The Bravermans of NBC’s “Parenthood” have a boat in their foyer. So to speak.
Walk onto one of the sprawling soundstages at Universal Studios that are home to the NBC drama, which begins its second season Sept. 21, and the first thing you see is Crosby Braverman’s houseboat, bobbing at the “marina,” although the only actual water in sight is bottled.
Beyond the boat, TV critics visiting the “Parenthood” set last month got to poke around in bedrooms and bathrooms and even peek into fully stocked cabinets and drawers. We chatted with Adam and Kristina (Peter Krause and Monica Potter), who surprised us in their kitchen. Zeek and Camille (Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia) served lemonade. This is one hospitable family.
With a huge cast making up five households and sets taking up parts of four soundstages, the biggest challenge for art director Tim Eckel and set decorator Julianne Getman — beyond the sheer volume of the task — is to lend a distinct personality to each space.
They have succeeded. It’s easy to tell that this is little Max Braverman’s bedroom and that that is the senior Bravermans’ sunporch even if (through the magic of TV) the rooms are closer together than they ought to be. Furnishings and each little tchotchke have been chosen to make each space look both personal and comfortably lived in.
The cast settled in during last spring’s initial run, and beginning the new season felt like coming home, they say. Potter enjoys Kristina’s spacious kitchen, decorated in sleek but homey northern California style, although it makes her feel somehow that she should be a better cook. Bedelia loves to curl up on a swing on Camille’s sunporch.
The favorite spot on the set for some visitors was the houseboat, on which they thought they could comfortably live. But I was most taken with Adam’s shoe factory, with its vintage-look “Welsh Shoes” neon sign and boxes of product samples.
Beyond the soundstages, “Parenthood” also sprawls outside, to a big dining table where all of the Bravermans gather for barbecues and banter. Before we could join them for chicken and burgers, though, everyone sat down to talk about the show. The only absentee: Mae Whitman (Amber), who was attending the premiere of her latest movie, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
A family atmosphere prevailed as 16 cast members settled into director’s chairs. Little Tyree Brown (Jabbar, Crosby Braverman’s newly discovered son) swung his feet and picked his nose. When his microphone clip came loose, Lauren Graham (his TV aunt, Sarah Braverman) reached down to reattach it for him.
Asked how he managed such a large cast, executive producer Jason Katims joked, “We’re planning on killing them off, one episode at a time.”
NBC advised waiting to start during November sweeps, he added.
Actually, Katims said, “Writing for the show is an embarrassment of riches, and you can see it right here in front of you. “It’s a big challenge but also what makes the show so wonderful.”
Katims was executive producer of “Friday Night Lights,” which has wrapped its final season, due next summer on NBC, and loves “a big ensemble show with a lot of balls in the air and a lot of stories going on.”
His goal: “To challenge ourselves as writers to write toward everyone, and then we also ask patience from the actors,” who might have a big story line and then little to do until the story comes around to them again.
Patience isn’t easy for Dax Shepard, who plays Crosby and watches “Parenthood” every week with his fiancee (Kristin Bell of “Veronica Mars”). (He’s grateful, he said, that he doesn’t have to make her suffer through a terrible show.)
“But every time I’m watching, I’ll see like Mae Whitman in a scene, and I’ll go, ‘I want to be in scenes with Mae Whitman,’” Shepard said. “‘She’s so good. When are we going to have a story line?’”
“Everyone on the show, you want to work with at all times.”
Graham sees “Parenthood” growing over time.
“I think it’s complicated, and what I love about our show is that I don’t feel it’s stereotypical,” she said. “Each of these people is getting more and more specific and layered and very real, and there’s a kind of texture that I had not experienced before — it just feels loose and alive and authentic.”
That feeling is what Katims hopes for.
“I like to leave room for improvisation,” he said. “The beauty of doing a television show is that it’s a continuing dialogue. You write something. You put the script out there. Then you see what comes back in the editing room, and I want to be able to respond to that so I don’t have tunnel vision about what the stories are going to be. We definitely have ideas, but I also keep myself open to changing those ideas as we go.”
The more improvisation, the better for Shepard.
“The only downside of having so many story lines going at once is there’s not a lot of wiggle room to just have scenes with us screwing around, which I think we’d all love,” he said.
WHAT’S NEW IN ‘PARENTHOOD’
What’s new with ‘Parenthood’ in the coming season?
Executive producer Jason Katims offered these tidbits.
—“We’ll be introducing more of Adam’s (Peter Krause) life at work, which we didn’t have an opportunity to do much in the first season. He gets a new employee who is a real pain in the ass. That’s his sister Sarah (Lauren Graham), who starts working. And we also are introducing his boss, whom we just cast. It’s going to be Billy Baldwin.” (Baldwin is also a potential love interest for Graham.)
—“We’re also going to continue to tell stories in that family about Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and Max (Max Burkholder),” including a new love interest for Haddie “that will challenge them in a different way.”
—For Julia and Joel (Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger), “it’s Julia continuing to deal with her control issues, and the question of whether it’s time to have another baby.”
—Zeek and Camille, “over the course of the season, we’re going to be addressing some of the stuff that we started to talk about last year, the questions about their marriage, and it starts sort of in a comedic way, with the two of them in marriage counseling.”