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By Ryan Mason · June 30, 2011
It’s amazing that we’re even talking about the fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights. This little-show-that-could kicked off in fall of 2006 to lavish critical acclaim from nearly every direction. Some lauded it for its honest portrayal of sports, others of small-town USA, others of its production value. Unfortunately, the ratings didn’t follow.
For whatever reason – everyone has their theory – FNL just never caught on with the mainstream, surprising considering just how much the masses seem to love football. We can pack in roughly 100,000 people in dozens of stadiums on Saturday afternoons in the fall, but getting FNL to rank in the top 50 of the Nielsen rankings was just asking too much. That said, almost all of those who did end up watching Friday Night Lights became die-hard fans. They’re the kind who tell you that you have to watch it, even when you say you don’t like football and you don’t like Texas and you don’t like teenagers and you don’t like TV and you don’t like football. They’ll say, you’ll like this. Promise.
And, I’d have to agree. Because I’m one of those fans. I still remember, nearly five years ago, when FNL debuted, and I didn’t really think much of it. As much as I love watching football, I wasn’t overly optimistic about a TV show centered around high school jocks and cheerleaders, who weren’t exactly part of the clique that I ran with back in those adolescent years. But then one of my close friends, one who has little to no interest in football or sports really in general, told me that I had to check it out. He said, you’ll like this. Promise.
And he was right.
From the pilot episode, where star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) of the Panthers from fictional Dillon, Texas, makes a bad angle on a tackle and ends up paralyzed from his injury, it’s evident that this isn’t just some average teen soap opera. First off, it’s shot like a movie, on location in Austin, Texas, its production value alone creating a vastly different experience than anything else on TV. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I’m a sucker for those big sky vistas and, well, any teen show that isn’t set in a rich high school with extremely wealthy, spoiled brats as the main characters. And secondly, the characters are instantly memorable. I’m still surprised at how much I grew to care about everyone in Dillon, even those who might normally be easy to hate or too easy to love end up garnering just the right amount of pathos to surprise you into realizing just how three-dimensional they are. Here is a show who lives in the gray areas, not content to simply place people in the preordained roles of dumb jock, bimbo cheerleader, goofy nerd, or unpopular ugly duckling. This is a show that believes that there’s good lying underneath just about everyone, that there’s more than meets the eye on the surface, and that no matter how someone comes across in passing, we all have our issues that we wrestle with constantly that we can’t always know about.
And it does it all without getting maudlin. Any tears that you may shed – and don’t be surprised if you do – are earned, not through hollow devices but organically through these well-realized characters and how they interact with each other. Because at its heart, Friday Night Lights is about character. Not character as in fictional human beings, rather, character as in that strength and quality of a person’s nature. It’s about building yourself up without tearing the other down. And it’s ultimately about fatherhood and family. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t find the audience that it seemed like it could’ve: men typically aren’t as comfortable with their emotions and this show examines masculinity and vulnerability in ways not really done on TV, especially ones aimed at such male-centered things like football.
Yet, football in Friday Night Lights isn’t just a sports team, it’s a surrogate family for young men who need father figures. Whether their dads are off fighting in Iraq like backup-turned-starting quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) or abandoned the family like star fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) or were spending years in prison like phenom Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), these teens need an older male figure to help them navigate the challenging world of adolescence. And they all find that in head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Seriously, Chandler makes this show. He’s the glue that keeps it all together because all rivers run through him, able to always provide the best possible support and advice – and stern punishment – without coming across saint-like or perfect. He’s human. He makes mistakes and, when he does, he owns up to them. He respects his players and in turn, he commands their respect. A true molder of men the way that sports fans talk about the greats like Joe Paterno or Bo Schembechler. And it’s not something that I could understand personally since I had a father growing up and I didn’t play sports, so it didn’t make much sense to me what type of molding these coaches could do. But now I get it.
And as much as Chandler’s Coach Taylor makes me wish I could go back to high school to play football for him despite not being remotely athletic enough to pull that off, he’s not the only one that shines. Kitsch’s portrayal of Tim Riggins was what made me realize just how sophisticated Friday Night Lights was. Riggins could’ve been such a stereotype. In fact, at first, I thought he was. He was dumb. He was a womanizer. He was a drunk. He was a cliché. And then he was so much more. As the rest of the cast slowly left during Season Three – this is about high school after all and some of them head off to college – Riggins took on even more of a starring role in the storylines, becoming so much more than just what he seems to be on paper. Kitsch plays him perfectly, capturing the depth of this troubled kid while still outwardly being the jock he’s supposed to be on the surface.
Naturally, credit must go to the writers, too, for crafting such well-rounded characters for these actors to portray. And aside from the ill-advised murder situation that dominates the beginning of Season Two, this is some of the best writing on television. It’s not overly flashy. It’s not filled with mysteries and twists and turns. It’s just honest. And ridiculously compelling and entertaining in its own right.
As much praise as I’m throwing down, the show isn’t without its imperfections. Season One is stellar, but it stumbles desperately in its second year. Admittedly not all of this is the show’s fault as it had to cut its run short due to the writers’ strike, meaning that it ends without having an actual finale. But, the whole self-defense murder aspect, which was added to try to make it more palatable to traditional audiences, just didn’t work at all. And as you watch that season now, you can see how the writers shy away from it as it goes on, only coming back to as they need to rather than focusing the whole season on it. That misstep coupled with not being able to finish all the planned episodes meant that it looked highly unlikely that FNL would be around for a third season. Luckily the rabid yet small fanbase made their voices heard and, miraculously, this show that could never find a large viewership and that had a larger budget than most shows due to being shot entirely on location in Texas, managed to come back another year after NBC Universal partnered with DirecTV to share the costs.
Which brings us to this year. Somehow, despite the same ratings, NBC and DirecTV renewed it again and again, culminating in what is now its fifth and final season. For those who have loved it from the beginning, this was unthinkable back during Season Two. At that point, we were just happy that it hadn’t been cancelled mid-season much less continuing on for another three years. Every off-season it was a constant worry that it was gone for good. But now the fans can be assured of a planned finale, one that ideally wraps things up just enough to be satisfying yet open-ended since that’s how this show is. These characters exist out there in the world and will continue to do so even after the last episode aired.
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet finished it. The finale. In fact, I have three episodes to go. But I’m reluctant to complete the series, because right now they’re still around, still playing football, still getting into trouble and learning from their mistakes. And once I watch those last few shows, that will mean it really is over. Unequivocally. No more limbo over the summer hoping that it will be renewed. No more following the exploits of the Riggins brothers or Buddy Garrity or Vince Howard. And no more Coach and Tami Taylor.
But the fact that we had them at all is amazing. That they were around for five seasons is a miracle.