The show must go on for NBC adaptation
Everybody knows parenthood is a tough gig. But the creatives involving in birthing “Parenthood,” NBC’s adaptation of the 1989 movie of the same name, had no idea of the personal trials they would face in getting the ensemble drama on the air.
“The past six months have been absolutely excruciating,” says David Nevins, prexy of Imagine Television, which is producing the series with Universal Media Studios. “There have been so many ups and downs. But this show is unbelievably good, and I’ve been dying to put it out into the world.”
“Parenthood,” shepherded by “Friday Night Lights” showrunner Jason Katims, was NBC’s most well-received pilot last spring. But the show was dealt a blow in July when one of its central players, “ER” alum Maura Tierney, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Although “Parenthood” revolves around four adult siblings in a sprawling extended family, the story turns on the decision of Tierney’s character, Sarah, to pack up her two teenage kids from their dead-end life in Fresno, Calif., and move back up to Berkeley to live with her parents and be near her brothers and younger sister.
Tierney earned uniform praise for her work in the pilot in biz circles and among the select critics who screened the original pilot. NBC initially decided to postpone its fall premiere to midseason to give Tierney time to undergo treatment. But by September, it became clear that she would need significantly more time for treatment and recovery.
Tierney’s fate was a real-life medical drama that Katims might’ve scripted for one of the characters. It was also the second time that the unpredictability of life was deeply impressed upon the cast and crew. NBC’s creative executive on the show, Nora O’Brien, 44, died suddenly during a location shoot for the pilot in April.
Once the inevitability of Tierney’s diagnosis sank in, NBC, U and Imagine reluctantly decided to recast the role. Lauren Graham, late of “Gilmore Girls,” was high on Katims’ wish list. To his great relief, it didn’t take long for her to say “yes.”
“It was a unique situation for me to have to recast such a major role, and not because there was a problem with the performance or with the role, or because there was a desire to go a different way,” Katims says. “For me, it really became about trying to let go of how Maura approached the role. We pretended we were going back to the very beginning and trying to find the right actress for the role.”
More than half of the pilot will be reshot, by helmer Thomas Schlamme, in Los Angeles this month (the original pilot was lensed on location in Northern California). After a short break for Thanksgiving, the cast will reassemble to continue production on the initial batch of episodes. Graham made the decision to not watch the original pilot in an effort to help make the role her own. Katims thinks she made a wise choice.
“Certainly, I don’t want her to be in the position of being compared to something else,” Katims says. “It seemed the most fair way to approach it for Lauren.”
Katims says he has no plans to make major changes to the character of Sarah, a woman who’s forced to face up to bad decisions earlier in her life and makes the move to improve the lot of her son and daughter, much to their chagrin.
Katims is eager to tap into Graham’s flair for screwball comedy, but she will not be channeling her “Gilmore Girls” character, despite their hip single-mom similarities.
“We’re looking forward to bringing some of her comedy to the show, but our show has a very different tone and different voice for her. She’s looking forward to doing something different,” Katims says. She will work opposite a formidable troupe that includes Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Peter Krause, Dax Shepard, Erika Christensen, Monica Potter and Sarah Ramos.
Despite the delay to midseason, the writing staff on “Parenthood” has been at work on the initial batch of scripts since the summer. That has given the show the bittersweet benefit of having all 13 of its scripts nearly completed before production begins anew. They also had more time to work on sets and other storytelling-enhancing creative elements.
“It gave us the luxury you don’t normally have in television of being able to break all the stories before we start shooting,” Katims says. “That allows you to make all sorts of adjustments along the way with stories and characters that you might not otherwise be able to do.”
NBC is expected to bow “Parenthood” in early March, on the heels of its coverage of the Winter Olympics. No matter where it lands on the Peacock sked (the show was originally slated for 8 p.m. Wednesday), it will have to work extra hard, given NBC’s modest aud these days. Moreover, “Parenthood” is an earthy family drama going up against a sea of cops, docs, lawyers and other franchise fare.
NBC is betting on Katims’ talent as a showrunner and the strength of the cast to generate strong word of mouth.
Katims says the setbacks and the emotional blow of the loss of O’Brien have only made him and the principals that much more determined to seethe show on air.
“Because of these things I feel more driven than ever to get this show to see the light of day,” Katims says. “The idea of having to go through all this and then never have the show be seen is unbearable to me.”