One upon a time, hourlong family dramas were a staple of network television. Today, they’re all but extinct.
A TV landscape that was once filled with shows like "The Waltons," "7th Heaven," "Eight Is Enough," "Gilmore Girls" and "My So-called Life" is down to just one — NBC’s "Parenthood."
The fifth season of the series airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5. Seasons 1-4 are all available on DVD.
There are other dramas that feature family members — "Blue Bloods," "The Good Wife," "Nashville," Revenge," even "Arrow" and "Supernatural." But "Parenthood" stands alone as a three-generational drama full of three-dimensional characters where the focus is on the family.
And the Bravermans on "Parenthood" feel like a real family because their lives are drawn from real lives.
"What we’ve always tried to do in terms of our storytelling is just reflect what we see going on in life," said executive producer Jason Katims. "All the stories come from either our personal experiences or people who are close to us."
Until the third season, Joel (Sam Jaeger) was a stay-at-home dad. Which felt very real to him.
"Thanks to this show, being one of 74 series regulars," he joked, "I get to spend a fair amount of time with my son. And getting to be a stay-at-home dad myself. I think that’s been a great example of just getting to see that storyline represented on air. I’ve had a couple of stay-at-home dads come and say that we’ve done a good service."
Lauren Graham, who stars as single mom Sarah, said cast members "feel responsible to, and proud of" the roles they represent. Even when those roles aren’t exactly role models — Sarah is in her 40s and still struggling to find herself, find a career and find love.
But Graham takes it seriously that her character’s role is "newly empty nest and still up-in-the-air relationshipwise."
Sometimes, the reality of "Parenthood" hits incredibly close to home. When the show premiered in 2010, upfront and center was a storyline about young Max (Max Burkholder), who was diagnoesed with Asperger syndrome. Katims has a son with the same diagnosis.
As in real life, there was no easy, happy ending for Max, his parents, Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter), or the rest of the family. Max has had his ups and downs, and his struggles have been there even as Kristina struggled with cancer.
"We didn’t introduce Max having Asperger’s in the pilot and then play it for a few episodes and then move on," said Katims, whose TV credits include "Friday Night Lights," "Roswell" and "Boston Public." "It’s been for the life of the series."
Potter said she normally does as much research as she can for whatever character she’s playing, but in the case of the cancer, "I just sort of went through it with Kristina. I didn’t want to know too much. I wanted it to feel real and fresh and sort of explore [it from] the treatment through the doctor telling her that she was cancer free."
Kristina survived cancer, but the character was changed by her experience. It prompted her to take a huge leap and run for mayor this season.
"It’s about what they’ve just been through will inform what their next season is," Katims said.
This isn’t "Glee." Characters don’t take sudden, wild swings from week to week. They are who they are, although they’ve changed and grown.
"That’s something I think is amazing about this show — the characters grow and change and that sort of sticks," said Mae Whitman, who stars as Amber. "You actually see them become different and grow in different ways."
To say that "Parenthood" is the best family drama on broadcast TV would be true, but, well, faint praise.
Truth is, it’s one of the best dramas, period.
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