Because Parenthood is unlike anything else on television, the effect it has on viewers is equally unusual. While the goal of every show is to engender audience affection, NBC's family drama has developed a rapport with its fans that goes beyond devotion or obsession; it offers the rare gift of inclusion. That's why you are likely to hear Parenthood devotees talking about the show in teary terms.
The authentic performances perfectly pair with the unguarded words crafted by Jason Katims and his team to create a wholly immersive viewing experience. So we not only cry with Amber and Sarah and Kristina because Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham and Monica Potter are amazing actors (Potter's Emmy snub will forever be one of The Academy's most egregious errors) and we've come to care for the entire Braverman family, but because there is an Amber and a Sarah and a Kristina in each of our lives.
The show's skilled implementation of emotional authenticity is unparalleled anywhere else on television and one of the reasons why I found myself crying during a recent trip to the Parenthood set. The scene -- for episode 10 -- was a particularly powerful one for Amber and Sarah, but you wouldn't know it judging from the effervescent energy Mae Whitman and Lauren Graham brought to our interview, moments earlier.
ETonline: Lauren, one of the most miraculous things about Parenthood is how invested the audience is. Has that surprised you at all over the last four years?
Lauren Graham: That experience is not new to me. In fact, that's the only way I know [laughs]. I haven't been on a giant hit, I've only been on the kinds of shows where people grab you in the subway and speak to you as if you are your character. That's all I know and I like it that way, because that's how I am with things I love. I definitely thought this show had a chance of being that, but you just never know.
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ETonline: Sarah's had a lot of personal growth lately. What have you enjoyed about playing her this season?
Graham: It's what I've wanted for a while. I connected to Sarah at the beginning because I liked the idea of someone who is down on their luck. I had played someone who was always plucky and always had an answer for a long time, so I was drawn to someone with a sadder story. Now, I'm like, "Can we just get this girl some wins?!?!" There had to be a progression, some sort of personal growth and you definitely feel it in the physical movement of simply having left the guest house. I couldn't sleep by a jar of nails any longer. I mean, what woman wouldn't have redecorated by that point?
ETonline: Yes, things are going great for Sarah and then Amber announces she's getting married. Amber, what have you enjoyed about the dynamic shifts that stemmed from that development?
Whitman: It excites me a lot because of how it affects everyone. When something so huge happens in a family, it becomes a chance to explore everyone's feelings -- not only the character it's happening to, but how everyone feels about marriage and how they feel about Amber's life choices. My favorite thing about Parenthood is when something happens but it's not a conflict -- there's no clear wrong or right -- it's just decisions. Because that's life. I enjoy that Sarah doesn't have a leg to stand on from Amber's perspective in making it seem like her marriage is a bad idea, but then again...
Graham: Everybody hates being told "I've been here before and I know how to help you."
Whitman: Exactly. And she wants to distance herself from their situation because it didn't turn out well, but also recognizes there are a lot of similarities. It brings us together, in a way, for the first time as peers and as women. This is the first time our characters have been able to see each other that way and I love that.
ETonline: I think it's been so interesting to watch Amber fight against letting her mom's advice in, but as we saw in last week's episode, when Sarah says, "Why isn't Ryan's family coming to your wedding," Amber can't help but wonder too.
Graham: Because Sarah's such a genius. [laughs]
Whitman: Well ... she's OK [laughs]. I feel that with my real family too; if Lauren tells me something, I hear her in my head every time I'm confronted by that situation because you love them so much and hold them in such high regard, there's something about knowing your best interest is in their heart. How do you find your own path while still respecting the people who love you more than anything? That's is a real struggle for kids and parents in general. It's scary and weird and strange to see because you can only ignore things or shut things out or justify things in your own mind for so long. And you should be able to ask questions and find new space for confusion in situation. It's complicated.
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ETonline: Meanwhile, Sarah's walking on eggshells whenever she's around Amber for fear of pushing her away. Yet I see in Sarah the fear of not voicing her opinions and later regretting it. How have you approached playing that, Lauren?
Graham: At this point, we know these characters well, and we also know each other so well and I have been playing with trying to say as little to her as possible as opposed to further my point. Sometimes I'll ask to leave lines out because I think it is such a delicate balance when you're watching someone, potentially, make a mistake. But the last thing you want to do is go in any direction that’s going to push them further. I'm trying to say less this season.
ETonline: What's been the most interesting part of taking Amber on this journey for you, Mae?
Whitman: I love what Ryan and Amber bring to each other. But, personally, in my own Mae Whitman world, I'm not a marriage person, or someone who would want that as a young person, so it's been interesting to find that within myself. I'm looking forward to the subtleties of Parenthood and the real difficult catches you can find within a seemingly happy situation. I look forward to untangling those and moving through.
Graham: It's funny, we are up against the wonderful Scandal. I watched an episode recently and I couldn't believe how much happens on that show. I mean, things happen in every single scene.
Whitman: There's a murder at the end of Parenthood! It's bloody! Tune in people! [laughs]
Graham: Which is so not the world we live in here on Parenthood. And it's so great that there is this range on TV. I mean, a moment cannot get too small on Parenthood, which is the thing I love about it, and that makes it fun to go to another show where people are literally dying in every scene.
ETonline: Today is the first time I've ever been on a Jason Katims set and I was struck by how much contribution the actors have in the rehearsal process, and how different every single take is in terms of dialogue. Does that make it difficult to go to other jobs, be they film or television, where you can have a very controlled, Sorkin-like experience?
Graham: I came from a Sorkin-like project in the sense that there was no freedom to change a line, which, in a weird way, is its own freedom because you're living within that structure and know this is what it is. You just adjust. Every project has its own personality. It's a very unusual world we live in here at Parenthood.
Whitman: I love going to other projects that are structured, which is its own adventure, but I feel like as an actor, what we're doing here is special. I've been on this show for 5 years and have never felt bored or like there wasn't something new to find with Amber because this is life. Life changes and you make choices -- every choice is hard. I mean, I have trouble making breakfast [laughs], so I feel lucky that we get to watch these people just being people as they go through the difficulties of life.
Parenthood airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.