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'Parenthood' gets update in new NBC show

Dale Roe

You might expect NBC's new one-hour drama, "Parenthood," to be a rehash of the popular 1989 film that spawned NBC's first shot at a franchise a half-hour effort written, in part, by Joss Whedon the following year. Or perhaps the commercials NBC has been hammering us with during the Olympics (and it's too bad they're in Canada this year; it would have been fun to write "Lillehammering") have convinced you that it's a "Gilmore Girls" knockoff, what with Lauren Graham and all.

But thanks to the insistence of executive producer Ron Howard and the creative vision of writer/executive producer Jason Katims (who fills the same roles on "Friday Night Lights"), this show is its own beast. This new "Parenthood" is neither as funny nor as broad as the original Steve Martin film. And Graham's mom-in-crisis Sarah Braverman is no Lorelai Gilmore, though you can't blame NBC for trying to lure "Girls" fans by promoting her that way.

"Parenthood" was supposed to be a star of NBC's fall schedule (or as bright a light as any show can be on that network these days). But the ensemble effort was yanked when actress Maura Tierney was diagnosed with breast cancer. When it became clear that Tierney's surgery and recovery would be lengthy and rough, NBC recast the role with Graham and pushed the start date until after the Olympics (it will be filling one of the hours no longer filled by Jay Leno, who returns to "The Tonight Show" one day earlier).

In anticipation of the fall premiere, NBC sent out a pilot episode with Tierney, who was great. Scenes in recent promos have made it seem as though Graham reshot Tierney's scenes word-for-word and, to a degree, that's true.

But the network has also taken advantage of the extra time to retool the premiere episode in attempts to make it lighter and to increase the number of scenes in which the adult Braverman siblings (renamed from the original's Buckmans) gather together. Some of these scenes smack solely of plot mechanics.

The result is still good but just a bit disappointing, partly because I preferred Tierney's interpretation of the Sarah character, partly because the changes leave out some scenes that make the pilot easier to follow. And I'm not sure "Parenthood" needs to be much funnier — "Modern Family" already does a great job covering the fertile, extended-family comic territory.

Frankly, it's a little surprising that there's a new "Parenthood" at all; 20 years later, it's not exactly a title on the tip of anyone's tongue.

After the failed 1990 project, the original "Parenthood's" producers, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, pretty much shelved the concept. But then Katims approached the pair with the idea of an update. A fan of the original movie, Katims was looking for an additional venue in which to explore the sorts of family issues he continues to tackle on "FNL" (Howard and Grazer are also responsible for that Austin-shot show). Howard says the duo was "thrilled" but wasn't interested in another carbon copy.

"What got me really excited was once I did talk to them they were really interested in only doing the show if we could reimagine it," Katims explained in a recent conference call with reporters.

"And, you know, lo and behold, he has. He's given every character its own contemporary voice, and, of course, the actors are now going even further with it," Howard added. "But I'm just, you know, incredibly sort of gratified that those characters — that situation, the DNA of that family — can evolve."

Here's how they've evolved: Craig T. Nelson's patriarch, Zeek, is no longer a workaholic, alcoholic cuss. He's now an over-involved cuss who pushes his grandson, mostly where sports are concerned. That grandson is no longer the anxiety-prone redhead from the original film but he's still a social misfit and has Asperger's syndrome. Dax Shepard's Crosby is not the pathetic, black-sheep gambler Tom Hulce played so convincingly in the film (although he does retain the mixed-race, out-of-wedlock child). Don't expect the more serious Peter Krause to dress up in a cowboy outfit and ape Steve Martin.

And Graham?

"I just loved that movie and loved Dianne Wiest so much," she said, but her character bares little resemblance to that actress's harried single mom (maybe because she doesn't have to deal with Keanu Reeves).

I'm a little worried about "Parenthood's" long-term prospects. The cast is good, the writing is solid and the premise should provide years of storylines. But it goes head-to-head with CBS's freshman hit "The Good Wife," and that huge, well-known ensemble cast has to cost a fortune.

"There are so many shows that don't live as long as their creative lives should live because of, you know, just dollars," Katims admitted. But he cited all the Olympics promotion and the marketing muscle NBC has thrown behind the show as well as the strong lead-in from "The Biggest Loser" as positives. "I don't know what to expect," he said, "but \u2026 I think they're giving us every chance to succeed."

Finally, Katims already has his hands full with "Friday Night Lights," and it's possible that both shows could suffer from his divided attention. But he insists this won't be the case. Using a "Parenthood" metaphor, he compares the shows to a pair of children, denying that he loves either more than the other. And there are advantages.

"I could steal from one and, you know, use it in the other," he said with a laugh. "It's that fantasy like in junior high school where you have a paper to do in two separate classes and you try to figure out 'how do I write one paper?' "

'Parenthood'

9 p.m. Tuesday

NBC