It’s not easy to stick the landing when it comes to series finales. Just ask fans of Dexter and How I Met Your Mother, who continue to debate the merits of those final hours. Which is why it is that much more remarkable when a show receives universal acclaim for its last chapter. Friday Night Lights is one of those shows. The saga of Eric and Tami Taylor (played to perfection by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) and the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions ended on Feb. 9, 2011 when DirecTV aired the final episode. Then it ended again when NBC aired the final episode on July 15, 2011. (In a unique arrangement, the final two seasons aired first on the satellite provider and then a few months later on the broadcast network.)
Friday Night Lights finished with Coach Taylor finally agreeing to put his own career ambitions aside to move to Philadelphia when wife Tami got a job offer there. But first East Dillon had a championship to win, with the final play of the final game playing out in slow motion before cutting away without showing us the final result (which was revealed subtly later with a shot of the championship banner). Matt asked Julie to marry him, Tim and Tyra shared a beer out on his land, and all the other characters had their moment to shine. For the latest in our series celebrating classic TV series finales, we asked Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims to look back on how he and the writing staff crafted this perfect ending to a beloved TV show. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you start to map out this finale, even in terms of an outline?
JASON KATIMS: The one thing that I did always feel would be right about the ending of the show was the idea of Coach and Tami leaving Dillon. That’s what I always sort of imagined, that it would be them leaving. I did have an image in mind for what the last shot of the series was which didn’t wind up being the last shot, but the image that I had was the image of them driving in a car, leaving town. Because my thought was that the life of football coaches — they have a series of different job and different schools and it takes them to different places, and what started the series was him arriving in Dillon and it was his first year as a coach there. And I first thought that would be kind of where we would get to at the end.
And so that was sort of the overall idea that I had throughout the course of the entire series. And then when it came to what the finale was going to be, the one thing that was really great was that we knew very early on when the series was coming to the end. We actually knew when we were picked up for the fourth season that we were picked up for the fourth and fifth seasons at 13 episodes each, so we knew even in the fourth season that the fifth season was going to be our last one. But certainly, when it came to the beginning of season 5, when the writers started breaking that season we knew that we were leading to a finale so that was one of the things that really helped us a lot in sort of shaping what that last episode was going to be. We really started at the beginning of the season planting seeds and ideas that we would get to…that would sort of all lead to this final episode.
EW: It really is an advantage when you sort of know, I have X amount of episodes now to really map this out.
KATIMS: That helps a lot. And so then, what I really wanted to build into the final season of the show was a story for Eric and Tami — to give them some story that was going to be about them. We wanted a good story between the two of them and we had told the story already of them sort of arranging their lives around his career. And I thought it would be very interesting to tell the story where Tami gets an opportunity professionally and it’s something that we never quite played before, which is the question of whether Coach Taylor would move for her, and not the other way around. And we wanted a story that we felt would be something that would be real, and a conflict we hadn’t played before and one we believed would be a real conflict between the two of them and something that would be a question that you wouldn’t automatically know where they were going to end up and what they would end up deciding. So that’s how we sort of formed the season and what led up to the finale.
EW: At what point did you come up with that great idea — the championship game, the ball goes in the air, everyone’s waiting to see what happens, and then we just cut and we look into the future and you almost subtly in a way tell the result of them winning without really telling the result. Tell me about the genesis of coming up with that.
KATIMS: That idea was something that came out of the writer’s room. It was something that we figured out very specifically. All of the shots that wound up being that final sequence were really figured out in detail ahead of time and worked out in the writer’s room as much of the storytelling in the show was. We were very, very specific in working things out in the room and the entire writing staff contributed to what that episode was.
EW: Did you shoot it another way, with showing the touchdown, in case you decided to ever go back and change it in the editing room?
KATIMS: No, we didn’t. It was never really a question of what that ending was going to be. We were committed to it. It was one of those things that everybody felt. Michael Waxman, who directed the episode, was very on board and invested in just the way that it was in the script and everybody really liked that idea. A lot of times you do kind of hedge your bets and say, “Okay, let’s shoot everything and then we can kind of figure out what we want to do in the editing room,” but that sequence was so designed and we went through a lot of versions of what that last game was going to be in the writer’s room.
And we pitched many different versions of that game, and how they were going to win the game, and what it was going to be. And I realized after going through a lot of versions of that game, what I was interested in was not so much the details of the game itself. I felt like this story that we wanted to tell we wanted to do in a more poetic way. It was more about the beauty of this game itself and the meaning of it to Coach Taylor and all of the players on the team, and it wasn’t about the specifics of the strategy or who caught that pass or what play won the game — it wasn’t about that. We wanted that game to play in a more poetic way. It was less about watching the details of the game and hearing the football commentators talking about what was going on. It felt like we were in a different place with this game and we didn’t feel like there was anything from a football standpoint that there was any great story to tell — this was more about the lives of the coach and these players and the fans and all these people that we had come to know and get invested in and love. It was more about that than it was about the game and the specifics of the game, and that’s what kind of led what we wound up doing visually with that sequence.
EW: Did the network have any notes on what they wanted or didn’t want to see in the finale?
KATIMS: By the time we’d gotten to the end of that show we were really very much on the same page with the network in terms of what stories we were telling. I don’t remember them having any objection to what we were doing. They were really incredibly supportive of us. The challenging part of the finale is that it ended up being much longer than other episodes, and there were always two first airings of the show once we made the deal between DirecTV and NBC. There was the DirecTV airing and then the NBC airing. It was very unusual in that way, but typically both of the versions of the episode were exactly the same. We didn’t really change anything between the DirecTV version and the NBC version, but when it got to the finale the biggest challenge was that it was about 15 minutes longer than a normal episode of the show. So for DirecTV it wasn’t a problem because they could air it at any length, but for NBC we worked out a way for the initial airing on NBC to be a 90 minute version for the show so that we were able to do a longer version that was not planned ahead of time. It wasn’t planned to be longer than a normal episode. But we did cut a shorter version of that show because it’s always necessary for future and for foreign and for other outlets where you had to have a version that conformed to the normal time, but I felt like this longer version we really needed in this case.
Obviously there was a lot of story in the episode and you know, in other episodes we were always cutting scenes out of Friday Night Lights. Many of our episodes, a cut would come in fifteen minutes long or even longer. So we were always cutting things out of the episodes. But I felt like this character has this great storyline in this next episode or whatever, so I forgave myself for cutting stuff out because I knew they had something great coming up. But this was the last episode so I really felt like it was really important that every character had his or her moment and that we didn’t cut any of those out.
EW: When you finished it, were you thinking that this could be a story you would be revisiting down the line at some point so you wanted to keep some options open for that?
KATIMS: No. That ending was definitely meant as the end of the series and I wasn’t at all thinking about keeping the door open to do more episodes or a movie or anything like that. It was really intended to be an ending. The idea of possibly doing a movie came up and that came up after we finished that episode shot and aired. There was no thought in the finale of keeping a window open for the future.
EW: Did you take any extra security steps to keep the ending from being spoiled?
KATIMS: No, not really. I feel like on some episodes — whether its Friday Night Lights or Parenthood — if there’s a particular story point that I think will be more enjoyable for people to not know about before they see it then I try to be careful of keeping that from getting out. We did try to do that with this finale in terms of making sure that the actors and publicity and everybody knew not to, but I think it was fairly obvious not to give away the ending. I felt like it wasn’t the type of show where people were stealing or finding storylines and putting it out there. We didn’t take any crazy measures to keep it secret.
EW: What are other series finales that you think really hit it out of the park?
KATIMS: M*A*S*H comes to mind. That’s a good question and the truth is, I don’t know. For example, when we were doing the finale of Friday Night Lights, we weren’t really referencing or referring to any particular type of finale or anything else anybody had done. The one thing that I really felt was this responsibility to the fans of the show. I’m sure any showrunner that was involved with a show that had a passionate audience would feel the same way, which is why we felt like we wanted to do everything that we could to make this ending feel satisfying to the fans for the show and make it feel like it lived up to everything that the show was.
I remember that I wasn’t there much for the shooting of the finale, but I directed the episode that was the third from the last. I remember when I was there directing there was always a great feeling on the set of that show. There was always a fantastic energy on the set, and on those last few episodes there was such a passion from everybody on the show — everybody involved, the actors and the entire crew. Everybody involved with the show really had such a love for the show that when it came to those last handful of episodes, everybody was just singly focused on making those episodes as good as they could possibly be. And I think you can really feel that when you watch the finale and when you watch the last four, five or six episodes of the season.
EW: I think the most telling sign of how great Friday Night Lights was is how much my wife loved it, because she absolutely hates football, and this was her favorite show on TV.
KATIMS: That means a lot to me because one of the things that all of us were saying early on in the life of the show when we felt like football was a barrier to getting people to watch it was that the show is not actually about football. It’s about community, it’s about family, and it’s about all these people’s lives, and it’s about so much more than that. And I remember saying that to people and getting blank stares when we said this early on. So, thank you.