Entertainment

02.19.14

About a Boy’s Jason Katims Is the King of Cry TV

With NBC’s adaptation of About a Boy, Jason Katims, the mind behind Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, once again scores an emotional touchdown. Meet the man who makes us weep.

Jason Katims is watching a scene from the NBC family drama Parenthood and he is crying.

He is at an auditorium in New Orleans, where he is attending the Dove Men+Care Dad 2.0 Summit, in front of 200 people, and he is crying. Not that we blame him. It’s the scene where Adam calls his daughter at college to tell her about her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. We all cried when that scene aired. Any human with a soul would cry watching it again.

The difference is, however, that Jason Katims actually created Parenthood, and was part of the writing team that penned the heart wrenching scene. It’s actually a bit comforting to know that he shed a tear revisiting that scene again. Now, when you weep along to an episode of Friday Night Lights, the NBC drama he also created and wrote for, go through an entire box of Kleenex while watching Parenthood, or find yourself misty-eyed when watching his latest film-to-TV adaptation, About a Boy, you can take comfort in the fact that the man who created those tear-jerking shows is crying right along with you.

Jason Katims, the King of Cry TV, wants you to know it’s OK to get a bit weepy.

“I cry all the time at those shows,” he tells me. “Unfortunately for me, it’s in the editors’ room in front of the editors.” (Or, you know, in a New Orleans amphitheater.) “They’re watching me cry watching something I wrote, which is embarrassing.”

Actually, it’s not embarrassing at all.

About a Boy, which premieres after the Olympics Saturday (before moving to Tuesday nights), marks the third consecutive film that Katims will shepherd to a TV format for NBC. It’s based on the 2002 Hugh Grant film about an overgrown man-child-bachelor who finds himself strangely pulled to an odd boy being raised by his even odder mother. He’s Britain’s most unlikely surrogate father figure.

But there’s a tighter throughline that connects About a Boy, Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood than the fact that they all happened to be based on moderately successful films. There’s a distinctiveness, a Katims-ness, that brands each of the series. There’s authenticity, sure—the cinema verite style of shooting that gives each of the series a lived-in, almost documentary-like feel. But that’s visual. There’s a more visceral emotional authenticity to the three series that telegraphs “Jason Katims is behind this,” in the best way possible.

There's a more visceral emotional authenticity to the three series that telegraphs ‘Jason Katims is behind this,’ in the best way possible.

There’s that whole crying thing, of course. That snotty, guttural heaving that accompanies his emotionally-packed story lines and writing, whether it’s watching Coach Taylor help quarterback Matt Saracen through the death of his father, breast cancer-battling Kristina film a goodbye video to her children on Parenthood, or, on the upcoming About a Boy, the unusual love story between an awkward boy and his suave next door neighbor. But there’s also that balance he manages to strike, where his shows cut straight to the heart but are never cloying, schmaltzy, or emotionally manipulative. Where the love stories are romantic but real, idyllic yet flawed. Where the minutiae of every day becomes inspirational. That Jason Katims thing.

The respective successes of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, then—and maybe soon About a Boy, too—are owed to a lot more than that whole “based on a movie” thing. “These are character driven stories about people and families and about being a dad,” he said. I connected to them and felt they would be great stories to tell not just in a movie. They all suggested longer tales that could be told in the television format.”

In fact, that mission—his vision—is what sold producers and networks on his projects more so than the fact that they were based on already existing film properties.

“I remember when I was first pitching Parenthood to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and talking about why to take on the story,” he says. (Howard had directed and Grazer had produced the 1989’s Parenthood film.) “Everything that I said that was different from the movie made their eyes light up. They didn’t want it to be a retread of those relationships. They wanted it to be something that spoke to what parenthood means now. It’s literally a generation later. Parenthood was 20 years old when I adapted it.”

It’s a similar situation with About a Boy. In fact, About a Boy dispels the entire film’s plot in just its pilot. The rest of the show explores the relationship between ever-reforming cad Will and his neighbor’s son, Marcus, who marches to the beat of his own drummer.

“There’s an episode, for example, where Marcus hears about the birds and the bees, but it’s really about a mother realizing her child is growing up and she needs to let go, which is something really relatable for parents,” David Walton (New Girl, Perfect Couples), who was cast opposite Minnie Driver as Will in About a Boy, tells me. “I think Jason Katims just really hones in and drills down into the most core relatable shared experiences that most human beings go through, and he just has this uncanny ability to explore them with these really cool characters he created.”

The praise doesn’t stop there: “He has insight into people’s—this sounds really cheesy—souls.”

But Katim’s career hasn’t always been finding emotional, and emotionally clever, ways to adapt film for TV. He cut his teeth in the writer’s room of the cult-classic Claire Danes high-school drama My So-Called Life. “That was like my graduate school,” he says. Before developing, producing, and writing the Friday Night Lights series in 2006, he also wrote for Roswell and Boston Public.

Knowing his writing background, it makes sense that Katims has become so adept at capturing authentic and relatable family dynamics on screen, particular when it comes to the relationships between fathers and their children. Fatherhood is important to Katims, who has two children of his own, Pheobe and Sawyer. Sawyer has Asperger’s Syndrome, and served in part as inspiration for the character of Max on Parenthood.

“You tend to as a writer reflect what’s going on in your life in your writing,” he says. “You experience firsthand the struggles and joys and curveballs that fatherhood throws at you.” And one of the most endearing aspects of all of Katims’s shows is the fact that “father” doesn’t have one meaning. On Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor is as much a father figure to the boys on the Dillon Panthers as he is their play caller. Watching Amber and Drew struggle to find a reliable male influence in their life is heartbreaking, until they realize that their uncles and grandfather are always there for them. And About a Boy crystallizes the idea that “father” is a role that can be cast by anyone, even who you’d last think would play it.

“It’s always been something that for some reason has been very evocative to me,” he says. “My father raised me, but I always had a series of these important male figures in my life, in addition to my father, who have been dry influential to me and guided me in a lot of ways.”

So you’ll forgive Jason Katims if he’s a little verklempt watching Adam talk to his daughter about his mother’s cancer battle. He may be one of TV’s most identifiable auteurs. But he’s also just a dad. And sometimes dads cry.

Don’t we know it.