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Jason Katims has been bringing slices of life to television since 1994 when he was a story editor and writer on ABC’s short-lived but beloved teen drama My So-Called Life. He wrote three episodes of the series, including the fan favorite “Life Of Brian,” bringing the often painful, awkward experience of being a teenager to life with vividness and honesty. He took a look at twentysomethings next, creating Relativity for ABC in 1996. When the series was canceled after 17 episodes, Katims went back to what he knew best: teenagers. He took the lessons he learned on My So-Called Life to make teenage alienation literal with the teen-alien drama Roswell and to walk the halls of Boston Public. But it wasn’t until 2006 that Katims helped nurture a slice of life not often seen on TV: As an executive producer on NBC’s Friday Night Lights, he took viewers to Dillon, Texas, a place where football is the town religion. Then in 2010, he entered the world of the Bravermans to explore what Parenthood means today. Katims recently spoke to The A.V. Club about juggling Parenthood’s sprawling cast, writing teenagers for TV, and saying goodbye to Friday Night Lights, which returns to NBC for its final season April 15. (The season already ran on DirecTV, and is available now on DVD.)
The A.V. Club: Parenthood has really been hitting its stride in the last few episodes; it’s gotten a little bit more dramatic in tone. Is this a new direction?
Jason Katims: Not really. I think a similar thing happened in the first season. If you look at the first season, it evolved so that, in the last group of episodes, it got more dramatic and got more grounded. I think it was partly the show finding its voice, but it was also partly that we had been leading up to more dramatic storylines. For example, the thing in last season with Amber going out with Steve. That wouldn’t have been a big story if we hadn’t first seen Haddie kind of fall for Steve and connect with him. This year, I think it’s similar to that, where a lot of the storylines that we’re exploring have been slowly built up. The stakes are built up. Things have started to explode. So I think in one way, it seems to be the nature of the show, where it tends to build toward a more dramatic place. I think the show always sort of rides a line between the more comedic and the more dramatic storylines. I wouldn’t want to forsake the comedy in the show, because I think that’s a really nice aspect, but when it gets to these stories now, the comedy tends to be less and the focus gets shifted a little bit more toward the dramatic storylines. So I don’t feel like it’s changed. I do feel like the show has hit a stride. I’m really proud of these episodes. To me, it doesn’t feel too heightened or melodramatic. They all seem to be stories that would happen in the lives of these characters.
AVC: What are the elements that you think have really worked in these last couple of episodes?
JK: I think a lot of stuff in our storytelling has jelled. It’s hard to really say. I think certainly if you take a storyline like telling Max that he has Asperger’s, to me that’s a story that we’ve been building to from the pilot episode, from when they first discovered that he might have differences, until the idea of actually having to tell him. I think the reason why it lands is that the audience has been following the story for a long time and they know it’s a big deal. Similarly, with Crosby having the affair with Gaby, again it’s something that we’ve heard a lot about, this other side of Crosby. We’ve heard a lot about, oh, the irresponsible one and that kind of thing, but he’s been pretty straight and narrow through the series. So I think to see that side of him come out when he’s been in such an intensely emotional place of potentially losing this relationship with Jasmine, to see him sort of act out in a negative way, I think is really compelling. We really did make a decision in the writers’ room to sort of really kind of go for it in these episodes. To really let a lot of dramatic stuff happen. Sometimes, I feel like you can do a lot with a small story. You can do a lot by not telling that much story and by looking at nuances.
AVC: With Max, we’ve seen his Asperger’s from the point of view of Adam and Kristina mostly. Has there been any thought to maybe doing an episode entirely from Max’s point of view?
JK: We’ve also seen it from other points of view, like we have seen it from Zeek’s point of view. We’ve expanded outward. But you know, it’s a good question. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. If you would have asked me when we were first starting the show, I would have said no, because that wasn’t what the show was. The show was started from the point of view of these four adult siblings and then sort of branched out. We were really looking at this story from their perspective. I think that’s evolved a little bit, because we’ve certainly seen other characters, including Haddie and Amber, the teen characters, things more from their point of view. What it’s like to be their parents. We can go in and do scenes with Zeek and Camille where we’re going into their perspective. I think it would be interesting. I don’t know if you were talking about literally going into a point-of-view kind of story where you see his world or something like that. I don’t know if we would change the vocabulary of how we do the show.
AVC: I just thought it would be interesting to see how he sees this crazy family of his.
JK: I think it’s a really good idea. I think it’s definitely something that we would explore. One of the things is just seeing what an incredible job Max Burkholder has done, as an actor, with that character. I would have confidence that he would be able to handle anything that we threw at him. I think that it’s something that I would be open to exploring, but we don’t have any plans right now to do that.
AVC: Dax Shepard has been a pleasant surprise in the role of Crosby, after audiences had mostly just seen him in comedy movies and sidekick roles. Did he surprise you? Or did you know when you cast him that this guy is much more capable than people think?
JK: I had just come off Friday Night Lights, where we cast a lot of young actors who in some cases had not done anything. We gave them the opportunity and the responsibility with some very, very heavy material. I really felt like we had total confidence in those actors, even though they hadn’t done that kind of work, that they would be able to do it, and in every single case they did. I had the feeling from the moment Dax walked into the room to audition that I was looking at Crosby. Every once in a while, something like that will occur, where you just see somebody and you are like, “That’s that guy.” And I really felt that with Dax. He just seemed to get the essence of how I saw Crosby, and I really had the confidence that he’d be able to do the role. Now, I will say, the fact that he’s been so great has encouraged us, the writers and the storytellers, to throw more stuff at him and to challenge him more. I feel like the work that he’s done in this storyline, where he’s in jeopardy of losing Jasmine, has been his best work on the show. I think he’s really shown this kind of purpose and this incredible vulnerability, and also he has played this material that could go in a very over-the-top, melodramatic place. He’s not done that. He’s made it very real and very grounded, and I really think he’s done an incredible job with it. So I think as writers, you’re always responding to what the actors are bringing. It’s symbiotic. At a certain point, you don’t even realize that you’re doing it. But that’s what I love about television. There’s that relationship that’s always continuing to evolve, and it’s not necessarily a relationship that comes out of a lot of conversations or anything like that. You just literally give them the script then you see what comes back in the cut.
AVC: This is such a sprawling cast. Is it difficult to make sure that you’re servicing every single character?
JK: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s definitely challenging. I think it’s what makes the show as compelling as it is. I sort of was inspired by Friday Night Lights, where it was a very different show, but similar in that they were both large ensemble dramas where you had many stories going on at once. I wanted to do a show that shared that element, and that’s really why I wanted to develop Parenthood as a series. I really thought that the idea of watching people trying to essentially make their families the best families that they could be and watching that from very different perspectives on very different families—from the point of view of somebody who is a single mom or a stay-at-home dad or a family who is dealing with a child with Asperger’s. That’s what I thought could make the show great. What makes the show so special is having the opportunity to see, in any given episode, all of these different perspectives.
AVC: Do you arc out ebbs and flows for characters? Like, for this stretch of episodes, we’re going to be light on this character and heavy on this one and then it’s going to change up?
JK: Yeah. Generally when we’re writing, we will lean into the stories that are most compelling to us at that time. Sometimes there’s an arc of stories. Haddie meeting Alex this season is a good example. It suggested an arc. You couldn’t do that in one or two or even three episodes. We wanted it to take a while for them to get together. We wanted to see what her response was to finding out about his past, and then her parents come into the story in a big way after that. It took a lot of stories to tell that. So honestly, I felt okay that Haddie’s character was light in a couple of episodes after she had this big arc. It was time to focus on other characters. So you try to balance it out the best you can. We do it with some success, but we’re not perfect. I do feel like there are some characters that get under-served. It’s not a perfect science. You’re trying to service all of the characters, but you also need to run with what is most inspiring creatively to you. It’s a balancing act.
AVC: I’m not sure if this is who you meant, but it seems like Julia and Joel sometimes are a little bit more challenging to integrate into the larger stories.
JK: It’s challenging for us for a couple of reasons. It’s challenging because part of the nature of their story is that they are not as integrated into the family. You have Sarah, who’s moved back home with her parents. That is her story. So she is automatically there in that house of the grandparents, where everybody always is. Adam is the hub of the family. Everybody comes to him when they have a problem. He feels, even if it’s totally on his own shoulders—or I should say, totally in his own mind—that he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders and is responsible for his siblings, everybody’s nephews and nieces. Crosby is like the man-child, the guy who has never grown up and matured. So he’s always leaning on other people in his family for help and advice. Julia’s story is being the youngest, who needed to prove herself. So that is her story. So it has created a little bit of a challenge to integrate her into the other storylines. However, when it does happen, I find it to be incredibly powerful. That is something that I would want to address if we have the opportunity to move forward and do another season, to figure out ways to integrate her more. For example, there was a story where Sarah and Julia had a girls’ night. They were going to go out and they never even got out of the house because they were hanging out. I thought that the dynamic was really nice.
AVC: How is it different writing teenagers today versus writing teenagers back when you were on My So-Called Life?
JK: Not that different. It’s not only My So-Called Life and Parenthood; it’s Friday Night Lights, it’s Roswell, it’s Boston Public. Many of the things that I have written on have focused, at least a big part of the story, on adolescents. I think that in that period of life, so much happens, and it’s the period of life where you’re forming into an adult. In certain ways, you’re already an adult and in certain ways you’re still a kid. I think that’s just a very poignant period of time to watch. It’s also just innately dramatic. You’re breaking up, you’re getting together, you’re changing your life, you’re arguing with your parents, you’re making terrible mistakes, you’re having great triumphs. It’s what happens to teenagers. It’s just innately compelling material to follow. The clothes that they wear, how you communicate, all of that stuff is different, but the experience of being a teenager is the same. How I learned to write about that period of time was just to put myself into those shoes. So I think that while a lot of things look different, there are constants. People are still dealing with the same sort of journey and the same issues.
AVC: Kevin Williamson said that it’s difficult to make a show about twentysomethings interesting. They’re so aimless, and they’re searching for meaning in their life and jobs. Whereas with teen shows, everything is just life and death, even when a guy just holds your hand. Do you feel the same way?
JK: The twentysomething show, I’m interested in what you say about that. Are there shows that have explored the twentysomethings successfully?
AVC: He did a show called Wasteland on ABC about twentysomethings. It didn’t take off the way that his teen stuff had.
JK: I’m curious if anybody has done that show. I think people have done great shows about teens and, obviously, you had Thirtysomething and then you had Once And Again exploring people in their forties. I am interested in whether anybody has, and why that is. If nobody has really done a show about people in their twenties that has been successful, why?
But getting back to what you were asking. A similar thing that Winnie Holzman, who created My So-Called Life, said to me about writing adolescents, she said, “When you’re a teenager, everything is an emergency.” That’s the thing that I’ve always kind of kept in the back of my head in writing about teens, that everything is so important, all the time, every day. Every day of your life, you’re changing and making decisions and everything is an emergency to you. It’s part of what makes for these sort of beautifully narcissistic characters. They are figuring themselves out. They are figuring out who they are, and I think that just makes for innately interesting drama.
AVC: Shifting back to Parenthood and Friday Night Lights: I’ve counted four actors from Friday Night Lights on Parenthood so far this season. Are you trying to smuggle in the whole cast of Friday Night Lights?
JK: I’d be very lucky to be able to do that. I think it’s an incredible cast. I would point to both Minka [Kelly]’s role, and Michael B. Jordan. I feel like they have both brought something to those roles that is so unique and moving and, I think, very different than what they did on Friday Night Lights. First of all, you have that caliber of an actor, if you have the opportunity to work with them, you’d be crazy not to. Also, while the shows are very different, there is a similar gestalt to how we produce these shows and the feeling on the set, giving the actors a lot of freedom and responsibility for their characters. So I think there is, in that regard, a similar feeling on the set of the two shows. I think it was an easy transition for all of those actors to come on to Parenthood and be successful.
AVC: Michael B. Jordan as Alex, in particular, really stands out and has been a great contrast to Vince on Friday Night Lights. Was this character written with him in mind or did he have to come in and audition?
JK: No, he definitely didn’t have to audition. What happened was, when we were developing the character, we didn’t at first have Mike in mind for it. We were just developing a character the way you would develop a character: Here’s a guy that is a love interest for Haddie, and this is why it becomes interesting. Here’s who he is. We thought about the idea of him being a minority of some kind was an interesting element. We liked the idea of making that an element about it, but not making the story about that. But it was about his past and his history and where he came from and that he came from such a different world than Haddie did. So we really didn’t have Mike in mind. Then while we were in the process of breaking that character and breaking those stories, one of our writers brought up Mike. Not only have I brought over actors from Friday Night Lights, I’ve also brought some writers from Friday Night Lights. When she did, it really clicked. So from that point on, you really have that horrible period of time where you can only think of that actor when you think of that character. You hope that he’ll be available and that he’ll do it. He’s really done an amazing job with not an easy role. We wanted somebody that you sort of believed would be with Haddie, but that you believe what happened in his past. He would be able to be upfront not only with Haddie, but also with Haddie’s parents. To be upfront with them and be natural and be comfortable in his own skin. All of these qualities that Michael has brought to it are, I think, unique to him.
AVC: Season five of Friday Night Lights was the first time that there wasn’t the question before the season began of whether it would be the last one or not. You knew it would be the final one. How did that impact your approach?
JK: It impacted it greatly. From early on in the season, we were able to start to plant seeds toward what the ending was going to be. Even if we weren’t planting seeds, we knew where we were going. In the last four or five episodes, it was incredibly impactful. At that point, everything we were doing was leading up to the final moments of the series. So, on one hand, it was very emotional to have to go through the process of ending a show that you love. On the other hand, it was a great experience, because we knew that we could actually end it. It would have been so terrible after everybody had worked so hard for so long to make this the best show it could be to not be able to give it an ending. I really wanted to give it an ending that felt like a true ending, not only for Coach and Tami, but for all of the characters. In this case, the true ending that we sort of came up with was really about a new beginning, which is setting many of our characters on a new journey.
AVC: Going into the final season, what were some of the elements that you wanted to make sure were in the show?
JK: One of the main things that I wanted to do was ultimately write a conflict for Eric and Tami that was going to put them through a real challenge in their marriage and in their lives. To have them have to work through something that was, hopefully, going to be harder than any challenges that we’ve thrown at them before. I really wanted to come back to Coach and Tami primarily, when we got to the last few episodes of the show, really make it theirs and give them the ball, so to speak.
I would say that the other thing that we wanted to do was to not only fulfill the arcs for the characters that we had created in season four, the new characters that had come in, but to also try to bring back as many of the characters that were on the original cast of the show. Not just bring them back and have them just stand on the football field at halftime and wave, but give them stories. What would really happen in this town? What would really happen to this character? The characters that we brought back, what stories were we going to tell with them? We didn’t want to bring anybody back just to be sort of window dressing, and we didn’t want it to feel sentimental. We wanted it to feel honest, and we felt like that was what the show has—the show has been nothing if not honest. For the majority of the show, I think, we have been. So we tried to do that in the final season. So those were the kinds of big-picture thoughts that we were dealing with.
We also wanted to watch the Lions. We wanted the Lions to sort of become a legitimate team and to see how that would affect them—how the Lions’ success would be different from the Panthers’ success. We thought that was a really interesting thing. Those were the ideas that we started with at the beginning of the season.
AVC: There was a little bit more of a shift to some of the supporting characters as well, like Billy and Mindy.
JK: We love those characters, and I’ve always loved the relationship between Tim and Billy. To me, that was one of the most profound relationships on the show, and it’s hard to even know why. A lot of times, it was just in the silent moments between them. But it was really deep and profound. With Tim going to jail at the end of season four and knowing that Tim would only be very, very lightly in the show at the beginning of season five, we just didn’t want to lose Billy as a character. That was really what was driving a lot of it. We loved that character; we didn’t want him to suddenly be not in the show because Tim wasn’t around. So we loved the idea of that relationship between Billy and Mindy. We went about actively searching for ways to integrate Billy and Mindy into the show.
AVC: A lot of your shows, especially Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, are about happily married couples or committed couples, whereas most of TV seems to be about the will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Why do you think there’s this fear of putting couples together?
JK:I understand that fear. It could be kind of boring, you know? In the case of Eric and Tami, I just felt like there was something so incredibly special about how Connie [Britton] and Kyle [Chandler] portrayed that marriage and that relationship. I think the intention was always to have that marriage be a strong marriage, but Connie and Kyle cemented that. I think similarly in Parenthood, the concerns of that show are not like, “What happens when you have an affair or you break up?” It’s not really what it’s about, even though we did explore having an affair this season. But the main concerns of that show are raising a family and building a family the best you can and looking at the challenges to a marriage. My approach on both shows was seeking stories [that were] challenging a marriage as opposed to external factors coming in and creating a drama, like the husband has an affair or somebody has a drug addiction or whatever it would be. We try to just look at the way life is and what the conflicts really are and trust that, if we tell those stories well, they’ll be interesting and compelling. It’s actually been really interesting for me to explore marriages that do work.
AVC: Every time a writer talks about “the Moonlighting curse,” I want to sit them down and make them watch Coach and Tami and say, “See, it can be infinitely interesting to watch a couple that is together.”
JK: I think both things are interesting to watch. The Moonlighting tension of the couple that obviously never can get together, there’s an innate sort of fun and tension in that. But I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I think there’s definitely a way to tell a story, to also look at marriages that are working, but find drama from what’s challenging them. That’s what I think, certainly, Parenthood is kind of about: the unexpected things that come up in your life that challenge you as a man, as a woman, as a husband and a wife, and as a parent.
AVC: Have you dealt with the fact that Friday Night Lights is over? Have you gotten closure?
JK: Yes and no. It was hard for me to let go of the show. We were editing the final episode, and they were literally carrying the furniture out of the editing room while we were doing it. [Laughs.] I kid you not. So it was not something that I was looking forward to letting go. But you know, I think it’s really just a one-of-a-kind experience. I’m very lucky to be able to be doing a show, Parenthood, that I really love. It’s made it far more easy to move on. But truthfully, I just really love the show and I haven’t really let go of it. We recently just went to—The Texas Film Commission was honoring the show. Kyle Chandler was there, and Connie Britton was there. I was there and a bunch of other cast members and producers from the show. You know, it was a really nice experience to go back to Texas and have that sort of reunion.
AVC: If you had to compile a clip reel of the show’s greatest moments, what are some of the ones from earlier seasons that would make the cut?
JK: Oh shit. From the earlier seasons?
AVC: Yes. Because I don’t want to spoil people for season five.
JK: Right. Well, you know, I have had to do a clip reel. Maybe I should just show you the clip reel. [Laughs.] It’s so hard to say. I know how I would go about doing a clip reel, and how I would go about doing a clip reel wouldn’t be choosing literal scenes. I would go about trying to capture the spirit of the characters and the place and the world and their faces and the Texas landscape and the feeling of being on the football field, the players on a Friday night. That’s what I would try to do. I would try to show how this world was unique, and I would try to show that it has a way of catching up to you unexpectedly and making you feel something. I know that’s not the answer you were looking for, but that’s really how I would approach doing a clip reel. I would find a great song to play over the images.
AVC: What do you think the show’s legacy is?
JK: When you start doing a show, especially when it’s just getting started, you get totally immersed in it. You don’t do anything else. I remember it was about four or five months into doing the show, and I don’t think I had literally turned on a TV. It was all watching cuts of the show and writing and working on the scripts and stories and working with the actors. I remember I had just turned on the TV and I was going through from channel to channel, the various scripted shows that were on the air at that moment, and thinking, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch TV again.” It felt like what we were doing was so unique. It’s like the filmic language of what we did was just so evocative and…it felt like it did more in that hour than shows generally did. So I do feel that there is something about that that will be part of the legacy.
I think that part of the legacy will be, certainly, the portrait of this marriage as portrayed by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. What I love about the show is that it’s a portrait of an America that you don’t typically see on network television. This wasn’t a story about people with lives of privilege. This wasn’t a story about people who were wealthy or even people who were firmly grounded in the middle class. These were people who were struggling with who they were going to be, what kind of futures they were going to have. They were struggling with the question of, “I might be peaking at 17; these might be the best years of my life.” They were struggling with “Should my world be bigger than Dillon, Texas? Should it be my home forever?” I felt, and this is my particular feeling about it and what I hope will be part of its legacy, is that they’re trying so hard to be better. As many mistakes as Tim Riggins made over the course of those five seasons, you always felt, deep within, he was trying to make his life better, make the life of those around him better, and build a family. I think that for so many of the characters, while they struggled and made mistakes and all of that, deep inside, they were just really trying to make a better life for themselves and the people that they loved. I hope that those kinds of things will be the legacy of the show.