Reporting from the 30th Annual PaleyFest: The William S. Paley Television Festival
The Bravermans of Berkley, California, were in the house tonight.
You know what you’re getting into when the free swag the network is handing out is tissues with the Parenthood logo on them. One of the things that’s made the show famous among its small (significantly growing), but loyal, audience is its ability to almost weekly make viewers break down and cry. As actress Monica Potter explained tonight, there’s been a drinking game created in which you drink whenever somebody associate with Parenthood cries. I’m not a mental health professional, but it may not be such a great idea mixing booze with crying. Be that as it may, this is a show that regularly brings the waterworks, but in a good and honest way.
Last evening’s panel discussion began with a broadcast archive related to the show. It was a clip from the 1990 version of Parenthood, which was based on Ron Howard’s then recent 1989 film. The clip was pretty dull, but it featured a really young Leonardo DiCaprio. By comparison, Jason Katims has clearly done a tremendous job adapting a mostly forgotten feature film from the late ’80s into a more contemporary take on extended family.
The moderator was Michael Ausiello from tvline.com. He did a really nice job of keeping the questions about the show, and he’s clearly a big fan of it. He introduced showrunner Jason Katims, and the panel began with a screening of an episode from the recently concluded season four, “There’s Something I Need to Tell You . . . .” If you’re a fan of the show, that’s the one where Adam and Kristina realize it’s time for them to tell the rest of their large extended family about Kristina’s illness. It’s one of the best installments from last season.
Then, they brought out the cast. This show has a huge cast: Peter Krause, Monica Potter, Jason Ritter, Lauren Graham, Craig T. Nelson, Dax Shepard, Joy Bryant, Erika Christensen, Sam Jaeger, Mae Whitman (“Her?”), Miles Heizer, and Max Burkholder.
Right out of the chute, the discussion of renewal came up. While NBC has yet to officially renew Parenthood for a fifth season, it looks all but certain the show will be back. It continues to grow its audience (up 12% in the demo) and consistently wins in its timeslot. Parenthood splits time on the NBC schedule with Smash, and Smash’s ratings have been horrific since its return.
Talk then shifted to the big centerpiece story of season four, Kristina’s bout with breast cancer. Monica Potter said there was an eerie synergy about the arc as a mammogram scare led her to pitch the idea to Katims, who had just broken the story idea in the writers’ room.
The season’s second major story arc dealt with Julia and Joel adopting 9-year-old Victor. Katims said that while nobody on the staff was an adoptive parent, they were close to many people who were and wanted to incorporate that element into the show.
After discussing storylines, talk shifted to aspects of the show’s production. Peter Krause, himself a veteran of modern classics like Sports Night and Six Feet Under, said Parenthood was, by far, the most collaborative show he’d ever worked on. Katims had also been showrunner on Friday Night Lights and wanted to bring that show’s loose, improvisational shooting style to Parenthood. While Katims stressed the show is precisely scripted (and Sam Jaeger debunked the idea it’s all improvised), the actors are given a lot of latitude. Three cameras roll at once, with actors’ performances being shot at the same time. This allows for the actors to exist in the moment, to allow things to be discovered that otherwise wouldn’t.
Katims also praised the show’s camera operators and editors for finding these moments with the actors. The show doesn’t plan out camera moves, so the camera guys can search for gems of performance. Katimes described them as being “very in tune with the emotional life of the show.”
Katims also spoke about how stories are broken in the writers’ room, but for me the great sense I got was the writers want to come up with story ideas that really matter to them. The want realism, they want to tell a story the way it would really happen, and not back off from reality.
There were lots of fun moments, as well.
For instance, we found out tonight that Jason Ritter, who played Lauren Graham’s ex fiancé on the show, has been cast in a Fox pilot in which his love interest will be played by Alexis Blidel. This means he’ll be sleeping with his ex-fiancé’s former TV daughter from Gilmore Girls. And, when a question from Twitter asked in any more Friday Night Lights actors may turn up on Parenthood, Mae Whitman insisted they get Tim Riggins to show up.
I always had a prejudice against Dax Shepard because of his involvement with Punk’d, but his involvement with Kristen Bell led me to re-evaluate him. I’m a big believer that Crosby is the greatest of the Braverman’s, and Dax ruled this panel in a big way. The guy is really funny, and it was great to get to see these actors interact. They seemed to be genuinely fond of one another.
For a show about family, the Q & A from the audience gave off a feel of viewers who feel a genuine attachment for this fictional family. One lady had traveled all the way from Italy specifically to attend tonight’s panel. A woman who had survived breast cancer along with Kristina was in attendance. And, a gay man who had written his Master’s thesis on Jason Katims’ work spoke eloquently about how his coming out had strained his own family relationships and encouraged Katims to cover that as a future storyline on the show.
Last week I wrote a piece about Ron Swanson’s greatness and in it I chided people who don’t watch Parks and Recreation. Allow me to do it again here – if you’re not watching Parenthood, what’s the matter with you? This isn’t a show with explosions or spaceships. Storylines often deal with ordinary, mundane problems like little league baseball or balancing work and family. But, this is terrifically human and rich, and I think it has as much to say about the importance of family as Buffy did. I am a single guy who doesn’t see marriage in my future, but watching the Bravermans makes a big, messy extended family look really appealing.
I think Peter Krause said it best tonight. “I think (the show) is a litmus test to see if you’re emotionally okay,” he said. “If it doesn’t move you, you might be a sociopath.”