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ROSWELL: Producer Jason Katims
Exploring the science fiction mythology of alienated teens.
By Edward Gross
April 24, 2000
Jason Katims, executive producer of ROSWELL and the show's primary creative guiding force, admits that by the time he was able to deal with news that the series was in trouble, the movement from fans to save it was well underway. 'I think when you're working on a show like this, you tend to work seven days a week, very long hours, and you're living in a bubble,' he says. 'You don't have any idea of what it's like 'out there,' what people are thinking about, or whether they're responding to it. But to see what's happening in terms of this support is very surprising and encouraging. And it comes to us as we're in the darkness of trying to finish the season up, and we're all exhausted. But it gives us the energy to move forward and do it.'
In their efforts to keep ROSWELL on the air, the fans bombarded the WB Network with thousands of bottles of Tabasco saucethe drink of choice for extraterrestrialsand let the network know in no uncertain terms that they wanted the show to continue. 'It's interesting when you have this kind of loyal fan base,' notes Katims. 'Even if it's a relatively small fan base, their passion says something not only to us as producers, but it speaks to the network a well.'
Things seem to be going well for ROSWELL. On April 10th the show shifted timeslots from Wednesday at 9 (where it aired directly opposite STAR TREK: VOYAGER) to Mondays at the same time, where there was no genre competition. It has improved the WB's ratings in that timeslot significantly, and its dramatic shift in focusfrom teen angst to a harder sci-fi edgehas scored with critics and the audience. It's also cost a lot more to produce.
'When we first started the show,' Katims details, 'the budget was sort of patterned over what the budget of the pilot was. The pilot was not small, but it had one big set piece and it had a few special effects. But we're not melting cheese on tacos anymore. There are huge things happening and there's been a huge change, so, yeah, when we get picked up, in addition to celebrating getting picked up, we're going to have to figure out how to make this show because the demands of doing a show like this are very high and it's not easy. We want to do the highest quality work. There are shows out there that have done it and done it very well, and not on huge budgets either. So we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.'
The show's dramatic bridge, however, is something else entirely, and Katims admits that he's pleased the show has changed tone in the way that it has. 'I think the dramatic change was a very natural transition,' he says, 'and if you look at the course of the first season, it's something that makes a lot of sense. I think the first part of the season was filled with a lot of 'what if?' questions. 'What if we found out who we are and where we come from? What if there is a possibility of doing that?' In addition, we were also seeing them beginning to have more investment in their lives in Roswell. Now what happens in the last story arc of the season is that it's no longer a question of 'what if?' Things are happening right here and now. Their search has led them to places, which makes these last six episodes, in my opinion, very exciting and very tense. It really moves the mythology of what's been happening forward. In addition to that, it moves the emotions forward and deepens them. The stakes are higher. So it's a very natural progression, because at the beginning they didn't know that much. All they had was a picture of a silver handprint that Liz saw in the sheriff's office. That's what started everything. Now, all kinds of things are happening, and over the last six episodes they come face to face with the fourth alienwho they didn't even know was out there. To me, it's very natural that we've come to this place in the show.'
Like everyone else involved with ROSWELL, he doesn't feel that the heavier emphasis on science fiction will come at the expense of the relationships that have driven the show through most of the season. 'The reason I don't think so,' he explains, 'is that the writers on this show are interested as much in the relationships as they are in the science fiction. To us, in moving the mythology of the show forward, in moving the science fiction aspect of the show forward, it's only interesting in how it's affecting the characters and their relationships. What we found is that as we're doing these episodes that move us much further into our mythology, it's much more emotional. It's pushing these characters to become more adult, in a senseto make bigger decisions of life and death, to deal with their sense of destiny. These are all things, to me, which are issues about characters. And dealing with the other people in that universe. Fans who were watching the show and into the relationships might be a little concerned, but when they see these episodes, they're not going to turn away from the show. I think it's just the opposite. The other side of it is what happens when you're doing a teen ensemble drama. In the kind of climate there is now, when there are a lot of young, pretty faces on these shows, what differentiates us from other shows is the mythological aspect of it. It's different, and that's what gets us, as writers, jazzed and excited about writing this stuff. We're in territory that you're not seeing on other shows.'
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER creator Joss Whedon has often discussed the fact that his series has managed to take on a life of its own, moving through a season in ways that he never could has expected at the beginning of the year. 'That's interesting,' says Katims. 'I would say that's true for us as well. First of all, that's one of the things that's exciting about doing episodic television. There's a certain sense of improvisation to it. You have certain ideas, but you see an episode and you feel something from the actor and how he portrays a character, and you write toward that. That's what's exciting about doing it. Weirdly, it has this feeling of doing Repertory Theater, where as writers we're writing toward a cast that we're learning about as we go along. So things change according to that. For example, the minute we put Michael and Maria together in a car in [the episode] '285 South', we knew we had to move forward with that relationship. It was definitely our plan to do that, but seeing that natural, electric kind of rapport they had with each other, we moved it ahead faster. One thing we did change in terms of the season is that we got much further with our mythology than we had intended. That has come out of what we talked about earlier, which is this movement toward more of this fascination people have with the mythology we've created, and the science fiction elements of it. People have been, I sense, really craving more of that, without losing the other aspects of the show. So we moved further than we initially intended on going.
'Originally,' he continues, 'we were intending on going to a season finale that now occurs four episodes earlier and takes it further than we otherwise would have gone. I think we still have a good cliffhanger. To me, it's moving forward in a way that is very exciting. The further we go with this stuff, the more possibilities there are, as opposed to feeling like, 'Wow, now we have nothing left.' By bringing up that discoverythe discovery of another alien among themit just immediately raises all of these great questions that we get to play out over four episodes. As to the second season, we definitely have an idea of what we want to do. Usually I love to talk about this stuff and tease the audience, but I don't want to do it because where we're going in the second season is basically set up in the final moments of the season finale.'
Katims, who previously served as executive producer of the critically acclaimed drama MY SO CALLED LIFE, was drawn to the show by the premise (three alien teenagers that live life among humans) as established in the ROSWELL HIGH young-adult novels. 'Not only did I think it was a wonderful pilot,' he says, 'but it was the kind of pilot that held the promise of telling hundreds of stories from it; it would branch out in such a way that there were so many places to go with it. That's what really drew me to the subject. I also feel that this combination of what is, at its heart, a story about these teenagers trying to find their way in the world, but has the twist of being about aliens and having aliens and humans interacting, was dramatically powerful. That twist is what made it different and exciting. It's different than anything I've done before. Of course, that's always exciting because it's a new challenge and new territory to cover as a writer.'
The jury will be out on ROSWELL's future until mid-May when the WB announces its fall schedule. 'The situation we're in,' Katims notes, 'is that we haven't gotten an order for more episodes yet. I think that we have a good chance to get picked up, though I don't think it's a foregone conclusion. It could go either way, but I really feel if this show does get picked up for a second season, the movement by the fans will have played a very large part in it.'