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Friday Night Lights’ Jason Katims on the long life of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”

“We had to be judicious. You had to find those moments that were big and not use it in every episode.”

Friday Night Lights
The original cast of Friday Night Lights, sans the great Connie Britton.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few TV heavyweights have done as much to tell thoughtful, moving stories about teenagers as Jason Katims. While he was a young playwright, Katims broke into the television industry as a staff writer for My So-Called Life — ground zero for realistic depictions of adolescence on TV — then quickly went on to work on any number of seminal teen shows, culminating in his five-season stint as the showrunner of the gorgeous small-town drama Friday Night Lights, following high-school football players in a Texas town.

Katims has, of course, written about nonteenagers too. For six seasons, his Parenthood told thoughtful stories about people struggling with very mundane, very real problems. (It was great.) But he’s gone back to high school with his latest series Rise, an NBC drama that follows teenagers involved with a drama program in a dying Pennsylvania steel town.

Indeed, in many ways, Rise is “Friday Night Lights but with high school theater.” Some of that is because of how thoroughly the earlier series became a part of TV history, but just as much is the extent to which it redefined Katims’s career as perhaps TV’s foremost chronicler of ordinary lives as they’re really lived, instead of incredibly high-stakes, more daring ones.

So when he joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to get Katims’s take on how the show had affected his career, starting with his thoughts on its most famous catchphrase, one that has entered the culture separate from the show that spawned it.

An excerpt of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Emily VanDerWerff

“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” has become this TV touchstone. When did you know that that was a thing?

Jason Katims

I’m not sure that really I knew during the course of the time that we were doing the show that it was going to continue on and people would use it in that way. It was something Pete Berg wrote in the pilot episode. It wasn’t my phrase that I started with.

Emily VanDerWerff

Right, but you kept coming back to it.

Jason Katims

Oh, we kept coming back to it! [Laughs.] Absolutely. One of the things that we had to learn with that was to be judicious with coming back to it. You had to find those moments that were big and not use it in every episode and use it all of the time. That makes it iconic in a way. Look, it’s the words. It’s Kyle Chandler saying those words. It’s the faces of those players repeating them back to him. It’s a combination of all of those things.

It’s cool, every once in a while, to hear it being quoted or used. Usually, it’s cool. A couple of people have adopted it that it wasn’t that exciting. But it’s really cool to see it live on.

63rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room
Jason Katims accepts the Emmy for writing in a drama series for his work on Friday Night Lights.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

That show was under the radar for so long, and now it feels like everybody I know has seen it. Have you had that experience? Do you feel like it’s had the longest afterlife of anything you’ve worked on?

Jason Katims

It was interesting because when the show started, they had these beautiful promos, with these beautiful, epic football promos that they did. They were absolutely beautiful, and I think they encouraged people not to watch the show because so many people were, like, “I’m not a football fan.”

I had this experience when we first started doing the show. I was a chaperone on a middle-school trip. I remember it was me and a bunch of moms, and the moms were asking me what I was working on. I told them about the show, and I saw their eyes glaze over with boredom, and I said, “No, no, no. You don’t have to like football to like this show. You would love the show.” And I saw them sort of smile at me with empathy, feeling sorry for me, this poor writer trying to sell this show that they have no interest in.

To me, the thing about Friday Night Lights was you didn’t have to like football to care about the show. You didn’t have to have any kind of knowledge of football or Texas or any of those things. It was so much just about these people and their lives, and it was so deeply felt. And I think that message started to come out over time.

To this day — how many years later is it? — people are coming up to me and saying, “I just watched it.” And now people are showing it to their kids. It’s really cool. A few years ago, somebody told me, one of my friend’s kids who was in college said it’s what everybody was watching, at least that year in college.

That’s the great thing about TV right now. My daughter watches shows from 20 years ago, 30 years ago. It doesn’t matter to her. It doesn’t have to be current. That’s the great thing. Television in a way now lives on longer than it ever used to.

Emily VanDerWerff

Friday Night Lights has one of the great series finales. I’m normally someone who likes less closure in a finale, but that finale is all closure, and I love it. Tell me about the process of crafting that episode in particular, because that must have been a tough one.

Jason Katims

The thing that was cool about that is that often when you end a show, you don’t know you’re going to end the show, or if you do know you’re going to end the show, you might know very late in the process. When the writers started the writers’ room of that season, we knew that we were driving toward an ending.

To me, it was all about set-up. It was all about everything that came before [the finale], and that was really the charm of that story is that final season of the show was so clearly all leading to that. By the time we get to that episode, it was sort of inevitable.

I really did want to do an episode that had closure. I wanted there to be an ending to the show. I didn’t want it to be ambiguous. I felt like we had such a passionate audience. It might have been a small audience, but it was so deeply passionate, so I felt like we owed that great ending, but also an ending that was really, truly an ending, where you got to see not only where everybody got to but had a little window into where they were going.

Emily VanDerWerff

Were there characters who were particularly hard to wrap up?

Jason Katims

The thing that was tricky about the ending of the show was a lot of the characters that had kind of, sort of left the show earlier in the series, who we were going to try to come back to and bring back at the end. That got a little bit tricky, how many people we would come back to, and we didn’t have a lot of time to observe them.

I remember thinking about that a lot. At one point, we were going to try to be much more aggressive and try to bring everybody back. At a certain point, we let go of that and said we’re just going to do what feels right for the episode.

For more discussion with Katims, including the lessons he learned from My So-Called Life, his thoughts on if a show like MSCL could get on the air today, and his responses to some of the controversies surrounding Rise, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.