Tomorrow night, Friday Night Lights ends an impressive if inconsistent five-year run. It takes a knee as one of the greatest network dramas of all time (“network” being a much more significant qualifier than it was a decade ago), and as one of the most uncommon series of all time.
Let’s all graduate to TMU, together, after the jump. I promise to try to keep the football puns to a minimum. (Mild spoilers ahead for anyone not watching the current season.)
Let’s examine the ways in which Friday Night Lights is unique in television history.
1) A unique quality trajectory. FNL fashioned a nearly perfect premiere season, seemingly fell apart, then rose from the dead. It’s path through five seasons looks something like this:
Name me another show in TV history that has a trajectory like that. Most shows…once they start to fade, they’re gone. There’s no coming back from that decline. Or a show will drop a level, hang on for a few years at that level, and then disintegrate once and for all. At best, a show can pull it together for one comeback season that’s a pale imitator of its past glory. But Friday Night Lights followed up that brilliant first season with two seasons of struggling through the muck, of trying to find its voice and regain what made it great, of battling network interference and low ratings.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, resurrection. The show didn’t so much reinvent itself as rediscover itself. Gone were the Landry killings, the Lyla Christianity, the extraneous characters who never quite fit. The Taylor family once again became the focus of each season, and Coach Taylor’s move to East Dillon infused the show with a new energy and a righteous fury. As hard as it may have been to achieve after a season one state championship, Friday Night Lights was always at its best when Eric Taylor was an underdog fighting small-minded Texas culture and big-moneyed programs. The East Dillon storyline, though it may have stretched credulity at times, captured that spirit.
Now, FNL is finishing almost as impressively as it began. While nothing can ever match that early magic, the season five cast can probably act circles around the season one cast. Minka Kelly is gone. Taylor Kitsch is vastly improved. And the new additions, particularly Michael B. Jordan, mostly shine.
I gave up on Friday Night Lights long ago. I lost faith. I was wrong.
2) A teen show with legs.
Friday Night Lights isn’t entirely a teen show. Coach and Mrs. Taylor are the two main characters, as opposed to true teen shows wherein the parents are mere stand-ins or tokens. But a big reason that FNL has enjoyed this comeback is that it’s been able to replenish its cast of teen characters in a way no other show in history could.
Shows that focus on high school kids go one of two ways: they follow the original cast of kids long after they’ve run out of story for those characters. Or, they awkwardly try to shift attention to a new generation that the audience doesn’t care about at all. Beverly Hills, 90210 and One Tree Hill followed its initial characters from high school to well past college. What was there left to say about Kelly Taylor at the age of 26? Nothing, that’s what. The O.C. tried to shoehorn in new characters as love interests for its stalwarts and failed miserably. Think of Johnny or that red-headed girl who turned out to be Caleb’s daughter.
Friday Night Lights obviously has more depth than those shows to begin with, giving it an advantage. But nonetheless, FNL found a way to have its delicious teenage cake and eat it too (what?). The writers slowly phased out beloved characters like Tyra, Saracen, Landry and even Tim Riggins; gradually replacing them with characters who fit into the show’s landscape: Vince, Becky, Buddy Jr. They didn’t try to do too much too soon with the new characters, introducing them slowly through ties to existing characters. And all the while, the Taylors remained the strong center around which the rest of the Dillon universe revolved.
Vince, though not introduced until season 4, evolved into one of the deepest, best-written characters in the show’s entire run.
Fresh characters meant fresh story. And fresh story meant two seasons more of this great show than we probably deserved.
3) A great sports drama
Friday Night Lights is the only legitimately great television series based on sports ever. (Fuck Bill Simmons and White Shadow.) Sitcoms (hi, Eastbound and Down) and reality shows (what’s up, Hard Knocks) don’t count. It’s excruciatingly difficult to wring emotion and drama out of something as bled-dry as football, baseball or basketball. Out of last-minute victories, soul-crushing injuries and galvanizing half-time speeches. But that’s exactly what Jason Katims has done with FNL.
The show has taken the same corny sports tropes we’ve seen a thousand times, and made them somehow matter to us again. Made us care somehow. Made us actually fucking care about whether East Dillon would beat Dillon, when we all knew they would. Made us hate the cocky enemy quarterback. Made us feel a coach’s anguish at not being able to reach a kid.
How did they do it? Was it just execution? Or did they approach sports in a new way?
I’ll argue it’s the former. There’s no new and exciting way to show a last-minute field goal going through the uprights. So to make us a care about whether or not the kick is good, you have to make us care about the guy who’s kicking it, and everyone else that the kick will affect. Katims et al built a great show the old-fashioned way: with cool, relatable characters, with great acting, and with a setting that made you feel this particular world could only exist in one particular place and time.
I’m not sure any show has ever portrayed a world as well as Friday Night Lights portrayed Dillon, Texas — the football zealotry, the racism, the desperate desire to escape. The writing, music and cinematography combined to lure us into a world we knew rationally we’d never want any part of, but couldn’t resist when presented in this fashion. Even the most minor of characters contributed to the show’s atmosphere and brought something unique to the table (think of Smash’s mother, or Tami’s friends from the book club).
Friday Night Lights gave us Matt Saracen at his father’s funeral. It gave us Billy Riggins and a Baby Bjorn. It gave us Lyla Garrity running to “All This Time.” It gave us Coach Taylor’s bemusement, frustration and barely contained rage. It gave us Jason Street dropping into the ocean. It gave us The Landing Strip. It gave us It gave us “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
So in return, all I can give it is this: a proclamation that it’s one of the top five network dramas of all time.
Epilogue 1: Which Dillon Panther or East Dillon Lion would have gone on to have the best college/pro career?
A) Smash Williams – We know that the by the end of the series, he’s starring at TMU. But he still has a significant knee injury in his past, and TMU isn’t exactly Tailback U.
B) Vince Howard – He has all the tools, and he seems to have his head on right as the show wraps up. But his criminal past and unstable family situation could come back to haunt him, and a lot depends on what system he runs in college.
C) A healthy Jason Street – By all accounts, he was one of the best high school quarterbacks in Texas history, and an upstanding young man to boot. How would he have fared away from his mentor, Coach Taylor?
D) J.D. McCoy – An asshole version of Street. We know he (or his father) doesn’t handle defeat well, since he vanished from Dillon after losing to crosstown-rival East Dillon in the season four finale.
Epilogue 2: A discussion of the above question during the Super Bowl (what? It was a boring game, and the commercials were insulting to humanity) led to the following proposition from Musky Canadian Scent: what would have happened if indeed Jason Street was never paralyzed? If he didn’t try to make that tackle? If he bounced off the guy after that pick, stood up and dusted himself off? MCS went so far as to suggest a spinoff in which we watch that scenario unfold.
Friday Night Lights 2.0 begins right after that hit or non-hit in 1.0’s pilot, and we watch what would unfold with a healthy Street. Does Dillon still win state that year? Are they an all-time juggernaut? What happens to Matt Saracen, personally and in his football career? How are Lyla, Riggins and Tyra impacted? Does Coach still take the TMU job? There’s a lot of juicy material here, and it would be particularly fun watching 30-something actors playing the high school roles they originated five years ago.