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'Friday Night Lights': Jason Katims on Season 3, the show's future

January 15, 2009 |  1:49 pm

This post is in two parts. Up top is a spoiler-free article highlighting a recent interview with "Friday Night Lights" showrunner Jason Katims. For those who have been following the series on DirecTV, a complete transcript of the conversation -- with spoilers -- can be found in the extended section of this post.

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"Friday Night Lights," the critically acclaimed show about high school football in small-town America, can claim a rare distinction -- it may be the first in television history to end a season before it begins.

For an estimated 600,000 viewers, the third season of "Friday Night Lights" came to an end this week on DirecTV. But because of a groundbreaking business deal, the show will also open its third season tonight  (Jan. 16) on NBC.

"This was an arrangement made in the eleventh hour for one season," said show runner Jason Katims, whose program averaged a lowly 6.2 million viewers in its second season on NBC. "This was an experiment. There really hasn't been any specific discussions about going further . . . But if our numbers are solid, and stay somewhere within the range of where we were with previous seasons, then I think we'll be fine."

But he added: "The ball is in NBC's court."

In an unprecedented agreement announced early last year, the subscription satellite provider scored dibs on airing a commercial-free 13-episode run of "Friday Night Lights" in exchange for absorbing some of the series' costs. In addition to offsetting expenses, the arrangement allowed NBC to keep a critical darling on its prime-time lineup.

The first half of the experiment has gone well, said Katims. "This is the truth: I feel positive about this show continuing," he said. "I feel like the show is building momentum. I'm noticing a lot of people mentioning that they found the show on DVD."

Although early reports placed the show's audience on the satellite provider at around 400,000 viewers, officials with DirecTV put the viewership between 600,000 and 800,000 when factoring in all four of its weekly airings. The company has more than 17 million subscribers.

The show's fans, however, received a recent scare when principal actor Aimee Teegarden agreed to appear on the CW's "90210." But the actress is booked for only two or three episodes, according to a "90210" spokesperson. "We love Aimee, and we love [her] character, and she would definitely still be a part of the show, should we come back," Katims said.

Those tuning into the drama on NBC will find a third season that harks back to its first. A strike-shortened second season resulted in a host of cliffhangers, many of which are resolved in the first 10 minutes of this year's premiere.

Additionally, by fast-forwarding to the beginning of a new school year, "Friday Night Lights" gives news fans an easy access point, although Katims admitted that it might be a jolt to some longtime viewers.

Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger, "Friday Night Lights" presents a broader, more complex look at small-town life than most teen-centric dramas. Two separate story arcs of Season 3, for instance, delve into what Katims described as "the uncomfortable politics that surround a football program in a Texas high school," asking questions about academic and athletic funding.

But plenty of time is devoted to high school's extracurricular activities -- the non-sporting kind. NBC promos have been hyping the "Friday Night Lights" cast as the sexiest on television.

"The show has an air about it, about being important or noble or something," Katims said. "I think there might be some subliminal feeling that watching the show is like taking medicine . . . I'm glad to see they're doing ads that don't just list critical acclaim. We need to get the word out."

A complete transcript of the interview with Katims is below.

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So give us your take on how the first half of the experiment went. I've heard between 400,000 to 600,000 viewers?

The first half of the experiment has gone very well. DirecTV is very happy with the viewership that they’ve gotten, and how it’s been perceived. The question is how it’s going to do on NBC. We’re all optimistic about it. I feel really proud of this season, and I think it’s a really strong season from every perspective. I’m hopeful that we will be strong once we’re on NBC. Since this is such a new model, I don’t think anyone is really sure what they can expect. We’re all just crossing our fingers.

Viewership is down in general, so do you have a sense of what the series has to do on NBC to get another season?

Viewership is down, but the one thing about ‘Friday Night Lights’ is that while the audience has never been huge by network standards, it’s always been very solid. Fans find it and watch it. I think that’s going to serve us very well in this landscape, one where networks are struggling across the board.

So it's safe to say ball is entirely in NBC’s court?

The ball is in NBC’s court. This was an arrangement made in the eleventh hour for one season. This was an experiment. There really hasn’t been any specific discussion about going further. I think this is all going to be up to NBC. If our numbers are solid and stay somewhere within the range of where we were with previous seasons, then I do think we’ll be fine.

You have a lot a lot of cast members whose characters graduated from high school this year, so in one sense, it could be a natural time to end.

We were very conscious of that as we were forming the final arc of the season. Because so many characters are graduating, it led to a certain sense of resolution. We wanted to balance that with putting questions out there. Without giving the story away, I’m very happy with the way the season finale came across, and there are a lot of questions that arise in that episode that make you want to see more. That, beyond anything, was what I wanted. I feel satisfied creatively that we did our job. Now it’s just a question of whether or not this model is going to work for further seasons.

How do you handle that lack of resolution with the cast and crew, in terms of whether or not the show will continue?

I think all the cast, and the writers, producers and directors, know it’s been this way from the beginning. When we got picked up, we didn’t know if we’d get a back nine, and then we didn’t know if we’d get a second or a third season. It’s been that way all along. I don’t know. The way to handle it is to just pour your heart into every season you get, and do the best work you can. There’s only so much we can do … This is the truth: I feel positive about this show continuing. I feel like the show is building momentum. I’m noticing a lot of people mentioning that they found the show on DVD and have been catching up. So if in the third season, we’re building momentum rather than struggling to keep our audience, I think that’s a good thing.

Fans got a scare when it was announced that Aimee Teegarden, who plays the coach's daughter Julie, would appear in some episodes of the CW's "90210." Will that have any effect on a potential fourth season?

We love all our actors, and we want them to do work, but we don’t want it to be confusing to our audience. We don’t want to feel like someone is literally on both shows at the same time. But there have been times where our actors have been on other shows, like when Kyle [Chandler] did a "Grey’s Anatomy" episode. We want to encourage that as much as is possible. We love Aimee, and we love that character, and she would definitely still be a part of the show, should we come back.

You not only jumped ahead eight months from the end of Season 2 but put characters in new situations. Connie Britton's Tami Taylor was suddenly named principal, for instance.

What we wanted to do in the third season was make a fairly bold time cut. It had to do a little with the second season being shortened by the [writers] strike. It put us in a position of either having to slow things down and catch people up, or skip ahead. We decided to be bold and skip ahead. While there were certain things that I felt were a little bit of a jolt or a bump, it provided us a lot of story opportunities. One of those was Tami having become principal and discovering in the very first moments of the teaser that [Brian "Smash" Williams] didn’t get a scholarship. It was exciting for us as storytellers because we felt confident we could move forward.

With the strike-shortened season, how much of early Season 3 was meant for Season 2?

Well, it’s not like we had stories and scripts that were abandoned. We did have a direction and an idea of what the arc was going to be, but that information was reduced to the three minutes of information you get in the teaser. We didn’t save any stories and then insert them into the third season. We just assumed all those stories happened. As much as possible, we try to make the show feel naturalistic and real. While it might be startling for the audience to see that Landry and Trya have broken up, you catch up, and you realize that’s what happens in life.

It seemed like Season 3 put a lot of emphasis on giving each senior character a proper send-off.

What we wanted to do this year was focus on our core characters and to have our characters dealing very much with each other. We veered away from that a little bit in the second season. A lot of stories in the second season put our characters out on tangents. I was very conscious of telling stories where we could put as many of our characters together. So you have situations where Lyla is going out with Tim, and Billy is getting married with Trya’s sister. So suddenly you have the Collettes and the Rigginses and the Garritys all connected to each other. We did a lot of things like that, and I felt I did that very consciously.

But did that make it harder to develop new characters? I'm thinking of the freshman quarterback J.D. and his father, Joe McCoy. It wasn't until late in the season that we really got to know them.

In terms of the McCoys, what I found interesting about that family is you can view them in two ways. One, you can view them solely as antagonists. J.D. came in and threatened [Matt Saracen's] quarterback role, and Joe is threatening to take over [Buddy Garrity's] booster position, and he’s very antagonistic with Coach and wants to influence how Coach is running the team. But all those roles –- J.D., Joe and Katie, J.D.’s mom -- don’t play only as antagonists. You learn about them and see that they have a point of view as well. But that takes time to get it. It’s not until the sixth episode where you really get to know J.D., when he gets drunk and hangs out Riggins and Lyla.

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There's also a great new character in Stephanie Hunt's Devin, Landry's new friend who reveals to him that she's a lesbian. It seems like there's a lot more to potentially explore with her.

That’s was an interesting situation with that character. She had an arc, and by the time we really saw the episodes that she was in, we had already moved on. We were in the final arc of the season. But when we saw her performance, and, oh, my God, we thought it was fantastic. The whole dynamic with her and Landry and the whole vibe of the band was a fresh and fun thing to see. That’s one reason why we hope there’s a Season 4. We hope to bring that character back and do more stories with her.

Going on, fans were wondering what year in school some students were. So Landry was a junior?

He’s a junior. For a long time in the first few years, we tried as much as possible to not mention what year everyone was in. This year we declared ourselves. Landry and Julie will both be seniors next year.

This season you also had to trim the budget by about $2 million-$3 million. How'd you save money?

Writers lunches. I’m kidding. Because of the way we film this, in this cinéma vérité style, the shooting goes very quickly. There’s a lot of steps in the process that we just don’t do. There’s no camera rehearsals. There’s no blocking rehearsals. The lighting doesn’t take nearly as much time as it does on other shows. It has allowed us to shoot the show faster than a lot of hour dramas are able to shoot. That has allowed us to produce the show in what is closer to a cable budget. I think that helps our cause in trying to keep a show we all feel passionate about when the ratings haven’t necessarily justified the continued pickup of the show.

One of the storylines that dominates the first four episodes is the JumboTron saga. That plot seems to be building to a hearing, but we don't see that hearing. Can you talk about the decision not to show it?

To me, the storyline was about the backroom politics of a small town and how all these decisions are really kind of made unofficially. I felt the scenes with Buddy and the mayor trying to influence how Tami should act as a principal to be more compelling. I love the scene where she goes to the superintendent and tries to make it look like an impromptu meeting, and she tries to insert her point of view on the whole thing. To me, those scenes, and seeing her come up against the inner workings of a politics in Dillon, those were the images that were most compelling to me. What we tried to show was that the board meeting itself was sort of a fait accompli. That’s not where the decision is made, and it wasn’t a scene we needed to see.

How much are you still pulling from the book or real-life stories? For instance, it seems like Odessa did get a new scoreboard a few years ago. And after the Panthers lose a game, we see a bunch of "for sale" signs in the lawn of the coach's house, a detail from the book.

The book continues to be a source of inspiration for us. There’s so much in that book that there’s always something to go back to -- sometimes just for little details, like the for-sale signs. But we really wanted to do a story about the uncomfortable politics that surround a football program in a Texas high school, and the idea of that coming up against academics seemed like interesting territory. That’s actually kind of what prompted the idea of making Tami the principal. But one thing I felt we hadn’t done a story on too well in the first couple seasons was a parent influencing the coach and trying to influence what happens to the team. That was the seed of the McCoy family, a family that had a lot of clout, money and influence. Those were stories we hadn’t really played it.

Those are some complex issues. Do you shirk when you see NBC calling it the "sexiest" show on television?

It’s a good thing. That’s also true about the show. The most frustrating thing to me is when I tell people I work on "Friday Night Lights," they’ll say, "Oh, I hear that’s a really good show." They never watched it. They’re convinced it’s not for them, and they think that for two reasons. One, they think it’s a football show. But we constantly hear people who don’t know anything about football and love the show. Secondly, the show has an air about it -- about being important or noble or something. I think there might be some subliminal feeling that watching the show is like taking medicine. So I think it’s good that they’re running those ads. There is a sexiness to this show and this cast. There is humor to the show, and it’s a compelling show to watch. I’m glad they’re doing ads that doesn’t just list the critical acclaim. We need to get the word out.

-Todd Martens

Photos: Kyle Chandler as Eric Taylor; Taylor Kitsch as Tim Riggins and Jeremy Sumpte as J.D. McCoy; and Jesse Plemons as Landry and Stephanie Hunt as Devin. Credit: DirecTV/NBC

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