [it]?
It's one thing to ask a young actor to just be able to be themselves and be natural, that is hard in itself, but to be natural, be real and to embody a character that is so specific is really amazing. It's really been great because the writers have really taken this on and dug in and really taken this storyline to another level and we've been able to tell the story in a way that's in some ways is pretty accurate but also in ways that somehow resonate with people whether or not they know any kids like Max. It's been great to do that story and one thing I knew about having lived through it a number of years in my personal life was that I knew the story wasn't going to go away. I knew that wasn't going to be the case. The only case was were we going to be able to do it in a way that was going to feel real and a way that people would resonate with people...but kind of the opposite has happened, which has been really rewarding.
JH: Mae Whitman's character, Amber, is always compelling but what is coming up for her? Anything in the love department coming up?
JK: Unfortunately, she hasn't found the right guy yet and it won't be the right guy. I can't promise the right guy but we do have something planned for later in the season. I think one of the things we wanted to tell with the Amber story, in that first year when you first move out of the house and we really wanted to explore that first year where you don't know exactly what you're doing and how confusing that can be and how intimidating that can be to go out in the real world. That feels like life to me rather than doing a story about somebody whose path is so clear. I really like the idea that she's figuring it out and we spend some time figuring that out with her. So that's what we have been focusing on.
JH: The holidays are so big with families so can we expect some holiday episodes on 'Parenthood?'
JK: We don't have a holiday episode per se but we do have a really fun episode coming up, which is going to air in January, so it's the idea of the end of the winter break right before everybody goes back to school where they go on a road trip. We see the whole family together on a road trip to visit Zeek's (Craig T. Nelson) mother for her birthday. It's a very funny episode and it's going to be, I think, probably more than any other episode we've done, kind of a stand-alone episode where most of the episode will take place on the road during this trip. I think it's going to be a fun one.
"Parenthood" airs Tuesdays at 10:00/9:00c on NBC.