On the set of ''Parenthood'' -- A behind the scenes look at the NBC sitcom that does a convincing imitation of family life
It’s Halloween in Studio City, Calif., and the set of NBC’s new Comedy Parenthood is festooned with ribbons of orange and black, cardboard goblins, glowing jack-o’-lanterns and unsightly blobs of goo. Most of the trimmings have come from the show’s art director; the goo has been contributed courtesy of the youngest cast members, who decided that it would be a really cool idea to scoop out handfuls of wet, clammy pumpkin guts and lob them at one another in slimy volleys. The adults simply ducked for cover, and then, when the little skirmish was over, everybody went back to making a TV show.
The Parenthood actors are professionals, but many of them are also children, a situation that has required patience, good humor, and some quasi- parental guidance from the program’s grown-ups. As the great pumpkin war suggests, the most far-reaching decision they’ve made is that, off camera as well as on, Parenthood‘s kids must be kids, and the formula seems to be working. NBC’s adaptation (airing Saturdays at 8 p.m.) of the 1989 movie hit about four generations of one family has won some of the new season’s most admiring reviews by shunning prefabricated sitcom cuteness in favor of the cheerfully clamorous, naturalistic style of thirtysomething, but with fewer neuroses and more Crayolas. Instead of canned laughter and outlandish plots, the series offers warm, closely observed vignettes of parent-and-child minutiae, from finger painting to fear of the dark. As a result, Parenthood‘s young actors — 10-year-old Max Elliott Slade, 8-year-old (and single-named) Thora, 6-year-old Ivyann Schwan and 4-year-old Zachary LaVoy — have come across as the most lifelike kids this side of The Wonder Years.
For their part, the adults seem to be taking the on-set chaos well. ”Oh, these kids — they’re so wonderful and sharp and talented,” bubbles Sheila MacRae, a mother of four who plays Marilyn Buckman, Parenthood‘s grandmother of six. ”Of course, they do get a little hyper after their naps. The other day I was looping some dialogue and Zachary climbed right up next to me and said, ‘Can I try that?’ They’re so curious.” MacRae is also popular with the children, perhaps because of her Zen/Hollywood parenting philosophy: ”Children should be allowed to say what they want. Like the Eskimos, I believe that they should be talked to very calmly until they’re 10. Then, if you want, tell them no.”
The show’s childless actors have also slipped into TV parenting with minimal trauma. ”It’s a real dress rehearsal for being a mom,” says Jayne Atkinson, who hopes to have children of her own soon and in the meantime, as Karen Buckman, dispenses love, discipline, and lunches to a brood of three. ”Sometimes I wouldn’t mind giving them back — they have the attention spans of fleas! But they’re so loving and fun to work with. And the more I’m here, the more I find myself sounding just like my mother. I get this tone in my voice, and suddenly I hear myself saying things like ‘Sit down now!‘ or ‘Don’t do that, you’ll poke your eye out!”’
”There’s definitely a surrogate bond starting,” says executive producer and writer David Tyron King. ”The adults are learning to have fun with the kids, and they’re really attaching to them, especially the women. Sometimes you can see it in the way they’ll stroke their hair before the camera starts.”
It’s that kind of detail — not momentous, but not trivial — that King hopes to capture in the scripts. ”The changes in kids are so subtle that you have to listen really carefully,” he says. ”My son Nicholas, who’s 4 1/2, doesn’t like me to talk to him in tones that I used when he was 3 1/2. Things happen incredibly fast.” To help the show keep up, an informal ”parent patrol,” consisting of director Allan Arkush and several of the actors and writers who have small kids of their own, listens for any age-inappropriate dialogue in the scripts. ”Very rarely do we have a problem,” says Ed Begley Jr. (Gil Buckman), father of three TV children and two real ones, Nick and Amanda. ”It’s not like other shows, where typical scripts have lines no child would ever utter. Often, all it comes down to is a reading or a nuance that has to be changed.”
King also keeps an eye out for trouble signs from the kids. ”If they don’t understand something they’re being asked to play, then we’re concerned,” he says. ”At read-throughs, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what that means’ or we’ll see in their faces that they’re not registering it. Usually, it’s a case of us 30-year-old writers pulling childhood phrases out of our own past. Ideally, we want it to be realistic enough so that people will say, ‘They must have had a tape recorder in my kitchen this morning.”’
Not that Parenthood is able to achieve true realism. ”On the Halloween show I’m dressing up as Count Dracula’s daughter,” says Thora, who plays third- grader Taylor Buckmann, ”but I’m really going as the Little Mermaid.” Then there’s the important chicken-pox distinction. Her character was afflicted in an early segment, but ”I’ve never had it and I don’t want it,” Thora says emphatically. ”It’s my favorite episode. It felt funny, though. They had to put fake blood on me! When it dried, it felt weird. But it looked good.”
Thora’s attitude toward her TV parents, Begley and Atkinson, seems a shade more ambivalent. ”They like me,” she says. ”They act like friends. But they act like parents too. Even when we’re not working.” And does she get along with Max Slade, her senior by two years, who plays her older brother? ”Yes…I guess…he’s okay,” Thora says, obviously mortified that the subject of boys was even raised.
Fifth-grader Max has the most complex role of any of Parenthood‘s children; he must plumb the miseries of the very worried Kevin Buckman, a sweetly jittery 10-year-old whose long list of potential hazards includes tornados, diseases, and other kids at school. ”I don’t worry very much in real life,” Max says, sounding slightly bewildered by Kevin’s closetful of anxieties. ”I guess I just like to think everything will turn out for the better.” Not surprisingly, Kevin’s Halloween will be fraught with angst. ”He’s going as a bug, but he really wants to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle,” Max says, sighing. ”That’s pretty much what Kevin does — he doesn’t like something, but for some reason, he’s afraid to say why, or he can’t.”
Shepherding the kids through these various developmental dilemmas requires a different approach for each child actor. ”With Max, you have to make sure that he understands everything in the scene — the reason he’s behaving the way he is,” says director Arkush. ”Thora sometimes plays it big, like a sitcom. I say, ‘Thora, what are you doing wrong?’ and then she’ll remember and say, ‘I was acting, right?’ Ivyann has a funny little tendency to look at the camera. And Zachary really isn’t capable of doing something on cue — I mean, he’s 4. You just keep making him do it over and over and hope he doesn’t get bored.” Often, it’s simply a matter of finding a suitable way to let the kids see what the adults are after. ”We have to resort to our imagination,” King says. ”If we want them to be annoying, and they don’t understand that repeating a phrase over and over is annoying, we say, ‘It’s as if you’re pinching someone again and again.’ They understand pinching because it’s annoying but fun.” Nevertheless, King never dismisses any child’s misgivings about a scene. ”I’d like them to be a little more open to saying, ‘I feel like I’m a real baby if I act this way,’ or ‘My friends wouldn’t say that.”’
Actually, Parenthood‘s writers can draw from a bottomless well of accurate material, even if its small performers never speak up at all: their own families. ”The temptation to look at your own life as a source of material is great,” King admits. ”I think my wife was upset at first. I’d go home, and she’d give me this very enthusiastic rundown of my son’s day. And I’d listen and say, ‘Hmmm…wasn’t there anything I can use?”’