Attention FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and PARENTHOOD fans – this one’s for you. (The rest of you Philistines are welcome to read it too. Never say TVWriter™ isn’t big-hearted, y’hear?)
by Mike Sager
Jason Katims is best known for making grown men cry.
Lunching at a trendy spot in Brentwood, California, Katims laughs at this. “It’s not like I’m sitting up in bed in the morning thinking, I’m gonna make somebody cry,” he says, his longish graying hair grazing the top of his collar, his accent still carrying a trace of his lefty Jewish Brooklyn roots. Despite his two decades as a successful writer and executive producer of a string of emotionally fraught and critically acclaimed TV series—including My So-Called Life, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood,and Roswell—the fifty-five-year-old Katims has the unassuming air of a guy who survived many lean years of workshops and showcases, as well as a day job slinging copy for a graphic designer.
“What I do as a storyteller, and what we do in the writers’ room, is try not to divorce ourselves,” he says. “We begin with events from our own lives. In Parenthood, for instance, there’s the story about a kid with Asperger’s, which I experienced with my son. And there’s also the story when Monica Potter gets breast cancer—I went through that with my wife. What we try to do as writers is not to let ourselves think about the characters as characters only. We try to think of them as people like ourselves. As an actor, when you get a role, you have to find yourself in that role. We try to do that as storytellers.”
Reflecting his origins in the theater—he likes to populate his writers’ rooms with other theater veterans—Katims’s shows have typically featured large ensemble casts and rich character development, helping launch what became TV’s new era of complicated storytelling and dramatic honesty, though sometimes at the expense of ratings. Even as they soared to acclaim, Friday Night Lights (in the pilot, the star quarterback is paralyzed) and Parenthood (in the pilot, one father learns that his son is on the autism spectrum) initially fought to find an audience. Likewise, Katims’s teen-alien series, Roswell, had a small but vocal following that helped keep the show on the air for three seasons….