Parenthood executive producer Jason Katims knew he was taking a risk when he decided to give breast cancer to the character of Kristina (played by Monica Potter).
For while the show is a drama, it’s also entertainment. And whether fans of the show would continue to tune in for such a heavy subject was far from a given.
“I struggled with that decision because I thought it was difficult subject matter and could be challenging from the point-of-view of storytelling, and sometimes challenging to watch it,” says Katims, whose own wife had a bout with cancer.
“But one of the things that I loved about my first conversation with Monica was she said I want to also find the humour in the situation. We don’t want to get to a place where I’m crying all the time and that’s all I’m doing.”
The multi-generational series – which also stars Craig T. Nelson, Lauren Graham and Ray Romano – has proven a solid hit over its four-year run. Critics have praised its realistic portrayal of the funny and tragic parts of family life – be it raising kids, infidelity, aging, or health issues.
Katims says he was also inspired to go with the cancer storyline because audiences have reacted positively to another character (Kristina’s son Max) and his daily struggle with Asperger’s Syndrome – an austism-related disorder that affects social interaction.
“I remember people in the audience asking me if we were going to keep telling that (Asperger’s Syndrome) story or was this something that was just going to go away,” says Katims.
“And I knew from life that it doesn’t go away. That it continues and goes through many stages and many incarnations. And I think it’s great that we’ve been able to follow (Max’s) story as he sort of grows and develops.”
For actress Potter, the idea of her character – who is very much in control of her life and family – having to cope with cancer was an opportunity she not only welcomed but suggested to Katims.
“Knowing that it touched Jason personally, I just reached out and said, ‘what if we tried to do a storyline like that?’ And it turned out they had been working on that storyline already, which was kind of cool.”
Potter says she avoided learning too much about breast cancer in advance of reading the scripts.
“As far as doing research and going online, I did nothing,” she says. “Only because I wanted to experience it (cancer) as a person experiencing it for the first time – having a fresh perspective on it and feeling those real feelings of being scared and hearing the news.”
Much like Max’s Asperger’s, viewers shouldn’t expect a quick resolution to Monica’s health scare. Katims says there’s going to be a lot of ups-and-downs along the way and no quick fixes.
“This is a story that we’re telling and we’re committed to telling in a way that is going to be real and will be playing out more or less in real time.”
Parenthood airs Mondays on Global.