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Class Is In Session: Jason Katims Explains The Appeal Of High School TV Dramas

Jason Katims helped create heart-wrenching TV shows like Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, and My So-Called Life. 

(That last one had a particularly profound impact on Nerdette host Greta Johnsen. “Jordan Catalano still holds a special place in my heart,” Greta said of the fictional Liberty High School heartthrob played by Oscar-winner Jared Leto.)

Now Katims is the writer and executive producer of another dramatic network TV show set in high school: Rise, which is based on the true story of a Pennsylvania theater teacher who had an enormous influence on his students during a more than 40-year career.

“I mean, I’m clearly stuck in my own progression in life,” Katims told Johnsen on Nerdette. “I got stuck at 17 and never moved on.”

Katims talked with us about Rise, why so much of his writing examines adolescence, and what a busy Hollywood showrunner does to recharge. Below are some highlights.

Rise airs Tuesdays on NBC at 8 p.m. central. You can listen to this episode of Nerdette by clicking the "play" button above or by subscribing on Apple Podcasts (or wherever you get your podcasts). 

Why he keeps writing about high school 

Katims: I think it’s a fascinating time to write about. It’s a very dramatic time, and it’s a time when you think about — like most television series will last anywhere from a season to four or five seasons. That takes you through your adolescence. So you can really go through so many stages of life over the course of a television show.

In your adolescence, you’re a child and an adult at the same time. There are moments when you’re dealing with stuff that is so adult and then you can turn around and fold up into your mother’s arms like a little kid. It’s those things happening at once, which is sort of exciting. It’s watching people grow into themselves and emerge and become who they are. 

There is a lot of overlap of life imitating art. You’re watching these young actors grow as actors and people as well as their characters. You’re watching them emerge. And that’s all very, very exciting and, I think honestly, just makes for really good television.

What he does to recharge

Katims: One thing I do is I play tennis. I have a Sunday morning doubles game with the same four people — just neighborhood friends of mine — and we’ve had this game for 15 years. And it has been an incredible joy. If you saw me play tennis, you would not mistake me for a professional athlete. There would be nothing about my tennis game where you would think, “Hey, did he play professionally?” And yet, when we’re on the court, it’s as if I’m playing the finals of Wimbledon every Sunday.

It’s an incredible way for me to just totally get out of the mindframe of being a showrunner and a writer. It’s such an intense job that it almost seems like that’s everything. That’s the whole world. Your little show that you do consumes your entire life, and so it’s this great way to get away from all that. 

Homework: Read Drama High

Katims: Drama High by Michael Sokolove is an absolutely beautiful book which inspired Rise. It will move you to tears and will inspire you and will make you want to affect change in your community and your world. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.

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