‘Parenthood’ creator Jason Katims: ‘Things get messy’

‘Parenthood’ creator Jason Katims: ‘Things get messy’
Lauren Graham as Sarah Braverman, Ray Romano as Hank in a scene from “Parenthood.”
(Chris Haston / NBC)

NBC’s “Parenthood” is curled up in emotion -- glassy eyes and screaming outbursts are a common occurrence (for the characters, and viewers at home).

That’s especially true this season: Kristina was diagnosed with breast cancer, Max is adjusting to high school life, Amber is in love, Sarah moved in with Mark, Crosby is praying, etc., etc.


Show Tracker spoke to Jason Katims, the show’s creator/executive producer/show runner, to discuss the most recent episode -- which included Sarah (Lauren Graham) putting stress on her relationship with Mark (Jason Ritter) and Kristina (Monica Potter) trying to persuade Max (Max Burkholder) to attend his first school dance -- and what to expect as the fourth season finishes up.

Sarah and her romantic escapades give me heartburn.


Wait till next week. Don’t have any sharp or hard objects around you while you’re watching. Things get messy.

That is not OK. Mark is a good guy. First, you had him (and me) worried when Seth (John Corbett) came back in the picture last season. Now he has Hank (Ray Romano) in his way? He showed up to their first date 45 minutes early! He encouraged her to write a play! Give the guy a break!

Look, don’t give up. Don’t give up. My sense of it — and I purposely don’t read too much about what people are saying because it would just drive me crazy — but my perception from the people that I have spoken to about it is, people are divided. And not just that people are Team Mark and some people are Team Hank, but people are also divided within themselves about it. People who were at first totally Team Mark have shifted over time. One of the things that I really like in the story line is it’s complicated and a little bit messy. It’s not 100% clear which way it’s going and which way it will go.

Let’s talk about the moment before I was hurling objects at my TV: Kristina, Max and the dance lesson -- talk about what you were trying to convey.


Ah, yes. What we tried to do when we were sort of introducing this idea of Kristina’s health issue — her breast cancer — was make it very specific to her and not just, oh, here’s a woman with breast cancer. One of the things, of course, that is very prevalent in her life other than her illness is her children and, particularly, the struggles she has with Max. To me, conceptionally, I just thought there was a poignancy to the idea that she would want to not miss out on any milestones with her children, but I also think it’s particularly true of Max, of wanting him to be out in the world and to be OK and to flourish — even with the challenges he has.

I think all those things sort of contributed to how it wasn’t just a dance, there was so much more to it. I feel like Monica Potter has done just such an amazing job — she has always on the show, but particularly with the material this year, I think she’s found so many layers to it all. And I do think that dance is such a symbolic thing, you know, of sort of being in the world and connecting — and, of course, those are things that are very challenging for Max.

You know, when this Kristina’s breast cancer story line was first introduced, I was like “OK, but she won’t die. She can’t die.” But Tuesday’s episode made me nervous because it was the first time I felt that maybe she could die.

Well, as you know, the story is very personal to me. My wife had breast cancer and went through it. A lot of the reasons we wanted to tell the story -- and why I wanted to tell the story on this particular show -- is I think we are able to take on those story lines and let them play out over time. I feel like we’ve done that with Max and his autism and the adoption struggles for Julia — and other issues, where it wasn’t just doing one episode on something and then it’ll be like it never happened. So I guess getting to what you were saying, that is one of the things that you deal with. I really do think that when you go through an illness like that, the first reaction is, “OK, I’ve been diagnosed with this thing, but I’m not going to be one of those women who lose their hair, I won’t have to do chemo — I’ll overcome it.”


My experience with it was that — my wife, by the way, is healthy and has been for a couple of years now — but as you go through the experience, you tend to realize that some of those things that you were so sure of, you start to question. We really wanted to tell this story the way every aspect of what you go through. And certainly one of those aspects of Kristina’s story is having to confront your own mortality. That is one of the things we wanted to deal with and we will continue to the rest of the season — I don’t want to give too much away about what we’re working toward.

Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina already had a lot on their plate -- which is something you can relate to [Katims has a son with autism]. Was there hesitation about dealing them the cancer card?

The interesting thing about it — I mean, you can look at it as why are you burdening her or them, which I understand. And that was something that we grappled with. I discussed with the writers in deciding whether to take on the story line. But I think that one of the things I found was that gave me the courage to tell the story is that when you go through something like that, the interesting thing is life goes on around you — you still need to make your kids’ lunches, you still need to take them to school. And those other things that go on in your life, are actually a huge blessing. They make you realize why you need to live.

For my wife, we have a child with autism. When my wife was going through this — you have to make a lot of decisions of what you’re going to do and how aggressive you’re going to be with the treatment and all of that stuff — my wife’s mantra through that whole period of time was that I need to survive for my children. I think it gave her a lot of strength going through it. We wanted to try and hit on all of these things as we built the story. I know it’s not a light story, but it’s very real. And I know it is a story that has been told in different ways, but I felt like we would have a an approach to it that would make it worthwhile and so that’s what we wanted to do. One of the other reasons why I felt confident to take it on, the actors — Monica, Peter, Max — are wonderful. They’re not only good in the dramatic scenes, but they’re all such great comedic actors. Monica is so funny and I knew she would be able to find moments of humor and lightness throughout the storytelling as well.

Be that as it may, no one can do a cry face like Monica -- or Lauren Graham for that matter. And yet everyone takes notice of Claire Danes. But I guess that’s because Monica and Lauren’s approach is less intense?

Ha! Yeah, that could be true.

How about the balance in finding those moments that are light? The scene from Tuesday’s episode where Julia is making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and viewers realize it’s for Crosby, not one of her kids, was great.

Those moments are key. And that’s something you really credit, not only the actors, but the directors because that moment in particular was something — I don’t believe it was scripted, but even if it was scripted, that moment was such a nice touch. What’s so great in watching these actors work together is they have built such a sense of history together so you really feel these familial relationships. You really feel like they are brother and sister. To me, that was one of those moments that gave you a sense of that.

There’s a handful of episodes left this season. We don’t yet know if NBC has plans to bring it back next year — it’s a show that’s always sort of been on the bubble. Do you approach each finale like it could be the series ender?

No -- you know, it’s funny, people said last season’s finale felt like a series finale. That it felt like I had written it that way. And I really didn’t. It tended that way. And I feel the same way this year. I’m not intending it as an ending for the show. I just think there’s a natural thing that happens, on this show in particular, where you have these story lines that go on — some of them a whole season, some many episodes — and since you’re reaching the end of a season, they tend to get resolved. So even if you have cliffhangers in there, the feeling of resolution is very strong so I think sometimes it feels a little more like it’s intending to be an ending. But we’re hopeful there will be more.  

What can you tease about the upcoming episodes? There’s a pregnancy and Max is going through puberty ...

With Max it really starts with a concern for hygiene. They’re starting to notice that he smells and he has to bathe more. And, of course, with Max, nothing is simple because he has the mind-set, “Well, the rules are, I shower Mondays and Thursdays. Why do I have to shower more?” And they unexpectedly stumble into a conversation about his body changing and puberty — and they find themselves having the conversation before either they or he is ready for it. It’s a subject matter that’s done in a light way. It’s an interesting thing because it’s fun building these stories because Max plays it in such a pure and honest way. He’s not going to cut you some slack in any conversation. It’s nice that it’s a light take on the story and there’s a lot of humor in it, but it also gets to a poignant place. And it sort of brings up the question for Max and Kristina of how Max will fit in — and we’ve dealt with this a little throughout the series — but it’s something that is very true where when you have a kid like Max, the future is a little more uncertain than it is with other kids. Like will he get married or have kids — all these things that we all sort of take for granted that you can’t take for granted with a kid like Max. But we tackle it in a light way and with some humor, which is nice for Adam and Kristina because they have been dealt heavier story lines.

With Joel and Julia, they’ll be dealing with complications with Victor and his adoption. It gets trickier with him as the season goes along -- and also with Sydney feeling like there’s no room for her.

As for Sarah and Mark ... well, I won’t take the fun out of watching that play out.


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