If you watch the NBC show Parenthood, chances are you tear up, if not outright cry, at some point between 10 and 11 p.m. on Thursday nights while the show is in season. Jason Katims, the show's executive producer and showrunner, who worked on the show Friday Night Lights previously, spoke today at the Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans, which I am attending.
A surprising number of major, emotionally intense, storylines in Parenthood come in some form from Katim's life, he revealed. His son, Sawyer, has Asperger's Syndrome, an experience reflected in the character of Max, whose depiction of living with Asperger's is ground-breaking.
"We were thrown this big curveball when he was diagnosed with Asperger's," Katims said. They felt alone in their challenges, until he had a realization that ended up being central to the idea of the show.
"Everybody has something," he said. "This image and this idea of a normal happy family, it doesn't exist. Every family has the stuff they're grappling with. That stuff is not the aside of life, it is what family is about and parenting is about, leaning into that."
In one episode—a clip of which we watched today during his talk—Max's father, who is usually calm and controlled, punches another man in a supermarket because he was being insensitive to Max. Katims described the real-life incident that inspired this fictional moment: His son loved going on a particular amusement park ride, but one day they discovered he'd become too tall for it. They went to another, similar ride, only to find that his son was too short for that one. Katims begged for an exception to the rule, but the attendant wouldn't let his son on; Katims lost his cool and yelled at the attendant.
The challenges Katims' faced in communicating with his son helped him redefine what it means to make memories and forge a connection.
"Having a son with Asperger's, there's a lot of struggle finding those moments of connection with him," Katims said, "Those small moments of grace are so powerful."
Those small moments are the heart of Parenthood, the characters realizing that everyday events are deeply meaningful and memorable. The show was inspired by the 1989 movie of the same name.
"My responsibility was to say what is different about this generation than the generation that Ron Howard was observing 20 years ago," Katims said.
Those differences are reflected in the show's unflinching depiction of Asperger's Syndrome, as well as storylines about single fatherhood and single motherhood.
For the record, of all the parents depicted on the show, Katims said that as a father, he most identified with Crosby, the slacker-turned-responsible father.
"I envy people who say the minute they see their baby they feel connected and in love. It wasn't like that for me," Katims said.
Update 2/3/14: I've been asked to mention that Katims was brought to the conference by the events title sponsor, Dove Men+Care, which helped make Dad 2.0 a very memorable event.