After Peter Berg wrote and directed the pilot episode of “Friday Night Lights,” only to hand the series off to Jason Katims for the remainder of the season, Katims felt like a field-goal kicker trotting onto the field with the game in the balance.
“All these executives pulled me to the side at the upfronts asking, ‘Are you ready for this? How are you going to keep this up?'” Katims recalls. “There was a lot of pressure on how would I keep the quality going.”
Like the fictional Dillon Panthers, who won the Texas state title in the show’s season finale, Katims came through a winner. “Friday Night Lights” was revered by both critics and audiences and even won a Peabody for broadcasting excellence — though low ratings were a sore spot for the show’s creative team and NBC, which debated long and hard about whether to renew for season two.
The series, based on Buzz Bizzinger’s bestselling book and following Berg’s film version that starred Billy Bob Thornton, captures the spirit of a small Texas town in a way that only football can. But the show’s success goes way beyond what happens on the field.
Rather, complex issues involving racism, loyalty, teenage sex and catastrophic injuries have played a much more expansive role.
Credit for the show rests not only with Berg, exec producer Katims and his writing staff, but with a largely unknown cast, minus familiar faces Kyle Chandler as coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his unwavering, supportive wife.
“They’ve done something both individually (as actors) and as a team,” says Katims. “With Kyle, he’s created this guy who’s so relatable and sympathetic, while also having to make some hard choices. He and Connie have created a relationship that’s so endearing and touching. Their scenes, even when they’re arguing, anchor the show.”
Best episode: Katims cites “Crossing the Line” — Smash turns to steroids, Julie debates going out with Matt, and Jason plays in his first quad rugby game — because it “was an ensemble piece that didn’t rely on football.”
Underappreciated character: Herc, played by Kevin Rankin. “He was such a great foil for Jason in those early episodes. The whole storyline could’ve been maudlin and depressing, but the two of them found humor and emotion and made it real.”
Best line: Katims recalls this jab from Smash’s mother, Corrina, after she catches Tyra fooling around with her son: “I work at Planned Parenthood, and you probably haven’t seen the last of me.”