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The Showrunner Transcript: Parenthood and Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims on Portraying Families Realistically

In this week's issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV show-runners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we'll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: Some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Jason Katims, who oversees Parenthood and Friday Night Lights. We spoke with him about his first gig on My So Called Life, his deep belief in collaboration, and the one Friday Night Lights story line everyone hated.

What was your first job?
I did a lot of freelance desk publishing jobs when I graduated from college. I sort of earned a living doing that while I was writing plays, which was what I wanted to do. My hope was to become a playwright. My first job in television was on My So-Called Life. I was living in New York writing plays and working in desktop publishing — working for a graphic designer — and I got a call from Ed Zwick's office. I returned his call and he got on the phone and said, "I read a play of yours and liked it very much." I said thank you and he said, "Do you know who I am?" I said no, and he said, "Well, I directed Glory, I created Thirtysomething," and I said, "Okay, you can stop there." I came out and met with Ed and it was right when he was developing with Winnie Holzman and Marshall Herskovitz the pilot for My So-Called Life. The timing actually worked out to be really great because even though I didn’t have a job right away, I got to meet Winnie Holzman, and when they were shooting the pilot I got to be on set and meet all the actors. It was really sort of like my graduate school, as well as my first job as a writer.

Parenthood and Friday Night Lights are both so good at depicting family realistically, and so was My So-Called Life . Were you predisposed to be interested in family as a subject?
I think I was always interested in that. I think I'm very lucky to be able to be doing television where those are the concerns of the show. The concerns are really relationships between a parent and their teenage daughter or a marriage or raising young kids. I feel really lucky that that's what I get to tell stories about all the time because I think, in a lot of shows, it's 70 percent or 80 percent storytelling, procedural storytelling, and maybe 20 to 30 percent character stuff. The shows I've been working on, especially Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, I think are completely character driven stories. I think for most writers that's a privilege to be telling those kinds of stories. It's erroneous to me.

What are some keys to depicting families so believably?
One of the things I find myself saying in the writers' room a lot is, "What would really happen?" A lot of times as writers you want to come up with the best possible story and you bend it according to what you want to happen. I think one of the things that I always try to think about is what would really happen in a situation, what feels real. One of the other attitudes I always sort of use, which I learned working for Winnie and Marshall, is everybody's best foot forward. I feel that people are basically trying to do their best in the world. Even when you see people making mistakes, you understand why they're making a mistake. Everybody has flaws, everybody has demons, everybody has ghosts, but I think you watch people and you see everybody trying to do their best. To me, that's compelling and it sort of reflects what I typically see that happens in the world too.

There's a lot of characters talking over each other. How closely do you script that?
Sometimes you'll have side-by-side dialogue, in which case you want it to be overlapped. The scripts are just written like any other script will be. It's the direction and it's the acting … An example is when we started shooting Parenthood, we were doing one of the first episodes and I was on the set watching the take. At the end of the take Monica Potter had this look on her face, and she just learned that her daughter had pot and she was completely shocked by it. There was this look on Monica's face that was sort of priceless at the end of the take, and she was about to say something. We shoot with three cameras so there was one on Monica, one on Peter, and one on Sarah Ramos. There was this priceless expression and I was waiting to see what she said and the director said cut and moved on. I literally just walked on stage and it was too late for me to do anything about it, but I asked her what she was going to say, and I was like, "Oh my God, why didn't you say that?" She looked at me like I was crazy. I want things to be said and I want to put the actors in a position where, yes, they're doing a scene that's written but they're in a position of being able to add to that.

Do you find that you end up changing story lines because of what the actors bring to the table, like the way they interact with each other, or how they play a part?
Absolutely. In Friday Night Lights, the relationship between the coach and his wife, that marriage was something that you couldn't really understand until you actually saw it exist on film. I think that because what Kyle and Connie did was so extraordinary with their roles, but particularly with that marriage, it constantly inspired the writers and also challenged the writers. They were a great barometer for us because we needed to come up with conflicts between them that were worthy of the relationship they created. They weren’t going to have an argument over something stupid because they had such a great relationship. Do you know what I mean? You really are using them as a total guideline to how you're telling the story. This year on Parenthood, I really loved the dynamic between Lauren Graham and John Corbett. I felt that while that was a short arch of three episodes, by the time we got to the last episode, I felt like you were able to get to a place that was much more intimate between the two of them than I had imagined we would be able to get to in three episodes. Sometimes you want to explore a relationship just because you haven't explored it before. Like on Parenthood, we've done a couple of scenes with Craig T. Nelson's character and Erika Christensen's. I remember seeing a scene from them last year and it was so incredibly powerful, I was like, "Wow it's so weird we haven't really seen them that much together." You see them in group scenes but not really just the two of them together. Sometimes we'll just seek out scenes because there's a novelty to it.

Do you think having the characters always trying to do their best makes your shows feel different than a lot of what's out there? There are no anti-heroes on either of these shows...
I do feel like Parenthood is a little bit of an anomaly on television, but I don't really understand why it's an anomaly. My take on it is, isn't that where most of us spend so much of our time in life, with family? Isn't that the most important thing we do, is to be part of a family and create family? Isn't it the thing that's most on our minds? Your kids, your parents, your brother, and your sister. My feeling is that kind of show is an anomaly but it's a mystery to me why it is.

How many siblings do you have?
I have a brother and a sister.

Are you older or younger?
I'm the youngest by three years.

Are you close with them?
I'm close with them — not physically close, unfortunately. My sister lives in Philadelphia and my brother lives in Paris. I think every show has some sort of wish-fulfillment or fantasy at the heart of the show. Thirtysomething was that friends just dropped over to each other's houses every day as if they were still teenagers. I think that's the fantasy in Parenthood, that you have adult siblings who are able or in proximity to each other to drop by and be there for each other on a daily basis.

Do you care what fans think about your show?
Yeah, absolutely. Sure. We live in a time where every single episode you can go online and see what people say about the show. People do that and I respect that people do that. I try not to do that too much because you drive yourself crazy. Sometimes there can be a confusion in an audience between what they don't like — meaning they don't believe it or it's bad television — versus they don't like it because they don't like the choice the character made. Sometimes the characters have to makes choices, or do make choices, that are not going to be popular, but that's part of life. You can be angry at a person for making a choice you don't agree with.

Do you have any concrete examples of those different reactions?
Certainly the murder story line in Friday Night Lights was definitely the biggest low to me in terms of the audience's response to it. I think that the audience not only rejected the storyline, but they felt like it was taking their show away. That's what I got from it — they felt like we were taking the show that they really liked and changing it in a way that was unacceptable to them. That was really tough to deal with. The problem with that is, if I were wanting to take that feedback and do something about it, it would be impossible. By the time that episode aired we were filming an episode that was five episodes later and we had already written three episodes past that. Basically, the entire arch of that storyline was committed by the time anybody saw the beginning of that story.

But you did ultimately take the feedback because you did truncate the storyline and then never brought it up again.
Well, it wasn't truncating in the sense that the way it was resolved on the show was exactly how it had been planned. [Laughing] The fact that we didn't talk about it in the future much might have been because people … you know, I took the advice that … I will say this, I was very careful with any story lines beyond that, that I felt like might kind of be outside of the vocabulary of the show, so we were careful. On the other hand, if the storyline was really exciting and potentially controversial, we still did it. The abortion storyline was controversial in a different way.

Did you learn something about the show that maybe you didn’t know before then, about what it was, because of that experience?
No, I learned that people didn't buy into that. We were attempting to do that story in a way that I felt was appropriate to the vocabulary of Friday Night Lights. I sort of saw it more as an edge. We weren't trying to do the thing that people feared we were, making it into a murder show. On one hand, you have to try to take in the feedback and respect that. I don't believe the show is just whatever I want. I think the fans and the critics are part of the show. You share it with them so you do have to really listen to them. You also have to continue the goal. After that story line, the team moved to another side of town. All the characters graduated and it's a whole new group of people. I certainly think that's a bolder move than the murder story line. That's the boldest thing I've ever done in a storyline on television.

What's the most valuable thing you've learned about doing your job?
I've learned a lot of great things from Winnie Holzman. I've had a weird career, where I got my first job on My So-Called Life and I was a staff writer or story editor on that show. There were only eighteen episodes of that show and the next show I did was Relativity, which I created. I sort of had this weird leap from being a baby writer to being a show-runner in no time flat. I learned a tremendous amount from Winnie. I was very lucky in that there was a relatively small writing staff on My So-Called Life. Winnie would pull me in when she was rewriting scenes and have me work with her. Sometimes I think she was doing it really just so she would stay awake, but she didn't say that to me. She said she really wanted my input. I've learned so much in a relatively short amount of time from Winnie, just in terms of what the potential is for writing for TV, what you can do with characters, how emotional and honest something can be. It was a really remarkable first job to have and probably changed the course of my career and my future in ways that I still don't quite even comprehend. The other thing I really learned over time is to really embrace the collaborative nature of things, to not try to control everything and weirdly you gain control. You're giving people freedom, and what you get for that is trust, and I think that relationship is such an intimate thing that we do. You're on these big sets with a hundred people around and cameras pointing at you. It's irony because the types of shows that I love and aspire to do are very intimate and very delicate storytelling. I've learned a lot over time about realizing that you can really be very collaborative and that you can really give a lot of freedom to people and that doesn't mean you're actually losing control of them. When I first started, I had this idea that every single thing had to be coming from me and that I had to write every word, everything had to be from me. I realized over time that that's a very wrong idea. On Roswell, I was dealing with a genre I didn't really know anything about and I needed help. I'm not really a science fiction guy and I'm not a science fiction fan, so I really needed to collaborate with the writers on a lot of those stories. Since then, I really take in as a way of breaking stories. I really want it to be a team effort. It just seems sort of like a no-brainer.

Do you tweet?
I do not. I don't have a position on it … I don't know. Maybe I will. I guess I fear that my mind will be taken the wrong way. I really enjoy just being a person and not somebody who is singled out. I think it's important to me as a writer. Writers by definition, I think, are people who are observing things.

What are you feelings about spoilers. In the final episodes of Parenthood this season there were some 'scenes from next week,' that showed a lot of stuff. Amber's car accident, the pregnancy test...
We don't cut that; the network cuts that. I don't object or not object to it. Sometimes they'll ask us what we want to show and not show and sometimes, if we have a really strong feeling, we'll say please don't show this. About spoilers ... my wife doesn't want to know anything, and my daughter wants to know anything possible. She'll beg me to get information because she feels like she has this inside source. I think it depends on what kind of person you are. Personally, I tend to lean in the direction of giving people ideas of what's coming up. I think that ultimately this isn't like a mystery show and you're enjoying the show and how things unfold.

Is there one thing you could change about how network shows could get made, what would it be?
There would probably be a lot of things, but if there was one thing I would do if I were the king of all networks, which is probably impossible, because no one has done it: Since no one watches repeats of dramas anymore, I would do thirteen episode cycles twice a year. That would be my big picture pitch. I also think you should be allowed to say Jesus and Goddamn. Those are really difficult things to not say. I really feel like, how offensive is it? That's a real simple idea. One idea completely changes the structure of network television, and the other one allows you to say two words you can't say.


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Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images