Parenthood Showrunner Jason Katims on the ‘Emotional’ Final Season and What’s in Store for the Bravermans

Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims. Photo: Araya Diaz/Getty Images

With Parenthood about to embark on its final season — NBC begins rolling out the 13 episodes tonight at 10 p.m. — members of Team Braverman may want to stock up on facial tissues and brace themselves for some seriously ugly cries ahead. Showrunner Jason Katims, in an interview with Vulture earlier this week, said he expects this to be “the most emotional season of the show.” Katims — who got his start as a writer on My So-Called Life, helmed Friday Night Lights, and also serves as showrunner on NBC’s About a Boy — talked to us about rumors that there will be a potential loss in the Braverman family, the controversial separation of previously “perfect” couple Joel and Julia, and the moments in the series that have left him, the guy in charge of all the lump-in-the-throat drama, just as weepy as those of us watching at home.

For the audience, we're on the verge of watching the first episode of the season. But where are you in the production schedule?
You know, we're about halfway into shooting it. The writers have kind of broken the entire season. We haven't written all the episodes, but we've broken all the stories.

So, in the writers' room and on set, is everyone feeling that "this is the last semester of high school" feeling? How has it been for everybody?
It's bittersweet, you know. I mean, it's very sad for us to be finishing the show. At the same time, I personally feel a great sense of accomplishment to have made it through six seasons of the show. We certainly didn't know the show would last anywhere near this long. Even though it's sad to know it's the last season, it's really great to know that it's the last season because then you can write toward an ending. And, also, you can just get emotionally prepared for the show to end. Often you do a season and you don't know if the show's going to come back or not. A lot of times shows end without any sense of finality, either creatively for the show or for the people involved in doing it. I'm very happy that the show will be able to have an ending — for the show, both in terms for the audience and creatively, but also for us doing the show.

Every season of the show it seemed like you guys and the fans were always holding their breath: "Is it going to come back, or is it not going to come back?" There must be a sense of relief that you don't have to think about that anymore.
Yeah, we were always thinking that, and some seasons more than others. Honestly, last season more than any other season. Every other season I was not sure, but I was kind of hopeful and generally positive about the idea that the show would come back. But last season I really wasn't. I really felt, you know, that there was a — it was more likely the show wasn't going to come back. I was really happy that it was. And you're right, it is good to know that we're coming to an end. It definitely affects our storytelling — the kinds of stories that we're telling and sort of just how we're approaching it. It's very different than every other season because we know it's the last 13 episodes.

In terms of why you felt more doubt last season versus previous ones — was that because you got moved to Thursdays last season? You were up against Scandal, so the viewership fell off a little bit.
Yes. And it was also people saying, "We don't think you're coming back."

Well, that'll do it!
[Laughs.] But definitely the move to Thursdays — obviously it wasn't working for the network. I think more or less the fans of the show are the fans of the show and they find it. But still, if you're on a difficult night, like Thursdays was last year for the network, it makes it tougher. It's tough to keep a show like Parenthood on the air anyway, and we [previously] had that nice, fairly sort of safe spot on Tuesdays. We, I think, did pretty well there consistently. So definitely the move to Thursdays — it was challenging for us.

Looking ahead at this upcoming season: On an emotional scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is "I'm crying my eyes out," how emotional do you expect this season to be compared to, say, season four when Kristina had breast cancer?
All I can say is so far I've seen the first three episodes of the season, and they're very emotional. They're very emotional. And knowing where we're sort of driving toward, toward the end, I think it's going to be an emotional season. You know, one of the reasons for that is we are building to an ending of the show, and it just tends to lend itself to bigger stories, you know. 

From the beginning of the season, with the writers sort of mapping out the year, we were really thinking about where we're getting to with every character, not only within the season, but we were really thinking about the whole series. You know, where we started with each of these characters and where we're getting to. It's pretty wild, because you have these characters that have gone through such changes over time and literally when you look at the actors — I was looking at a scene from the pilot the other day with Max in it. I was like, My God. To see how much he has changed over the years of doing the show, it's incredible. Max — not the role, but the actor, Max Burkholder — has grown up on the show. So I would say it's shaping up to be a very emotional season. I mean, I would guess it's the most emotional season of the show.

You've said in other interviews that there's a story line this season that will affect all the members of the Braverman family.  Obviously there's been a lot of speculation about there being a death in the family. Can you confirm, deny, or do you want to plead the Fifth?
I think that is something that, throughout the course of doing the show, over the series, we try to address the things that come up with family and with parenting. Certainly that's a big one, and it's something that I always felt that, if we were going to get to a season where we knew we were leading to the end of the show, I always thought in the back of my mind that that would be a story to tell, just because it is part of something we deal with. So that is a subject we're exploring.

I feel sort of stupid when I give these interviews because I feel like, "Oh, I'm being secretive." I don't usually do that. I'm usually pretty forthcoming with story lines. But the only other time I felt this way, actually, was with the breast-cancer story line, where I really didn't want that story line to be tipped too much to the audience. The reason why I didn't want it, honestly, is because I had just gone through that experience with my wife and had just gone through the year of her having that. The thing about it is — one of the most upsetting parts is that you're just not expecting it. You're not thinking, Oh, this maybe will happen to me. It comes out of nowhere. And you're going on with your life and suddenly, Oh my God, this has totally taken over everything. It's a complete and total curveball. So I didn't want that to be sort of teased that much. I remember asking the promotion and publicity department not to use that story ahead of time so that the audience could experience it in the way of what it's like, which is just like, "Holy shit." 

I feel that way this year, too. It's a story where I don't want to say who this happens to or if it happens or when it happens and all that stuff because, you know, I want the audience to be able to experience it as it happens on the show. So that's kind of why I don't want to go into it too much. But it is a subject that we're exploring.

Speaking of things that have been teased, the promos for this season were pretty clear about Amber being pregnant. Were you concerned about that being revealed in advance? Technically, it also was foreshadowed in the season-five finale.
I actually don't look at it as anything was revealed. I mean, it's a promo. How many times have promos been misleading? So it is a story — we obviously teased it in the finale last season, and it is something we are addressing and beginning to tell that story right away in the first episode. The one thing I will say about the season is that everything starts in the first episode. It's not like we're setting up stuff that we're going to introduce [later], or [there are] these big stories that we're introducing way into the season. All of this stuff is coming up right away in terms of everything that we're talking about, in terms of the potential illness and then also Amber's pregnancy. It's all — we're sort of leading with this. That was a part of my thinking that, you know, we wanted to get the ball rolling right away ... We definitely wanted to jump in right away with these stake-ier stories. While there are some lighter story lines this season, it definitely veers more toward the dramatic because of the nature of the fact that it is the final season.

One of those stake-ier stories last season was the Julia/Joel separation. I thought that story was interesting because the catalyst for the separation in many ways was what was going on with Julia and Ed, but there were all these other underlying issues in that relationship that were finally popping up and really led to what happened, too. How long ago did you start thinking about a separation story line for them? Was it something you didn't start mapping out until right before last season, or did you have it in mind prior to that?
I really didn't start mapping it out before that. It was something that, when I was writing the pilot, I was thinking about, but then, sort of, it didn't naturally lead there. It wasn't naturally leading to that place. But I felt like with Joel and Julia, you know, I felt like in one way they were such a great couple. But I felt there were actually always underlying issues between them. I love those actors so much. I felt like a lot of times they would get relegated to telling the stand-alone parenting stories. Because they had younger kids and they would do stories that would be about — they find out that Sydney's cheating, and they deal with it in that episode, and it gets resolved in that episode. If they had disagreements between the two of them, they resolved those within the episode. And I loved those episodes. But ... the lifeblood of the show is not those episodes — it's the longer arcs, it's the bigger stories. It's, you find out your kid has Asperger's or that you've been diagnosed with breast cancer. I wanted to challenge that relationship so that we started to tell stories where the stuff between them — they didn't kiss and make up at the end of every episode. And as a result I felt there was really just amazing work that both of those actors did and [stories] that we as writers were able to tell.

I know people were impatient and got upset with this kind of thing happening. But again, it was one of those things that I felt like, you know, we wanted to be able to address on the show. We wanted to be able to look at a marriage in trouble on the show. 

Within the writers' room, were there ever disagreements in which some people felt like they wanted them to stay together and others felt like, No, no, it makes more sense to keep them apart? Or was everybody on the same page?
I'm trying to remember specifically about that. The biggest arguments in the writers' room came about when Sarah was in a triangle with Mark Cyr and Hank. Those were the biggest arguments. It was literally split in half with the writers, between who thought she should wind up with Cyr and who thought she should end up with Hank.

So how do you resolve something like that?
Well, I decide that, but — it's hard to explain. It's not like you're really sitting there kind of arguing. What you're doing is you're breaking the stories, and you're kind of figuring out — the stories were really not that much affected by it. It's just that some people were leaning one way and some people were leaning the other way. That, to me, is always a good thing, particularly when you're talking about a story on Parenthood

When you get into telling a story and people in the writers' room are sort of, like, arguing and defending different positions, and they get passionate about it because one person feels like one character's perspective and point of view is right and another feels like the other character is right — that, to me, always signals a good story to tell. Because it means that both sides of the story have a valid argument, and, to me, that's when our stories are working best. You have conflict, but you understand both sides of it. It's not like a show that has villains, you know. You want to be able to relate to both sides of the issue. 

But the Joel and Julia stuff was definitely challenging to tell that story, and we're continuing to tell it this year. Because it's just like in life: If you hear that a couple that you really love is getting separated, that's not good news, and you sometimes get mad at them. But that's not really fair because what maybe seemed on the surface like a good relationship obviously, when you dug under the surface, there were issues. It's a story we're continuing to tell this season because I didn't want to sort of end it. I didn't want to just pick up in season six and suddenly they're back together again and we just shoved it under the rug. I really felt, like, let's play this out, and let's really watch what happens in the relationship and have it come to a resolution, which we are definitely driving toward by the end of the season.

Everybody talks about the moments on this show that have affected them the most emotionally. For me, last season, one of them was when Kristina climbed into the backseat with Max after that field trip that went badly. Is there a moment that stands out as the most emotional for you, either when you were on set while it was happening or viewing the completed episode?
You're talking over the course of the series?

Yeah, where you just start crying and can't prevent yourself from tearing up. I'm sure that happens a lot.
There are a few that stand out for me. That scene that you talked about, that scene with Max: It was so painful and riveting and beautifully acted and written and everything. That scene, to me, was — I think that was basically like five seasons of the show leading up to that moment of self-awareness in Max where he was, for the first time, really coming to terms with how all this stuff was really affecting him. How all this stuff of who he was and his disability and everything was going to not be easy for him, and for his life, really. To me, that was a really poignant moment.

I just remember a scene between Zeek and Amber after she got into this car accident where he took her to the scrap yard and showed her the car and basically talked to her about how this family was his dream and she had no right to take that dream away. That's a scene that really got me. Really, any scene in the breast-cancer story line. Well, one particular scene — I mean, there's so many scenes in that story — but one that got me personally was, there was a phone conversation between Haddie, who was in school, and Adam where she insisted on Adam telling her what was really going on with Kristina and treating her like an adult and not kind of sugarcoating it for her. And he did, and he basically told her exactly what was going on. I mean, that scene was really poignant to me.

The last scene which I'll say, because clearly I could go on — I just loved the scene when Hank reads this book about Asperger's and sees himself in it and then he goes to Sarah and has this moment where he's telling her that he thinks this is him. He thought he was reading this book about Max but then thinks this is him, and it's his first moment of awareness that he could have Asperger's. That's another scene that really just got me.

After Friday Night Lights ended, you were bombarded with questions about when you were going to make the movie that would follow the show. Do you foresee revisiting the Bravermans after Parenthood is over?
I don't think so. With Friday Night Lights I really went down that road and really thought about, and tried to start to work on, a possibility of doing a movie. And I really believe it could have been a good movie. I wouldn't have done that otherwise.  

Ultimately, what I kind of take away from that experience is, we gave the show a great ending and maybe we just should have let that stand. So that's what we're all endeavoring to do this season — and everybody, meaning me and the writers and the actors and directors and everybody, the editors and all the people, the entire family that's formed. The only thing you can do when you come to a moment of something that you care about so much ending — really, the only thing you can do is pour yourself into it and try to make every episode great, or as close to great as you can get it. Hopefully we'll give the show an ending that will be really satisfying to the people who have stood with the show and watched the show and supported the show all of this time, and to ourselves. We're really trying to do that. I'm very hopeful that we're going to pull that off and give the show really a great resolution and ending. Then, as much as the idea of coming back to the show would be appealing because you’d get to work with all these great people again, I think we'd probably let it stand and move on to do other stuff.