Jason Katims, the executive producer behind such beloved shows as Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and Roswell, as well as Rise, currently airing on NBC, doesn't have the "flash," per se, or maybe even instant name recognition, of other big-name showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Greg Berlanti. His series don't feature superheroes, extreme violence, or tweet-worthy graphic sex scenes, and to say the twists in them are jaw-dropping would be an overstatement. But what shows like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights may have lacked in ratings, they made up for in passionate fanbases whose devotion to the shows was often greater than that of the networks on which they aired.
Friday Night Lights, for example, averaged in its later seasons fewer than 4 million viewers per episode, but by then "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" had become a cultural touchstone. What was ostensibly a show about small-town high school football became one that stood for love of hometowns, families, and destroying preconceived notions about who you're supposed to be. The reason we're still talking about the Dillon Panthers a decade later is the same reason Katims is thought of in the ranks of these empire-building showrunners: the gimmick-free authenticity that infuses his shows and is a rarity on television, even with more than 400 shows dotting the landscape.
Katims says he views his latest show, Rise, as the third part in a trilogy of NBC dramas launched by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Rise is a natural successor to its two predecessors, with an ensemble cast and multiple serialized storylines that follow deeply-drawn characters.
"The DNA is similar in all three of those shows," he tells TV Guide. "Even though all the shows are very different in various ways, I look at them as all kind of related to each other. ... It's really stories about the characters, their relationships, family stories. Those are the things that I think really, more than anything else, pull you in."
It's a philosophy that Katims has unwaveringly stuck to, even as television's breakout hits — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Westworld — increasingly tend to feature some sort of supernatural or fantastical element. The Brooklyn native says he realized in his earliest days in the industry that gripping drama could be mined from the most everyday relationships.
Katims was a struggling playwright in New York in the early '90s when he got a call from writer Ed Zwick, who had come across one of his plays in an anthology. At the time, Zwick and Winnie Holzman were in the process of developing My So-Called Life, and offered Katims a position in the writers' room. Katims ended up penning three of the show's 19 episodes, and describes the experience as a crash course in TV.
"I had this assumption that television could only achieve so much, that plays and movies had more potential," he says. "When I came there and worked with Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman, they were, in their minds, approaching it like you would high art. They were very, very ambitious about what they were trying to do. ... Another thing that I learned was, sometimes the best stories are about cutting off the smallest sliver you can and observing that really well, as opposed to trying to tell big bombshell stories.
"Basically almost every lesson that I've learned, I learned on that show, really. That was in a sense my graduate school," he adds.
Though My So-Called Life was prematurely canceled after just one season, in 1996, Katims created his own drama, Relativity, again teaming up with Zwick and Herskovitz as executive producers. Though the show was adored by a small fanbase, it too was canceled after 17 episodes. His next effort, Roswell, a soapy teen drama in which half the main cast were aliens, premiered in 1999 and ran for three seasons. (A reboot of the series is in the works at The CW.)
"The litmus test for me is always, what feels real?"
But it was Friday Night Lights, which premiered in 2006 and ran for five seasons, that cemented Katims' success and became perhaps his defining work. In 2011, Katims won a drama writing Emmy for the episode "Always," shockingly beating out the acclaimed Mad Men installment "The Suitcase." Again, FNL was never a ratings powerhouse, but viewers fell in love with the town of Dillon, Texas and its (mostly) football-loving inhabitants, and the show has gained new life on streaming platforms in recent years.
It's not hard to see a number of common threads between Friday Night Lights and Rise, which is based on the nonfiction book Drama High and follows a group of high school students in small-town Pennsylvania as they prepare to put on a production of Spring Awakening.
"With Friday Night Lights, one of the things I really loved most about working on that show was the feeling of authenticity, that feeling of, oh, you are in this small town in Texas and you really feel the culture of that world. It felt very specific," Katims says. "You're not looking at these characters from the outside. You feel like you're really brought into their world. I think that makes it a more intimate experience."
"Connie Britton is one of my best friends," Shelton told TV Guide on the set of Rise late last year. "So, I was very aware of what that experience had been for her, and how joyful it had been, working on Friday Night Lights. ... I do think Jason is just a master of writing really relatable, interesting, flawed yet heroic, multidimensional characters, whether they be women or men. I think he has a really great insight. He's such a keen observer of just human nature and relationships."
Rise doubles down on that feeling of authenticity and specificity; it is perhaps the most era-specific of all of Katims' shows. The show takes place in a struggling former steel town, presumably filled with the white working class people who played a role in electing President Trump. (Though you wouldn't know it from the characters we meet on the show, 99 percent of whom seem to be on the left end of the political spectrum.) Katims says he thought it was an "appropriate moment" to present a series that celebrates public education and arts education, especially in a rust belt town like Rise's fictional Stanton.
But, while Rise is clearly set in 2018 in a lot of ways, the struggles experienced by the main characters are timeless. It's no coincidence that the high school drama students in the show are dealing with many of the same issues that their counterparts in the school musical, Spring Awakening, were facing in Germany in the late 1800s, when the play it's based on was written. The universal relatability of their experiences, more than anything, is a common thread in Katims' shows.
"The stories that I want to lean into - stories about family, stories about relationships, stories about connecting to the world - are stories that hopefully would resonate as much in the future, down the road a little [bit], as they do now," Katims says. "A show like My So-Called Life, that was a long time ago. [But] when you watch it, you still feel like you're drawn in and riveted to that show, because the characters and the stories and what they're going through, those are things that people are always going through and always dealing with."
Over the course of two and a half decades, the technology and pop culture elements referenced in Katims' shows have certainly changed, but the relationships and themes covered within them are not bound by time and place. It's why shows like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, or even My So-Called Life, which premiered in 1994, still hold up today. Katims is particularly adept at making his shows emotional without straying into saccharine territory.
"He's so intuitive," says Parenthood alum Mae Whitman of her experience working with Katims. "When you talk to him, he's extremely sensitive, and very smart and very present. I think he really gets a feeling for the characters that he writes."
"Sometimes the best stories are about cutting off the smallest sliver you can and observing that really well."
According to Katims, it all comes back to not creating drama for the sake of drama and wanting to avoid emotionally manipulating his audience.
"The litmus test for me is always, what feels real? And if it feels real, I'm not concerned about it being saccharine," he says. "Any moment that you feel like you're getting into an area that feels like it's sort of a cliché, then that's where things can start to not have that same feeling of authenticity."
Whitman backs up his claim. "People always asked, 'Oh, so you had to cry every episode?'" she tells TV Guide. "Honestly, I didn't have to do anything. Nobody was like, 'OK, and then you need to cry at this part.' That was never a thing. It was really always just that, we would have discussions about what was going on in these characters' lives, and then you'd go in a room with people that you really love, and you start talking about really difficult things, and it sort of just naturally came out. ... The last thing that I ever felt as an actor on one of his shows is forced."
Katims also takes advantage of having ensemble casts in his shows to heighten the emotional storytelling in scenes.
"[I] try to look at it through as many points of view as there are people in that scene, so that you're not really just telling the story of just one person going through whatever it is that they're going through in the scene, but you're really seeing it from all sides. I think that kind of adds to having something feel authentic and real," he says.
"Everybody's opinion is involved, and everyone feels like they're a part of these characters' lives in making them honest," explains Whitman."The tone on the set that Jason [creates] I think is something that's really quite extraordinary, because he makes everyone on the crew and the cast feel really heard and seen and respected. ... That's a rare thing to get, especially on network television."
However, amid all his successes, Katims has had some missteps along the way - notably, his 2016 medical drama Pure Genius, which was picked up by CBS and then canceled after one 13-episode season. When asked what went wrong there, Katims said he doesn't feel prepared to do a postmortem on the show just yet.
"I'm not sure that I'm far enough away from the experience of doing it to know," he admits. "Even though, obviously, it's a very different world on Pure Genius, I was really trying to do the same things with storylines as I would do with any other show, whether it be Friday Night Lights or [his NBC comedy] About a Boy or Rise. ... For whatever reason, people in general I don't think were able to get as invested in these characters' lives as I hoped they would. Or at least, they weren't able to do it quickly enough. Which, where we are in television... you kind of have to get people's attention quickly, or people will move on to the next thing."
To Katims' point, it remains to be seen whether fans will connect to the characters of Rise enough for it to be renewed for a second season and possibly achieve the same status as Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Even a pedigreed veteran like Katims admits that it's hard to cut through the noise in today's television environment.
"The viewers' relationship to TV shows has just fundamentally changed, where now it's more like going to a library and getting a book. There's just so much to choose from and it's impossible to keep up," he muses. "Even shows that you like, you can't keep up with them. So, you have to be selective and choose. Also, because it's all essentially at your fingertips all the time - you could watch one episode, five episodes or 10 episodes in a sitting — it makes you more the person in control of the situation as opposed to, I have to wait every week to get my fix of that show. I'm not sure if it's better or worse, but it's different."
But even in the ever-evolving television landscape, Katims is sticking to his tried-and-true approach to writing a show and creating characters that average viewers can relate to. Given the nostalgic fervor that surrounds Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, who can blame him? It's his unique way of drawing authentic characters and tapping into viewers' hearts as well as their minds that has already cemented his place in television history, regardless of his success in the future.
"What makes you emotional, I think, when you watch something, is you feel like you personally connect to it," Katims says. "That feels like the kind of stories I gravitate to, both as a viewer and a storyteller. Those are the things that make me excited to write about. ... Shows that tap into your emotional life, there's something just naturally appealing to it, because to me, it means that you feel connected to the experience and you're not watching it from a distance."
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.