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‘Friday Night Lights’ and ‘Parenthood’ Creator Jason Katims on When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

'Friday Night Lights' and 'Parenthood' Creator Jason Katims on When It’s Time to Say Goodbye

You’ve been known to make some time-jumps between seasons in all your shows. Where are we going to start in Season 6 of “Parenthood”?
We start about, I would say, a few months after the finale of the last season — maybe three months or so? And then […] about a little less than halfway through this final season there’s gonna be another three month or so time jump after that. And then, other than that, we’ll play sort of typically of how we usually do episodes. Other than possibly in the final episode taking some poetic license and seeing some moments from down the road, a little bit of the characters.
“Parenthood” has seen some wild shifts in season lengths. You’ve had 22-episodes seasons twice, including last year, and now you’re cut almost in half. Was that second time jump brought along because of the 13-episode order?
It kind of is. I think the 13-episode order, on one hand, is a challenge because […] we have a lot of storylines going; we have a lot of balls in the air; we have a large cast, obviously. The challenge of it is, we want to make sure, it being the final season, we tell not only really kind of compelling stories and meaty stories but also we tell stories for as many characters in the show, every character, to give them each a path in the final season. So that’s the challenge of it, but I think the positive side of it is all the episodes have a particular poignance and energy because of the fact that we need an ending and it is only 13 episodes. So yeah, I really am happy with the way the season is unfolding.

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You’ve said before writing this was very difficult — that there’s a lot of emotion in the writers’ room when you’re choosing storylines and working through characters. How much harder was that for the last season?

It’s harder. [laughs] It’s harder. It’s true for everybody involved — the writers and, of course, the crew and our cast. For people who really get attached to the show it’s a big deal, but for the people making the show it’s your life. It’s what you get up every day and you do. And obviously since the material has been deeply personal to all of us, it makes it all the more emotional. We’re only about five episodes into shooting the last 13 [episodes], but […] we’ve broken the stories so we know when the shows gonna end.

So I think to me the positive thing about it, the thing I’m sort of happy about is I feel we’ve been able to give the show a really good ending. We really have been able to, and often you don’t get that, and often you go, “No!” and, frankly, you allow the entire run of the show — every season there’s a chance the show wouldn’t come back — so every season I was like, especially last year, I was like, “Is this the ending?” Last year, I really wrote it as potentially an end to the series because I didn’t know whether it would come back this year.

But I do feel that the positive side of knowing that you’re coming to an end, you’re doing the last season, and we knew that from day one in the writer’s room, that really gives you an opportunity to write toward an ending, write it in a different way than we have. From day one I sort of approached it from a different way than I had in previous seasons because I did feel that we wanted to from the beginning, kind of give the show a great ending, That was sort of our goal all along. So, it’s bittersweet but I feel good in that I think we’re giving the show the ending it deserves.

I feel that you’ve gone through this before. With “Friday Night Lights,” that obviously had the year-to-year deal going on, where the fans were fervent and wanted more of it and yet it was always a struggle to make sure you’d get that next season. And yet you keep working in broadcast TV — do you ever think about going into cable, where shows can get picked up for two or three seasons at a time?

I think it’s just like a natural thing. I’ve had a really great relationship with [NBC], and I’ve been able to work with them on doing shows that I find really satisfying to write and am very proud of and they’ve been incredible partners in doing that. It’s when you find a home that’s working you tend to sort of stay with that. [laughs] I definitely am interested in cable and the potential of some of the things you do in cable that it’s just not possible to do in network television. So I’m definitely open to that down the road. I think for me the best thing is to let the creative [material] lead you there — figure out what kind of story you want to tell and hopefully match that with the best possible network. 
I can only imagine how frustrating it’s got to be for you — I’m just a fan and waiting for it to get picked up, and, like you said, you’re there every day living and dying with these characters.
Yeah, it’s obviously such a changing landscape, television, and it’s changing rapidly. It’s different now than it was even a year ago or frankly three months ago. There are positives and negatives about all of these places and all the different outlets. The good news is there’s so much potential now because there are so many places to do shows. I think it’s really changing the way television is not only made but sort of conceived. The rules are changing creatively about what is possible to do in a show, and all of those things. So it’s a very exciting time to be a writer and creator in TV because of all the potential and possibilities that are out there.

Speaking of that changing landscape, it’s been reported that your next project is a multi-camera comedy, “The Walk-Up,” again with NBC. That style of sitcom is something many have been saying is slowly dying out (other than at CBS). What drew you to that format now?
I always kind of lead with what seems creatively right, and this was an idea that we had been working with, thinking about a theme and this idea of basically two families moving in together, two families under one roof and that was an idea we were curious about. We started talking to Julia Brownell who’s going to create the show, who I’ve worked with both on “Parenthood” and “About a Boy,” and she’s a playwright and really an incredible talent.

In talking about the show and her figuring out the characters and her world and what it was going to be, it lent itself to a stage show and I think it had to do with the fact that she’s a playwright and I originally started writing plays as well, so we’re both really sort of drawn to that. So it was less about the format as it was about the idea lending itself to be something that’s going to be done on stage and we think and we hope will do very well with a live audience. It seemed like it was the best way to realize this particular idea.

I like what you’re saying about the content driving everything else. It shows with everything you’ve done so far, whatever the genre’s been, the style goes with it. Everything kind of works, and it’s cultivated this incredible fan base for you.
It’s interesting because a good example of that is “About a Boy.” I’d never done a half-hour [TV show] before. Really, I’d never even worked on one. But I loved the book and I loved that movie and I was always kind of drawn to that core relationship between Will [David Walton] and Marcus [Benjamin Stockham]. I thought I should connect it to a lot of the stuff that even tonally is so different, but I connected it to a lot of the stories and themes in “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” — the sort of surrogate parenting and surrogate fatherhood. But when I started to think about the show it just didn’t feel like a one-hour to me. So it sort of suggests itself and that’s how we wound up sort of going into the world of half-hour.

You have themes and characters that feel like they could go on forever. Do you ever get frustrated with that aspect of it, that fans just keep clamoring for more? I mean people are going to be talking about “Friday Night Lights” as a movie or a sixth season for a long time.

No, no. It doesn’t frustrate me. It’s a huge compliment. And by the way, I share that with them. As much as I thought the end of “Friday Night Lights” was a really great ending, I was one of those people who wanted to make it into a movie. Even though it ultimately didn’t work to do that movie, I did work with some of the other writers and by myself writing a script for that. I worked with Peter Berg and Brian Grazer on it, and we spent time in the process of it. While we didn’t get to make the movie, I enjoyed it because I got to sort of live in that world a little longer. I loved that show so much, and I learned so much doing that show. So it’s a great compliment that people have passion for it.

What’s great — with “Friday Night Lights” in particular and “Parenthood” as well — is we’re in a [new] world now. You know, my 13-year-old daughter is watching shows that have been of the air for a while. Now she’s watching “Desperate Housewives” and has been catching up on all of these shows: “Lost,” “[Law and Order] SVU,” “Gossip Girl.” What’s great is that I keep hearing from people who are discovering “Friday Night Lights” because of streaming and Netflix and Hulu and all of these things. Somehow… things don’t get old as fast as they used to. They stay vibrant. People prefer, I know I would prefer, watching a show after it’s been on for a while so you can binge-watch it and you can have control over it. So it’s great, it’s a really cool thing.

I remember when I first starting working on “Friday Night Lights,” my kids were in elementary school at the time and I remember I kept talking about the show and I remember talking to moms, like, in the pick-up line or drop-off line encouraging them to watch the show saying, “You’re actually really going to like the show. Even though you don’t like football, you’re going to like the show.” And I remember them looking at me with these blank stares like I was an insane person. Like, “Why would I want to watch a show about a high school football team in Texas?” But to my great satisfaction, as the years go by I’ve met so many women who have come up to me and said “I never thought I would like this show. I’ve never had any interest in football, and I love the show.”

So it’s such a cool thing in terms of writing television now that the shows can have an afterlife and the shows can kind of live on in this way and it’s a great thing. And it’s not only creatively a great thing and satisfying for like a writer, an actor, a director to know that people keep finding the shows — just like people come back and watch movies again years later. It’s always going to happen — but also I think it’s been great for TV. Because of streaming, serialized television has become less of a dirty word when you’re pitching shows. I had to fight for that for so long as someone who’s always gravitated towards ongoing story lines with characters that evolved and changed and storylines that continued over longer arcs. That always used to be such a battle to tell those stories. But now it’s sort of like people encourage it because it’s not a barrier anymore to people watching the show. You never have to feel like, “Oh I missed the boat on a show” because you can catch up any time.

We’ve definitely noticed shows that have ended a while ago are building fan bases thanks to Netflix and other easy viewing methods. So why won’t the “Friday Night Lights” movie work? If you got those three people, you and Brian Grazer and Pete Berg, in a room and you have this big, new fan base, what went wrong? 
I think it was just a combination of people’s schedules. You know, something for Pete to direct and between his schedule and actors who had huge careers post-“Friday Night Lights,” it was that and it was also something that when we started to do it we went in in a highly-speculative fashion in terms of sort of approaching it. It wasn’t like we had all this stuff figured out ahead of time. We just went in and thought, “Well, the first thing we need to know is there a story to tell there?” That it makes sense to do a movie. None of us were going to do it if we felt like we didn’t have a story… We didn’t want to feel like we were sort of rehashing what we had done in the show. So we had to figure out is there a story we can tell, is there a two-hour movie, is there a theme we can tap. All those things we did in the beginning that kind of went through the process of that part of it — and I think successfully — but it wasn’t like it ever fell apart. It’s just like we sort of went into it in a speculative way, and, like many, many, many scripts, it just didn’t all come together.
So is it over or could it still happen someday?
I think it’s pretty much over now. I feel like we definitely went in with the spirit of we wanted to do it, but I think, and we kept holding out hope for a while to do that, but I feel like now its best to put that to rest and let the show stand on the sort of semi-successful ending that we did.

“Parenthood” begins its final season tonight, Thursday, September 25 at 10pm on NBC.

[Editor’s note: There is nothing “semi-successful” about the ending of “Friday Night Lights,” one of the best scripted programs in the history of TV. For its final season, Kyle Chandler won Best Actor in a Drama Series, beating out Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” and Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” for the Emmy, while Katims also took home the gold for Best Writing for a Drama Series.]

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