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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.