Written by Shira Gotshalk
Set in a small town in Texas, Friday Night Lights follows the individuals living in a community impassioned with football. But to executive producer Jason Katims, it's not simply a portrait of life in rural America or a gridiron story about winning or losing on the field. It's a canvas on which broad, complicated characters are given life and details emerge and evolve in a Dickensian, serialized fashion.
Katims addresses the common misnomer that FNL requires football fever, explaining, “The thing I really like about this show is that at its heart, it's really about character. It's about things that are universal: family and marriage, adolescence and sexuality, racism and class, these are the issues we're dealing with. I think it's probably most writers' dream to be concerned more with these kinds of themes than anything else.”
This isn't Katims' first foray into the world of sincere, confused teenagers and the adults in their lives. He was living in Brooklyn working as a temp when Ed Zwick read one of his plays and called to offer him a writing gig on My So-Called Life. Three more years in the classroom followed with the unpredictable adventures of alien teenagers on Roswell. After four years of scripting outrageously sarcastic characters with questionable morals on Boston Public, school is back in session on FNL, and he has recently been recruited to executive produce the Bionic Woman series.
Throughout his career, Katims has stayed true to the basic principles he learned on his first show. “I try to find, in everything I do, something that is real to me, that I relate to, that I care about, and then use that as my guide to whatever story I have to tell. And that's always more than just about plot. If you find something that is personal to you, then that's the best chance you have that it's going to translate to actors and directors and resonate throughout the process.”
Katims spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about mining the struggles of the everyman, the challenges of finding an audience for a universally critically acclaimed, Peabody-winning show, and how to create reality on a scripted show.
Photo: © 2007 NBC Universal, Inc.
Scott Porter in Friday Night Lights.
The themes on FNL are pretty wide-ranging. What's most interesting or important for you to explore as a screenwriter?
What I really love about the show is that every character represents something that I feel is very compelling and everyone represents something different. The coach [represents] the themes of trying to figure out his career vs. his family; how to be a father and a husband and be in this very demanding job where there's all this pressure on him to succeed. With Tammy [the coach's wife], there's a woman with so much to offer in the world who's trying to define who she is and not let herself slip into the role of the coach's wife, which is something this particular world and this town wants her to be. [Season one's recently-paralyzed quarterback] Jason Street is in the position of going from town hero to being a person on the very periphery of society and suddenly invisible to society.
You can really go through every character in the show and there's something compelling about them in terms of their struggle in life. These are things that are very personal to me and very moving. All of these ideas are what feed us when we're coming up with stories for these characters. They are so rich and about so much more than football or small town life. They're just about how we're all trying to make our way in the world.
Although you're addressing universal themes, do you feel they could be explored as effectively in an urban setting or are you given freedom as a writer when you're in a small town with a small town community?
I think the backdrop of the show and the filmmaking style of the show is really conducive to a very intimate kind of storytelling. To be able to tell stories that are about people's lives seen through the lens of this unique world -- that's kind of fascinating. This town is obsessed with its football team, it's so important to them, and it means so much to them. There's something very poignant about that to me. It gives you a great canvas to work from.
There is an obvious struggle between ambition, loyalty, and family, and each force is undeniably strong on the characters.
To me, those kinds of issues are exactly what the show is about. These people really want to make their lives work and their family's lives work, and what I like about the show is that it is a struggle, and this is what people deal with in life in terms of the choices they're making.
What's unique about this world of FNL is that it is a world reflective of middle class and working class people and values. So to me, it's ultimately not really about a small town, it transcends the small town, and it's about people who are not living in a privileged way. That, to me, is what makes it so compelling. You see surprisingly little of that on network television.
When you start the season, do you have the whole season story arc planned?
No. The way that we've worked on the show is that a season is a series of movements. A movement can be four or five or six episodes, and we try to figure out in a general way what those movements will be, then start to fill each one in terms of story. Going back to the first season, the first movement we were dealing with was, “How is this team and this town going to survive without Jason Street?” and then it evolves as we go.
It feels like the storylines are novelistic in a way. You can watch one episode on it's own and it's satisfying and close-ended enough so you don't have to have seen any episodes before it to get something out of it, but if you do watch every episode, there is this feeling that you're really watching these people's lives evolve in a continuing, serialized way.
I would never think to plan out an entire season from the get-go because I feel that being open and improvisational in terms of storytelling is important. When you write the episodes and the cuts come in, you start to see things that the actors are bringing to the role that you didn't expect. I feel that the writers have to feed off of what the actors are doing and use that to take it to the next level. It allows a richer story to develop. It's always that balancing act between wanting to be very planned out and stay ahead of the game in terms of story and script -- which is very difficult because they shoot this show so fast -- and allowing the characters to develop organically.
What about the unconventional production style of FNL. For example, the actors are free to . . .
Improv. Yeah. The thing about this show is -- when I watched the pilot, (I wasn't involved in the pilot so I watched it really cold) the thing that struck me about it, that seemed different than any other show I had seen, any other scripted show I had seen, was it felt like I was literally in that world. There was a point where I felt like I wasn't watching a show, I was there. I had been dropped into this town like a fly on the wall. It was so evocative and I felt there was so much potential for storytelling moving on.
When director-producer Jeff Reiner and I took the show on after the pilot, we were very much of the mind to continue in the tradition that [creator] Peter Berg had set up. What that meant from a practical point of view is that the show is shot in a unique way. There are three cameras that roll all the time. We don't do a lot of blocking or rehearsal. You can see in the way the show is put together and edited that it's veritas style, and that allows us a freedom to capture a lot of real moments.
In terms of the actors, just like every other aspect of this show, they are put into this world and are asked to react to it in a very real way and we encourage them to improv, sometimes in a larger, global way and sometimes … not. But they're free to be in their characters, in the moment, and that's a way we capture this sense of reality; that we're watching life. To me, that's what allows the show to be such an emotional experience. It doesn't feel like it's made up, it feels real.