Interview: 'Friday Night Lights' showrunner Jason Katims post-mortems the series finale
On saying goodbye to a town, a team and a whole lot of great actors
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(NOTE: This interview was originally posted when the "FNL" finale aired on DirecTV in February.)
Jason Katims has had a lot longer to say goodbye to "Friday Night Lights" than the rest of us. The series' longtime showrunner already wrote or co-wrote two previous episodes - season 1's "State" and season 3's "Tomorrow Blues" - that might have had to serve as series finales if not for 11th-hour renewals from NBC and/or DirecTV, and he wrote the series finale, "Always," which wrapped production back in the summer and just finished airing on DirecTV's The 101 Network. (You can read my "Always" review here.)
The day before the finale aired, I spoke with Katims about letting go of these characters he's shepherded for five years, about opportunities missed, about the controversial season 2 murder plot, and about the many things that made "Friday Night Lights" so damn great.
This is, by my estimation, the third series finale you've written. How different was this experience, going in knowing it was definitely the end this time?
It was very different this time, because with the other season finales we knew they had to live one or the other: as a season finale or a series finale. However, we were very much hoping it was going to be a season finale and we were very much wanting to lean into what was provocative about the ending, and what was open-ended about it. In this case, since we knew from when we first started breaking the stories for season 5 that this would be the final season, we were really able to steer towards a true ending. And while I'm not happy about the show ending and still very much miss the show and think we could have continued to do good work, I'm so happy to have been able to be in the position to write a real ending for the show. I'm very happy with how that episode turned out.
How did you come to decide on this ending, for both the Taylors and the team?
I had that image in my mind, kind of early on in doing the show, that the end of the show would be Coach and Tami leaving Dillon, and have it be bookended with the pilot, where he's coming to this town to coach this team and he's just arriving there. I always have that image of them leaving, because what we tried to do above everything else on "Friday Night Lights" is we tried to be as honest as possible about what would really happen. And I do feel that that is often the life of a high school football coach, where they wind up going from town to town and making those towns their home. I had that idea in mind, and coupled with that was our desire to find a story for Eric and Tami and put them front and center in this fifth season - to find a story for them that was going to be worthy of all the work that they've done previously on the show, and worthy of the relationship they had created. We wanted to figure out what would be a conflict that would be real for them to play and resonate. And we thought the idea of Tami being offered this opportunity, first of all seemed very believable to us because we had seen her grow as a professional over the course of the entire series. I do believe that Tami Taylor has a lot going for her, and somebody would offer her a job like this. And we thought that that would create a really great conflict for them. As wonderful of a couple as they are, they've always been following Eric's dreams. That's what's brought them from town to town and job to job and place to place. It seemed that for Tami to be offered a job in a place where Coach didn't really want to go, or took some time to get there, seemed to be very compelling to us, and a conflict that we hadn't yet played with them.
In terms of the team, it was one of those things that, while we had made this move to East Dillon, ultimately Dillon was still Dillon. West Dillon still held this power. I thought it was an interesting way to go, ultimately, where we leave this town not that different of a place than where we found it. There's a lot of back-office politics around how the football programs are run. The other thing that was interesting to me was about how the budget was affecting this town. They could only support one football team in the town, which alluded to where we find ourselves now.
Who, by the way, is the new coach of the Panthers? We see Crowley and Billy and Spivey in the final montage, but it's not clear if any of them is in charge.
The head coach is somebody new that comes in who we didn't really highlight in the cut. It was just the next person. You did see the familiar faces that were kind of back and part of the team. I think the the intention was it was somebody we had never met. Similar to how Coach Taylor was brought in.
Was there a particular rhyme or reason to which of the original castmembers came back here at the end? Was it just actor availability, or did you specifically want Tim and Tyra as opposed to Tim and Lyla or Tyra and Landry?
When we knew it was coming on the last season, I did have a desire to bring as many of the original castmembers back as we could. But what we did was what we'd always done: let story drive those decisions. As we had done earlier in the series where we said goodbye to these beloved characters - Smash and Street and Tyra, etc. - we felt like we'd tried to do it at a time that was right from a storytelling point of view in a way that was authentic. The decisions about who we brought back was based partly on actors' availability, but beyond that it was who we felt we could service storywise. We didn't want to bring people back as window dressing, and I'm sure they wouldn't have wanted to come back that way. We felt like the Tim and Tyra connection was alluding to where we first started with the series. I thought it would be surprising, and I really wanted to see where Tyra had been. We hadn't gotten to revisit that character. We had tried to bring her back in the fourth season but weren't able to because of her schedule. We thought that was a story, that connection between them, first of all alluded to the beginning and would be a surprising story to tell, and it felt right that the two of them would wind up, if not together, with the potential to be together
One of the things I often hear your counterparts at other shows say is that there is nothing more boring to watch than a happily married couple. And you have spent five years proving how ridiculous that statement is with Coach and Mrs. Coach. What was the secret to that? What did you understand that nobody else seems to? Is it Kyle and Connie? The writing? What?
I would say there's two things. When you look at the success of that marriage, you have to start with Kyle and Connie and what they did with those roles. They had incredible chemistry together, they had such integrity about how they approached each of their roles and their relationship. I think a lot of it is that. The other thing I would say is that we tried to approach the stories with them in a way that would be real conflict - real things that would come up. And I do believe that within a marriage and within a good marriage, there are always challenges to that. There are always conflicts, where you don't wind up on the same page of things. And we explored many of those things. There was a tremendous amount of conflict between Eric and Tami over the years. It was just that the conflicts didn't feel put upon. We didn't go to the place of having them have affairs, or having an alcohol problem, or a divorce. We didn't want to go there, we didn't particularly believe that this couple would be going through those things, and we found conflicts within the things you wouldn't think of as a big storyline. The idea of whether or not to buy a house was a story you wouldn't necessarily think, "That's a story I want to see on TV," But what they did with that story was they made it incredibly real, and it became much more than the house - it became where they found themselves at this age, at this time, and would the dream be something they would ever be able to capture. These are things that people can relate to. We tried to stay with material where we knew how great Kyle and Connie would be, so it would be honest and real. Try to find real conflicts between them and not lean into melodrama.
You talked before about the move to East Dillon, which was a pretty radical thing for a show to do. Most high school series would have sent all the kids off to UT-Dillon, and Eric would have gotten a job coaching them there. Was there ever any discussion in the early seasons about doing it that way as opposed to that reboot?
In the first two seasons, we didn't deal that much or think about it that much, because we didn't necessarily think - we were living hand to mouth in terms of our life on television. We didn't know how long the show would last. We were really trying to tell the best stories. It was at the beginning of the third season where we as writers felt like we had to make some decisions here. We had sort of skirted around who we said was a sophomore and who was a junior, and we took a little poetic license with the logic of that stuff to keep the characters there as long as we did. But we decided that rather than try to skirt around the reality of it, we would lean into it, and we would make the third season about graduation, and make that the main theme of the year. And that allowed us to start looking at stories of where these characters were headed, what their future was going to be, whether they'd get out of Dillon or not. We found once we'd committed to that decision, it put us in a very great place from a storytelling point of view. That arc with Smash having his tryout and Jason leaving to go east, Tim taking the trip with him, to be with his child, and Tyra getting into college - all of those stories, I thought, were some really strong stories. While it was difficult to make that decision and we loved those actors and the characters they had carved out and dimensionalized in this time, we felt we really had to always stay with the basic premise of the show, which was to try to make it as authentic and real and honest as possible.
I have to ask about season 2 and the Tyra/Landry murder storyline. In hindsight, is there anything you could have done differently with that so people wouldn't have reacted the way they did, or do you think it was fundamentally the execution of it - pardon the horrible pun - that was always going to be a problem?
I definitely think that it was that people rejected the idea of that story at a seminal level. I don't think people were really responding to the execution of it. They just didn't believe this was the show they'd signed on for, they leaped to, "This is the network forcing a story," which wasn't true. I don't know that doing differently would have really affected how people responded to it. But then again, I could be wrong about that. We told that story in a similar way as we tell other stories. It wasn't that different. I think people just rejected it from the basic idea of it.
Well, you and I talked about this back when that episode aired, and you said the idea was to create a circumstance that brought Tyra and Landry closer together. Do you feel that that worked, or do you regret having done it in any way?
Bringing Landry and Tyra together?
No, no. Just doing it this way as opposed to "Landry joins the football team, Tyra sees him in a different light," or any number of different options instead of "Landry brains a guy with a lead pipe."
I don't know how to answer that. I clearly didn't intend to do anything that viewers of the show would reject. I wasn't trying to piss anybody off. I kind of learned from doing it how invested people become in something that is, and if you're going to change what that is, how that is and how it looks, you should have a good reason to do it and be careful doing it. On the other hand, there were lots of choices that we made in doing the show before that and since that that were bold choices that we went with that people might have rejected. You could say the idea that we're going to take the show we've lived with for three years, throw away two-thirds of the castmembers and the school and we were still going to have a good show, you could say that was not a good idea. And I think that was the best idea - literally the single best thing we did in the show.
Season 2 got truncated by the writers strike, and it did feel like you cut the cord with most of it when you came back for season 3. Santiago wasn't mentioned again, Smash's problems were unrelated to the problems he'd been having in those last few season 2 episodes, etc.
We had two issues to deal with between seasons 2 and 3. One was that people so rejected that storyline in season 2 that I did feel at that point it was important to not do something that people would reject. We almost got canceled at the end of season 2, and so I felt it was our stay of execution and I wanted to make those 13 episodes we got as good as they could possibly be, and make up for the fact that we didn't have an end for season 2, and had that been the end of the series, I would've been bummed forever. Because the end of season 2 was aborted, we didn't really get a chance to finish the show. The other thing about season 2, other than the murder storyline, that I felt was problematic was that it was very light in football. People responded to that, and we were about to go into a very big football storyline when the strike happened. We were faced with this decision of would we tell this arc that we knew where we were going, so do we just pick up and tell those stories for four or five episodes and then jump to the next fall? Any way we thought of that, it just felt like it wasn't whole cloth. It felt like we would be starting and stopping, so we decided to make a clean break and move forward to the next year of school, and with that, there were some leaps that the audience had to take with us. It was a bigger jump, not only in terms of time but in terms of story that we would normally do. We never got to see what happened to these characters for what would have been the last seven or so episodes of that season.
Whether in season 2 or in those shorter later seasons, were there any specific stories you never got to tell, or even just general topics of this universe that you never got to address?
We might have told them in slightly different ways than if we'd had more episodes and time to explore, but we got to explore a lot of stuff. When we moved to a 13-episode season, we really tried to make our storytelling as aggressive as we felt was right for the show, and tried to push story forward. I think for the most part, the show benefited from the sense of urgency that came with the 13-episode season. 13 episodes more reflects the amount of games in a football season, that really helped energize the third or fourth or fifth season. You're really following a season of football, so even if you don't see a game, you know they're two games away from the playoffs, etc. That sort of engine helps feel like the story's moving forward.
I don't have any huge regrets in terms of stories we didn't tell. The beauty of the show is we had such an incredible cast. Not just the series regular cast, but the extended cast was so wonderful. I wanted to tell stories about all of them. I regret certain things, like not being able to bring Smash's mom back and do more stories with her. grandma Saracen since Matt left, we couldn't find ways into story for her. We lost Tim Riggins for the greater part of the fifth season. That was a decision made because of a movie role that he had. I would've liked to have brought him back earlier in the season and done more with him. What Taylor brings to that character is just indescribable and the heart of the show. But this is all to say it was a good show. We told a lot of great stories, but there were always more we could have told.
So something like Coach Stan being gay and in the closet is the sort of thing you could've dealt with, but you're okay with having not.
That was a good example of a story that we didn't feel we had time to follow up on. There were a couple. We didn't have many. Following up on that story that we planted, we never had the opportunity to follow up on that story because we were on such an accelerated pace in the fourth and fifth season. We couldn't find the real estate
In looking for publicity photographs to accompany my finale story, I saw a shot of that final scene of Billy and Tim building the house on Tim's property, only Jason Street was there, too. Was he just cut out of that? Was he going to be in more of the finale? What happened?
Scott Porter really wanted to be part of that moment. It wasn't that he was cut out. It was something that we shot as a potential alternate for the ending. It's a good example of having an embarrassment of riches in terms of your cast and your story. We knew that final image was going to be Tim on his land. The question was who is he going to be with on the land. At one point it was Tyra. We shot the possibility of it being Jason Street. But we felt that we had to come back to what was most right and most honest. And we felt that those two brothers, after what we had seen them go through, the image of them together at the end was the one that we felt was the most correct version.
And finally, one of the things that made the show great was that rawness of emotion, in moments like Matt staring at his father in the coffin. Did that just come from the filming style you used, or was there more to it than that? And are there ways other shows can learn from that, or do you think that rawness in any way helped prevent the show from being a bigger hit than it was - that people don't want to feel that deeply about the characters they watch at 8 o'clock on NBC?
The reason why some of these moments resonated as they did was a combination of several things. I think the incredible cast, I think the writing and directing, but I do think that a part of it is that the filmmaking process, the vocabulary of how we shot really allowed us as an audience to really get inside this world in a way that sometimes you don't. Sometimes a lot of filmmaking doesn't allow you to be as intimately there in the space with these characters as our show did. And also the filmmaking style allowed the actors to expand on what was in the script and improvise and live in these moments, and never know when the camera was on them for the close-up, or whether it was on them at all. They never knew, and that was really a part of it. They were able to exist in the moment and not have to think about the artifice of what they were doing. They didn't have to worry about the technical part of being an actor at times and free themselves to be inside the moment. I do think that was a part of it.
In terms of other shows, I can only speak to "Parenthood." In doing "Parenthood," which is a very different show visually, I absolutely have tried to take from "Friday Night Lights," to the degree that is appropriate for that show, to its great benefit. We shoot with three cameras, try to shoot both sides of coverage if possible. That allows the actors to overlap and to find moments that feel more authentic and real than what you sometimes would normally get in a scripted drama that's shot more classically. And that's something in Parenthood that has evolved. The pilot was done in a very classical style of shooting. And over the series, the show has evolved. it continues to grow and deepen as the episodes go on. You absolutely take from it what you can.
The other side of it is the look of the show was cinema verite, and that allowed us to shoot in that style. We never did rehearsals, the lighting, while beautiful, was pretty much set up. We would never light specifically for a close-up the way most shows would. It worked for the look of the show. It's not easily done. It's not appropriate, necessarily, for other shows. To shoot in that extreme of a way would only work if the subject matter, if it made sense.