Sunday, February 01, 2015

TV Watch: Far from the last word, but some more words on the closing of the "Parenthood" circle


by Ken

The promised (threatened?) Parenthood post mortem is still in the works. I haven't been slacking, though. I went back and re-watched the pilot, which is spectacular, then rewatched it with the audio commentary by developer-showrunner Jason Katims and pilot director Thomas Schlamme, which I discovered I'd never done, and wound up watching all four episodes on the first DVD, before rewatching the series' final two episodes. Amongst the many things I learned there are a whole bunch that bear on what makes a show work (or not), and what can make a show really memorable. I'm not going to try to deduce those lessons her, but I do want to share some of the things I discovered (or rediscovered).

Going back to the pilot,

(a) that Thomas Schlamme directed the pilot (both versions)

Although he not only directed but was listed as an executive producer on the pilot, as far as I know he had no further official connection with the show; co-executive producer Lawrence Trilling directed the first two regular episodes, and thereafter seemed to function as the show's "head" director. Perhaps it was never intended that Tom direct more than the pilot? (But then, to credit him as executive producer? The show isn't listed among his "producer" credits on IMDb.) In the audio commentary on the pilot he and Jason seem perfectly comfortable together, and the commentary was made, Jason explains, as the final editing was being done on the finale of the 13-episode first season and plans were being drawn up for the second. As I recall, in his Friday Night Lights DVD commentaries Jason was also good about indicating when the commentary was being recorded; this is important, and many (most?) commentaries leave us to figure this out on our own, or just guess.

(b) that 60-7 percent of the pilot we know was reshot from the original pilot

This is not because there was anything wrong with the original pilot. In fact, as Jason and Tom tell us in the commentary, everybody loved it. The reshoots were especially unusual because, as they also point out, normally reshooting is done to fix problems in a show, and they didn't have any problems in theirs. Except for one: that Maura Tierney, who originally played the crucial role of Sarah, the second-oldest of the four Braverman siblings, and the older of the two sisters, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to withdraw from the show because it would conflict with her treatment schedule. (Speaking parenthetically, while this outstanding actress has in fact worked a fair amount since that terrible time, one of the nicest things about Showtime's series The Affair, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings, was seeing her so effectively carrying the load of a principal role.)

The immediate effect of the loss of the show's Sarah was to put its future in immediate jeopardy, since a lot of the pilot episode was built around Sarah's "coming home" to her parents' home in Berkeley, having reached her wits' end and the end of her financial resources trying to keep daughter Amber (Mae Whitman) and son Drew (Miles Heizer) housed, fed, and clothed as a divorced mother in Fresno.

It's a shame we can't see that pilot. It's not hard to believe that Maura Tierney was exceptionally fine in the role, and exceptionally fine in conspicuously different ways from the providentially found replacement Sarah, Lauren Graham, who would serve throughout the show's six-season run as its emotional center and flash point.

But the recasting wasn't the only reason for the extensive reshooting. The creators took advantage of the opportunity to reshoot in two ways.

First, they reshot a number of scenes for which sets had by this time been built on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, where it had been decided to produce the show. The previous intention, even after its setting had been switched from Philadelphia to Berkeley, was to shoot in Northern California, using as many actual locations as possible, the way Jason had done Friday Night Lights. (Why the switch from Philadelphia, where Jason had always planned to locate the show, and where production quarters had already been set up and locations were being scouted? Casting. It had been hard enough to cast the huge number of regular characters. Getting the people they wanted to move to Philadelphia wasn't in the cards. You wouldn't think Northern California would be that much more workable, but apparently it was, being at least on the West Coast.)

This meant, for example, abandoning a wonderful century-old house surrounded by redwoods which had been found for the homestead of the senior Bravermants, Zeek (Craig T. Nelson) and Camille (Bonnie Bedalia). But here as in so many other cases over those six years, the Parenthood team turned necessity to advantage. The production designer (I would have to go back to check which it was of the two production designers who are credited, Tim Galvin and Steve Jordan) proceeded to create, out of a disused waste corner of the Universal lot, what would be one of the show's most memorable settings.

And in the reshooting lots of other tweaks were made, many of them building on the fact that, with all the time that had passed, a number of additional scripts had been written, and the creative team knew a lot more than most people who create pilots know about what was to come. And in both the writing and directing it was possible to incorporate all sorts of things they now knew about the characters and their interactions. They also had what can only be called second thoughts, creatively speaking. Notably in the long (almost 10-minute) pre-credit sequence, showing us separate vignettes of many of the members of the Braverman clan, but without any indication of who they are in terms of their connectedness. This is a delightful idea of a concept-y sort, but when it came to re-creating the pilot, they zeroed in on what they understood would be a crucial consideration for viewers: sorting out and getting to know who exactly all these many, many characters were, and putting the audience in suspense from the get-go wasn't going to help viewers in this respect. So this whole sequence was rejiggered to incorporate tip-offs.

As it happens, in rewatching the episode without the commentary, while I went in with what I knew was the incalculable advantage this time through of already knowing who the characters were, one of the things that struck me was what a terrific job the creative team had done in exactly this regard: helping the viewer get a handle on this enormous roster. Which, again, is the mark of writing, direction, and acting that is especially well positioned to produce TV of high and lasting quality. It's fascinating to hear Jason and Tom talk about the problems of re-creating the same scenes with a different Sarah (consider, for example, that you have a brand-new actress interacting with people who have already been inhabiting their characters, not just as individuals but as an ensemble, and had in fact already "finished" these scenes), and also the opportunities. Tom talks in particular about finding ways to enable Lauren Graham to give the most she had to give to her Sarah.

In the audio commentary we also hear Jason and Tom talking about the (to them) crucial process in making TV of interacting with your cast: watching what they bring to their characters as the shows unfold, and incorporating that into the future writing and directing. For them, in fact, this is one of the great pleasures of working in series television, and can be seen all over the place in Tom's great collaborations with Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and of course in Jason's great series Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.

By the time it came to writing the final episode of Parenthood, the lives of the characters had been so powerfully established that a lot of scenes must have seemed almost obligatory to Jason -- like the great scene between Zeek and Sarah, which finds Zeek -- knowing how limited his remaining time is likely to be, asking Sarah, whom he acknowledges (truthfully, I think) to be "my favorite," if he was a good father. Of course she answeres, "The very best." But the truth is, as we know, that while he has indeed been an extraordinary father in some ways, the ways that were most satisfying for him, in all sorts of other ways he wasn't such a good father at all. It's one of the reasons that such a burden of surrogate-fatherhood fell on the oldest Braverman sibling, Adam (Peter Krause).

And in rewatching those first four episodes, it's fascinating to see, not just how the brother and sisters rely on Adam for guidance, but how mediocre that advice usually is. What he offers the others, more than anything, is that he's there for them.

Somehow, I think all of these pieces are part of why the show is going to endure long after its final episode on Thursday.



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