In a time where television networks commonly cancel new series after only a handful of episodes, hitting the 100th show mark can seem unlikely. NBC’s Parenthood is about to hit that milestone just under the wire in its final season, after proving to be the little drama that could. Parenthood was often a bubble show when it came to renewals, and didn’t always receive a full season order, leaving series creator and showrunner Jason Katims to get extra bold with the scope of his storytelling. His determination to push himself and his stories into new territory is one of the biggest reasons why the show resonates so strongly with its cast and crew, its loyal audience, and key network executives.
“I’m really proud of the stories that we told; we laid into a lot of territory,” Katims told SSN.
“People always come up to me and say, thank you for making me cry, and I’m never sure how to respond. You’re welcome, I guess? But I think what they’re really saying is [that] it makes them feel, and I take that as a great compliment.”
Parenthood may be quiet compared to the kind of television that’s popular these days, with countless comic book adaptations and shock-value crime of the week series, but its message of family is universal. The complexities that come along with such dynamic characters are what drew Katims to the project.
Back when he was working on Friday Night Lights, Katims told producer Brian Grazer he wanted to make a pilot based on Grazer and Ron Howard’s 1987 movie of the same name. Katims knew an adaptation of the film had been attempted before and hadn’t gone well, but he was inspired by more modern issues and felt passionately about the project. So sitting at a Starbucks, he wrote a pilot episode that centered on an eclectic family called the Bravermans, so named because Katims wanted not only his characters, but everyone embarking on the storytelling journey, to be brave.
“I wanted us as writers and actors and directors and editors and producers and everyone else on this team to be honest, intimate, and unwavering storytellers,” Katims said.
He knew that in order to set his version of Parenthood up for success, he had to lead by example. So for the first time, he wrote autobiographical storylines about his own son through the character of Max (Max Burkholder) who’s diagnosed with Asperger’s.
“To lean into that, to realize there’s no reason to shy away from that, that’s been something I learned from the show that has really been meaningful,” he said.
Howard has called Parenthood, “one of the most extraordinary creative journeys that I’ve ever been on personally,” noting that he could have never imagined the property having such a life without someone with Katims’ sensibility at the helm.
“[Originally, Parenthood] was an idea that was born largely out of [Brian and my] shared experiences, and it was a movie that meant a great deal to us,” he said.
“To see episode after episode explore that central idea with such depth, grace, emotion, humor, and non-stop commitment, the thing I’m most grateful for is the level of excellence sustained over 100 episodes from every department. It’s unbelievable.”
Over the years, while NBC debated whether or not to keep Parenthood around for another season, Katims and his team crafted stories that asked everyone, from the writers to the actors to the audience, to dig deep. Characters got pregnant, some had children, they started new businesses, struggled financially, got cancer, fell in and out of love, and dealt with mistakes both old and new. Nothing was left on the table, and nothing was off limits. Katims liked to leave little questions to keep both the network and the audience wanting more, but he believed in “cathartic endings,” too.
“Every year I always felt like we may or may not come back, but I’m betting on us. Last year I felt like I don’t think we’re coming back. The trick was to do an ending that felt like if this ends the series, I will be satisfied, and I was satisfied.”
But NBC was not. After long negotiations over order size, Parenthood was officially picked up for a sixth and final season. The trick then was for Katims and his writers to pick back up in a way that didn’t feel like a completely new, disjointed story. Unlike past seasons, this meant no large time jump. Stories set up at the end of season five that could conceivably be glimpses into the characters’ futures (Amber’s pregnancy, Joel and Julia’s separation, Adam and Kristina building a school) were played out in season six.
It’s a roadmap that’s worked for Katims before and one he’s following for what will ultimately be the series’ finale.
“We’re not trying to leave anything unresolved now. We want something that feels like a real ending to our audience, that feels satisfying, that brings all of our characters to a point where you get a sense of [how far they’ve come] and also have a suggestion of where they might be heading,” Katims said.
The final season of Parenthood airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on NBC.