Every since NBC debuted its hour-long drama, Parenthood, people in Berkeley have pointed out all the ways it’s not, well, Berkeley.
Complaints are many. There are too many white characters, and not enough people of color. No one is gay. There are too few Priuses in the show, and not nearly enough Peet’s Coffees. That high school in the series looks nothing like Berkeley High. And how in the world can the parents afford that sprawling Craftsman-style house that appears to be surrounded by a half-acre of land? (Well, for one, it’s really located on the back lot of Universal Studios.)
Chuck Barney, the television critic for the Contra Costa Times, is down in Los Angeles this week for the annual TV critic’s summer press tour. He got a chance to speak with Lawrence Trilling, an executive producer, about the “Berkeleyness” of the show.
“We want to be accurate,” Trilling told Barney for an article in the Contra Costa Times. “We want to reflect the local flavor and the diversity and open-mindedness of the community. Some people tell us that we’re doing a good job. Others don’t think so.”
The producers have been using special effects to make the show feel more like Berkeley, said Barney. For example, last season, there was a shot of two of the main characters on the UC Berkeley campus. Well, those actors never set foot at Cal. A film crew came up from Los Angeles and shot footage of the campus, according to Barney. The producers then filmed the actors in front of a green screen and digitally inserted them in the shot. Voila! They looked like they were standing in front of Wheeler Hall.
Berkeleyside wanted to know more about the “Berkeleyness” of Parenthood and through a little investigative reporting, located Barney as he navigated his press junket. (Okay, we sent him an email.)
“I don’t get the feeling that capturing the true flavor of Berkeley is real high on their priority list,” Barney emailed Berkeleyside. “I asked, for example, if he had any Bay Area natives on the writing team and he didn’t think they did. At one point, a set designer giving the tour talked about the Craftsman bungalow being in Marin and I corrected her, saying it’s Berkeley … And another producer talked about how they designed the shoe factory after an actual building in LA. I asked him how hard would it have been to design it after an actual building in the Bay Area and he just kind of shrugged. (I will say, though, that the sets do have a real Bay Area flavor to them. They “scouted” the Bay Area before building them — and the house boat is designed after an actual houseboat in Sausalito).
Before the first season started, I talked to executive producer Jason Katims, who had a lot of good things to say about how they wanted to reflect the Berkeley/East Bay because it has a very different look and vibe than what we’re used to seeing on TV. Obviously, though, there are limits to what they can do without being here — or from here. It’s ironic because Katims is also involved with “Friday Night Lights,” which is filmed in Austin, Tx. and does have a very distinct Texas feel to it. I think they believe that, in most cases, there are SoCal sites that can stand in for Berkeley/the E. Bay) … I don’t know if I’m completely accurate her, but I don’t even think it was Katims’ idea to base the show in Berkeley. I think that came from an NBC exec — can’t recall her name right now — who either went to Cal, or had a daughter who went to Cal.”
Still, Barney points out, maybe Berkeley residents ought to be grateful for what they have:
“Mark it down as a wasted opportunity. It’s not very often, after all, that the East Bay gets to shine in prime time. Yes, a “Parenthood” film crew will occasionally drop by this season, says Trilling, but only to shoot exteriors. ….
On the other hand, maybe we should just be glad the show is returning this fall. Early ratings, after all, were mediocre, and for a while there, “Parenthood” looked like a goner.”