There may never be another “Parenthood.”
It is my favorite network drama so it pains me to say it before tonight’s semifinal episode (10 p.m., Channel 2) about the trials and tribulations of the extended Braverman family.
But I’m not the only one saying it.
NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt essentially said the same thing recently during the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif.
Asked if “a slice of drama” like “Parenthood” can be done anymore on network television, Greenblatt said he couldn’t “definitively say yes or no.”
Which is another way of saying no.
“When you have a show as finely crafted as ‘Parenthood’ with that cast and that level of writing, and it’s never gotten the audience I think it deserved, it’s hard to do something like this,” said Greenblatt. “I think my knee-jerk answer is well, you can do it if you have the best auspices and best writing and the best cast; in fact we have that.
“I’m not sure. If something comes along that we love, I don’t think we’re just going to categorically say no. It does seem like it gets harder and harder.”
So my advice to “Parenthood” lovers is to set back and enjoy the final two episodes of a series that has the theme that families will survive and support their loved ones during all their crises and disappointments.
While in Pasadena, I sat down with the show’s executive producer, Jason Katims, at a party for a 10-minute discussion. I’m a Katims fan. He also was the executive producer of another one of my favorite underrated dramas, “Friday Night Lights.”
I told him it looks like the series is heading for some happy endings with Julia (Erika Christensen) and Joel (Sam Jaeger) getting back together last week after a long separation and Sarah (Lauren Graham) finally accepting Hank’s (Ray Romano) marriage proposal.
But I also know looks can be deceiving in Katims’ series.
He said the episode in which family patriarch Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) was sent to the hospital with a serious heart issue “felt like sort of the beginning of the last movement of the series, the last four episodes.”
“We really have spent a lot of time from the very first day of the writers’ room to try and figure the right ending of the show,” added Katims. “We definitely wanted it to be a hopeful ending. But there are also a lot of tough things going on this season. I think there is definitely a bittersweet quality to this but I think it is also very hopeful. It is so hard to say because you get so close to it.”
With that, he said he just received an email from someone at NBC who had seen the finale.
“She was remarking how much she smiled and enjoyed watching the episode,’ said Katims. “We have such a passionate loyal audience, our goal was to try and give them an ending worthy of the show.”
He used the end of “Friday Night Lights” as an inspiration to how to end the Braverman story. The finale of “FNL” had a flash forward to see the future roads traveled by the football coach played by Kyle Chandler and his guidance counselor wife played by Connie Britton.
“One of the things that I really liked about the finale of ‘Friday Night Lights' was it sort of showed the future,” said Katims. “It moved forward. And that’s one of the things that we wanted to do here. Obviously in a different way. It is a different show. But to give some glimpses about where these characters might be down the road. I think that aspect of 'Friday Night Lights' sort of inspired this a little bit."
Katims was able to tell the end of “Parenthood” only because of a unique cost-cutting deal with NBC that meant the main characters would only appear in 11 of the final 13 episodes.
“Yeah, it was a very interesting experiment,” said Katims. “I have never done anything like that before. We had to figure that out and it was challenging. I think what I found was, while it was challenging, there were a lot of happy surprises that came out of it because we focused on stories that we would not have had the time to tell.”
He said it enabled the show to have Hank dealing with his life “outside of the context of Sarah.”
“You saw him dealing with Max (Sarah's nephew), his ex wife and daughter outside of that,” said Katims. “And that kind of thing almost broadened the show out a little bit."
The experiment also allowed Katims and the show’s writers to explore in greater detail the poignant relationship between Zeek and his grandson Drew (Miles Helzer).
“They are so wonderful together and we might have only been able to do one of those episodes," said Katims. “We had several stories where we connected them to each other and I thought that was great. And actually that connection between the two of them had such a nice payoff the other night.”
Erika Christensen explained that the experiment also was a little challenging to the cast.
“It was strange,” she said in an interview at the same NBC party that Katims attended. “I definitely as an audience thought I wasn’t so bothered when I wasn’t on the screen because I was so invested in everyone else’s story lines. But ultimately I wish we had been able to do it the way we normally did it.”
Still, she was happy with the payoff last week in which Joel met her and their children at a skating rink and sealed their reconciliation with a kiss.
“That was so satisfying,” she added. “We really earned that, didn’t we? It’s been a long time coming. Sam Jaeger and I were to happy not to be fighting and crying any more.”
Christensen said that fans have been telling her that Julia and Joel had to get back together.
“I’m very good at not spoiling,” said Christensen. “I never will say what will happen, but I told everyone that I agree they have to get back together. That lies in the hands of Jason Katims.”
She agrees with Katims that the finale is bittersweet.
"In a very concise way, I think (the series) is saying, ‘it is worth it. It is pain in the behind, but it is worth it.'”
In this series, every character had an issue to overcome with the support of their family.
“One of the things that is so powerful about the show is the love they have for each other,” said Katims. “That they are always there for each other. And no matter what else happens – whether people are in arguments, or people are going through hard times – that seems to always come through. I think that is definitely one of the things that has been an ongoing theme throughout the whole series.”
Katims specialty seems to be showing some of the strongest marriages on television like the Taylors on “Friday Night Lights” and Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter) on “Parenthood.”
Last week, Adam appeared to unilaterally decide to save the struggling music business he started with his brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) even after his wife told him she didn’t think it was a good idea.
“To me, that was an example of who Adam has been for the whole series,” said Katims. “This guy who feels so much responsibility not only to his immediate family, but to his extended family. At that moment, he’s caught a little bit between a rock and a hard place. That’s what I like so much about that scene. What is great about this is when you have actors like Peter and Monica, it allows you to have moments like that because you feel so deeply how much those two people are connected to each other that they don’t always have to be agreeing with each other.”
Katims feels a responsibility, too. It is to the show’s actors and fans to get the end right.
He said everybody is in the finale.
“We really tried hard to give everyone their moment,” said Katims. “For example, Max (Max Burkholder, who plays the son of Adam and Kristina with Asperger’s syndrome) doesn’t necessary have the 'A' story, but there is a moment in the episode that is one of my favorite moments in the whole series.”
In one of my favorite moments in last week’s episode, Zeek's wife, Camille (Bonnie Bedelia), discovered old photographs of the family. They included the shots that have been used in the program’s opening credits for years. It made me think that Katims was setting something up for the finale.
“We refer to them once again, but it's not a major use,” said Katims. “I will say photographs play a major role – maybe not those photographs – in that final episode.”
The question is how does he get all the characters together in the finale?
“I will say, in a very different way,. we’re going to have a moment where the whole family interacts,” he said.
I suggested to Katims the usual way is to have a wedding, the birth of a child, a funeral or a graduation.
Any chance one of them will be happening?
“Maybe any, maybe all,” said Katims with a smile.