When the first season of “Parenthood” debuted, we were all struck by Max Burkholder‘s performance as Max Braverman, a young boy whose Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis caught his family off-guard. It’s the most in-depth, frank storyline about a child on the Autism spectrum that we’ve seen on television. This season, as Max entered high school and his world opened up a bit, his mother, Kristina (Monica Potter) was diagnosed with breast cancer. The combination of Kristina’s incredibly heartbreaking struggle with her illness and Max’s inability to relate on an emotional level makes for a powerful moment in tonight’s episode, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Zap2it visited the set last month during the filming of this episode, in which Max — the newly elected class president — decides he’s not interested in attending his school dance, because he’s more concerned about funding the vending machines. In comparison to the previous episode’s devastating chemotherapy storyline, her son’s reluctance to go to the dance may seem like a small issue for Kristina. But for her, it means more than that.
We were (not surprisingly) a bit misty-eyed after watching Potter and Burkholder film a scene in which Kristina teaches her son to slow dance. Potter tells us that after fighting through her first bout of chemo-related illness, Kristina is still hopeful about beating cancer, but she’s been forced to admit that there is another possible outcome.
“She sees him in his dress shirt and there’s that glimpse of her thinking,
‘What if I’m not here when he goes to prom? What if I’m not here when he
gets married? What if this is the one time that I’m going to be able to
see him all dressed up, going out?'” Potter says. “That’s why she was so pushy
in having him go.”
Burkholder explains, “It’s more of Kristina’s moment then Max’s. She’s the one pushing him to do
the dance. It’s not really registering for Max.”
Because of the way his Asperger’s manifests itself, Max processes his mother’s cancer differently than, say, his sister Haddie might. “He understands that
she’s sick, but on less of an emotional level and more of a practical level,” Burkholder says. “For him, it’s like this — if she’s sick from chemo, she can’t make
lunch. If she dies, then she won’t be able to pick me up from school
anymore. He sees it as more of an inconvenience and less of an emotional
Obviously, “Parenthood” is a show driven by emotions. Without shock-value plot twists or evil villains or unexpected scandal, it relies instead on keeping the audience emotionally invested in characters. Sometimes, Burkholder admits, it’s a challenge to play the one character who is emotionally cut-off, particularly in scenes like the dance lesson, where he’s acting opposite someone who is emoting so powerfully.
“It’s a challenge, because I have to keep my own emotional side down, and
not active,” he explains. “Even in Season 4, Max is still a new challenge to me, because he is getting
more involved storylines this year, which is exciting. He is growing. The speech scene was a growing moment for Max — being able to keep calm
and composed with all the eyes on him, and all the sounds. The school
president storyline is about Max growing, but also about how it
catalyzes the emotions in his immediate family.”
Last spring, Potter emailed executive producer Jason Katims to talk to him about potentially introducing a breast cancer storyline for Kristina. She had just come from a routine mammogram, where a mass was discovered in her breast (She’s fine!), and she was inspired to talk to Katims about it. “It’s a very scary process, and I wanted to talk to Jason about it because I knew that Kathy, his wife, had gone through it,” Potter explains. “I emailed him about what happened at the doctor, and he emailed me back
right away and he said, ‘I have the chills. We just broke the story.
Kristina has cancer.'”
In an amusing contrast to Burkholder, though, Potter jokes that she’s far less sensitive than Kristina is. “I’m so happy that Jason chose me to tell the story, because I think it’s important. There are a lot of emotions, especially as a mom — especially as Kristina. Kristina’s so emotional. I’m not that emotional!
I’m funny, I think,” she laughs. “When I told my oldest that Kristina was going to go
through cancer, he was like, ‘Oh man, don’t people get it? You’re funny!’ I said ‘Hon,
the tears are paying the bills right now!'”