High-grade TV drama making a comeback
By Lynn Elber
Associated Press Television Writer
LOS ANGELES — Two decades after "Parenthood" was a box-office hit starring Steve Martin, a series based on the lighthearted movie is debuting on NBC. That wide gap suits executive producer Jason Katims, who is pursuing a fresh take on the lives of an extended family with a new cast.
Katims, who translated the movie "Friday Night Lights" to TV to critical acclaim, said he got the green light to do "Parenthood" his way from Ron Howard, director of the 1989 film, and Brian Grazer, its producer. Howard and Grazer, with Katims, are executive producers on the series, debuting 9 p.m.
"What got them excited was what was going to be new about this version," said Katims. "They were very happy to let me do whatever version of the show seemed right."
That includes giving somewhat more attention to the drama, versus comedy, of family life for the Bravermans, including patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and wife Camille (Bonnie Bedalia); their children, Sarah (Lauren Graham), Julia (Erika Christensen), Adam (Peter Krause) and Crosby (Dax Shepard), and Adam's wife Kristina (Monica Potter).
"I felt like this was a subject calling out to me, and I was interested in doing it in a way that was real but not necessarily heavy," Katims said. "Whether it's stories about love, family, trying to make your way in the world, I've found that to be subject matter I really like."
The father of two also felt that "Parenthood" should fit the zeitgeist: "We're living in such a weird, stressful time, in so many ways."
That approach is reflected in the experience of Sarah, who is moving home in part because she's having trouble handling her children but also because she's financially strapped. Adam and Kristina learn their son may have a learning disability, while Julia struggles to balance work and family life with stay-at-home husband Joel (Sam Jaeger).
Nelson, a movie and TV veteran whose series credits include both comedy ("Coach") and drama ("The District"), said he signed on because "Parenthood" had a "story I wanted to tell and thought it was important to tell," including how fathers try, successfully or not, to impart what they've learned about life to their children.
"It's a series you can sit a family down in front of a television and watch. It speaks to generations and with something literate and sophisticated to watch, and to make you laugh," the actor said.
"Parenthood" had a difficult path to fruition.
Last April, NBC drama executive Norah O'Brien died after collapsing on the set of "Parenthood" during shooting of a scene on location in Northern California.
Maura Tierney ("ER"), originally cast in the role of Sarah, was sidelined last summer by a breast-cancer diagnosis and ultimately dropped out of the series to focus on her treatment. NBC moved the series from a fall 2009 premiere to midseason while awaiting her decision about continuing, Katims said.
The casting of former "Gilmore Girls" star Graham allowed the show to get back on track.
Now viewers have to demonstrate they're ready to rediscover scripted series in NBC's 9 p.m. time slot, which for a brief time was filled by Jay Leno's failed comedy hour. And "Parenthood" has to overcome audience resistance to shows that fall outside such recognizable, popular genres as crime or medical dramas.
The network has done its part by heavily promoting the series during NBC's Winter Olympics broadcasts, said Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment.
"We can afford to be patient with a quality show that is advertiser friendly. I will go out on a limb saying we expect the show to open," Bromstad said, referring to a debut with healthy ratings, rather than a "slow build."
Katims, whose "Friday Night Lights" hasn't captured ratings to equal its strong reviews, hopes more people will discover "Parenthood."
"C'mon, give it a try," he said.