Spoiler alert for the December and January episodes below!
Many shows on TV offer viewers an escape from reality — shows featuring highbrow families living in ornate castles or series’ where immaculately dressed crime investigators pick their way around gruesome crime scenes in stiletto heels. And there’s always the option to tune in to a scripted “reality” show that bears no resemblance to reality.
NBC’s Parenthood is no such escapist fare. Now in its fifth season, the series tells the story of the Braverman family of Berkeley, California — Zeke and Camille, their four children and assorted grandchildren. The show alternates between funny, quirky, awkward, poignant, and brutally honest. Kristina Braverman’s battle with breast cancer last season was incredibly raw and painful, but laced with enough humor to make it bearable. (Monica Potter, who plays Kristina, was absolutely robbed of a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series by Jacqueline Bisset.) The show deals sensitively (and at the same time humorously) with a range of life issues common to many families: teenage rebellion, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse, marital strains, childbirth, problems at school, the empty nest. Parenthood does it in a way that makes viewers say, “I could totally see someone in my family doing that.”
Perhaps the most acclaimed story line of the series surrounds Max Braverman and his struggles with Asperger’s syndrome. When the show debuted in 2010, actor Max Burkholder played 8-year-old Max Braverman, who had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Burkholder has brilliantly “grown up” with his character, who is now a high school student. If you know a family that has been touched with an autism spectrum disorder, you’ll see them in this family, even if the details are not exactly the same — fear, frustration, exhaustion, giftedness, surprises, and social isolation are all common issues for these families.
Jason Katims, the show’s creator, has a son on the autism spectrum, so the scenes reflect the realities of life with a child who sees the world on a completely different plane than the rest of us. Katmis told Mari-Jane Williams at the Washington Post that he wasn’t sure they would be able to do the story line justice. He also had concerns about his son’s privacy, but he said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Katmis explained that he wanted to convey both the challenges and the triumphs of life with a child like Max:
It’s not only the challenges but also the unexpected beauty of it, and we definitely felt it was important to explore that. It really makes you focus on what’s important. You just want them to have friends and be happy and be in a place where they are seen and heard. That’s what you should want for any kid. As parents you really share the triumphs, even when they’re just small moments, even when they’re things that nobody else would even notice. Those moments, when they happen, of him being successful, or progressing, or showing love, I feel like they are much more cherished moments.