After an uncertain hiatus, one of TV’s best shows finally makes its return to NBC (in its new night and time) tonight at 10 p.m. ET when Parenthood begins its fifth season. If you’re at all worried that the lengthy break hurt the show in any way, you can rest easy. The first of 22 new episodes, “It Has To Be Now,” picks up right where season four left off, and it’s chock full of all our favorite Bravermans, including a brand new family member, and the return of Ray Romano’s Hank.
Like all good Parenthood episodes, it’s an hour-long series of ups and downs and laughs and tears, including a few sweet surprises that most fans probably didn’t expect to arrive so soon. We sat down with creator and showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) to find out what he has in store for season five and just how he managed to turn a much-beloved movie into a show that’s, at this point, even better. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
Last season’s “big story” was Kristina Braverman’s cancer, but she seems to be on the mend. What type of issues will the family be dealing with this season?
Obviously, last season was mostly grounded through Kristina’s health crisis. This season, there are a few things that I’m very excited about in terms of the bigger things that are brewing. One is with Joel and Julia having a time when their marriage gets into a vulnerable place, to put it mildly. It’s one of those things that we have not really been able to explore on the show, which is about what happens when a marriage isn’t working, and what families go through when that happens.
It seems natural after the ups and downs they went through last season with the adoption. I love the way the show takes its time to deal with these bigger issues instead of trying to dump them into a few episodes, just prior to sweeps, like many shows do.
That’s something that is going to be some of the season-long story, similar to what the cancer story was last year. One of the things I like about the show is that we’re able to do these storylines in almost real-time, as they go over longer periods and longer arcs.
Season four moved between a few stories quite a bit: Victor’s adoption, Kristina’s cancer, Sarah’s love triangle, etc. So we have Joel and Julia in season five, but who else is getting some story time?
Zeke and Camille. I’m really excited about this story because a lot of times Zeke and Camille tend to be the characters that are sort of servicing other people’s storylines. We’ve done a couple of longer arcs over the history of the show with them, which I thought were really effective. This year, we’re doing a story with them that’s really about the two of them looking ahead at the third act of their lives and realizing that that’s the place they’re in right now, and discovering that they might not be on the same page about what they want in their lives.
You’ve dabbled in some Zeke and Camille troubles before. How is it going to be different this time?
It’s not like they’re falling out of love. It’s not like they have problems with their relationship, in a way, but they maybe don’t see eye to eye about where they want to go. I find this to be a fascinating subject because it would be where they would be at during this stage of their lives. I think this is what they’d be facing, and I also believe that they would be on different sides of how they wanted things to play out. It also looks at a marriage where Zeke is an old-school guy who has always just done things in a way that he wants to do them. I think it’ll be an interesting thing to watch when Camille starts to push back a little and insist on having a real dialogue about this.
That’s interesting, because you don’t see a lot of older-couple relationships on TV anymore.
I think that it’s one of those storylines where the actors are also so great. One of the things that I think is great about the show, but it’s also one of its biggest challenges, is that we have such a large, great cast. It’s fantastic for the audience because you get to watch these multiple storylines and are really invested in all of them, because the quality of the ensemble is so strong. On the negative side, sometimes it’s hard to surface every character all the time. I think this season they have a storyline that will not be played in every single episode, but will play out over the course of the season.
How about Hank? Based on the season five trailer and the first episode, he’s clearly back.
Ray Romano is coming back and I’m very excited about that, because I think he’s just done such an amazing job on the show and I really love working with him. We really wanted to, this season, continue to delve into Hank and not only look at it as stories between him and Sarah and not only think of it as stories where he’s functioning as a romantic interest or foil for her, but actually this year we’ll get to the point where we’ll be able to tell stories about Hank.
I love that Hank character. I think he brought something to the show that wasn’t there before.
It’s amazing. It’s also amazing how at first one of the things that people wondered about was if it was going to feel outside of the vocabulary of the show or if it would take over the show in a way. What was interesting to me was the way Ray approached it and the way he crafted his performance was that he just fit so seamlessly into the world of the show. You never skipped a bit. Very understated, but it had a lot of impact.
Is Jason Ritter coming back, or is Mark gone for good?
Jason’s not coming back as of now because he has another show [Fox’s excellent midseason comedy Us & Them]. We’ve actually been through this before with him because he was on another show and went away for a while and then came back. We not only love that character but we also all love Jason. We would love to have him back at some point, but right now he’s working.
How about Skyler Day and her Amy Ellis character?
That is not something that we’re starting off at the beginning of the season, but she’s someone that we will see at some point this year.
I’ve been pushing for this one since she last played Zoe in season three, so I have to ask: Is there any chance we’ll see Rosa Salazar on Parenthood again?
It’s actually not something that we have planned, but I understand why you’d be pushing for it. I thought she was so great. We don’t have anything with her planned right now, but the door is always open.
The first time I watched Parenthood, I didn’t give it a chance because I loved the film so much. How were you able to crack the code and turn it into something that, at this point, has surpassed the film?
I think there are a few things that I would say about that. The first thing is that when I took on writing the pilot, I was still working on Friday Night Lights, and a lot of what excited me about the idea of Parenthood was that I was really enjoying the experience of doing this large ensemble show. With Friday Night Lights, even though Kyle [Chandler] and Connie [Britton] were clearly the center of that show, I really thought of it as a pretty pure ensemble. I was just excited about telling those kinds of stories. On that show, we could have as many as five, six or seven storylines an episode. I really enjoyed that and thought it was something that I wanted to keep doing. The idea of doing Parenthood was, for me, the opportunity to do that – to do a large ensemble but, in this case, really look at stories about family and parenting and all the issues that we get to explore on Parenthood. So I was really coming into it with that frame of mind of wanting to do that.
Someone tried to turn Parenthood into a TV show once before and failed. How did you talk NBC into giving your take on it a chance?
In terms of taking the movie and actually adapting it, when I first went in to talk to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and pitched them my take on it, I felt them listening, listening, listening, and then when I started talking about what was going to be really different from the movie is when they got excited. [Laughs] They got excited about what was different, and I sort of honestly took that cue from them and realized that it was very important for me as a writer and for the directors and actors on the show to all, in one sense, definitely honor the movie and what it was, but also to very much start fresh and just really claim this as our show. And that’s what we really tried to do.
From what I understand, a lot of that started with Max, right?
One specific thing that was a loaded issue for me was the character of Max. I have a son with Asperger’s syndrome, and when I started to think about what this version of Parenthood was going to be and how it would be different from the movie, I started to think about, “What has the experience of parenting been for me?” And certainly one of the defining aspects of my experience is the fact that I have a son on the autism spectrum. I was very reluctant to include that, for many reasons. I was reluctant to include it because, first of all, there is a certain privacy that I felt like I wanted to maintain, so there were those kinds of issues, and I also was really nervous about taking on something that I knew was so specific.
And then there’s the issue of casting. How do you find someone with the chops to play Max?
I didn’t know if we would be able to pull off telling that story, in terms of casting a 13-year-old actor. It’s one thing to find a 13-year-old actor who can play themselves, who can just be natural on screen, but it’s another to ask somebody to portray something so detailed and specific. That was something I didn’t know whether we would find. And then we found Max [Burkholder], who is unbelievable, and he’s allowed us to tell stories with that character far greater and far more specifically detailed than I had ever imagined because of how he inhabits that role.
He’s amazing. You struck gold.
Absolutely. I was also nervous about it because I know that it’s such a specific thing to have this in your life, and it’s not the norm, so I wondered if it would feel too alienating for the audience or too far afield from anything they know. Of course, the opposite happened. I think that Max having Asperger’s in the pilot episode, and during the early part of the show, is what grounded the show in a reality and sort of invited the audience in. I think it was one of the important aspects of why the show is still around today, because we did that in the beginning. It helped people to say, “Oh, it is going to be different, in fact, than the movie and from other shows on television.”