Texas Forever

Kevin Nguyen explains why one of TV’s best dramas, Friday Night Lights, was doomed to be underrated.

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When I meet people from Texas, I always ask them if they watch the show Friday Night Lights. The answer is usually no. In fact, ask almost anyone if they watch Friday Night Lights and the answer is often no.

I.

Friday Night Lights takes place in the fictional town of Dillon, a small Texas community possessed by the success and tradition of its high school football team. Like The Wire and Mad Men, the show uses an episodic arc to detail a specific time and place. Lights focuses on the team itself, the Dillon Panthers, but football isn’t so much the point of the show as it is a lens through which to explore the issues that grip middle America: unemployment, social stratification, racial tension, absent parents, and a failing education system — things that are probably more interesting if you’re on the outside looking in.

I suspect part of the reason I adore Friday Night Lights is because Dillon is so alien to me. I was born and raised in a well-to-do suburb of Boston; I went to a fancy boarding school with a dress code.

On the other hand, my girlfriend is from Arkansas, which, while not exactly Texas, is still a place where people take high school football seriously. On a night when we had seemingly exhausted all of our options on Hulu, I put on the first episode of Friday Night Lights.

In a scene that best encapsulates Dillon’s fervor, the town holds an over-the-top pep rally the night before the Panthers’ first game of the season at a brand new car dealership. Football players aside, it looks like a cocktail party, with the town’s most prestigious in attendance. (The mayor of Dillon tells the Panthers quarterback that he needs to “throw the ball.”) Head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), the show’s lead, father figure, and emotional anchor, gets an earful from the team’s most ardent supporters about how important winning a state championship is for Dillon.

Having never been to a pep rally of any sort, I asked my girlfriend if they held football rallies like this in her hometown.

“Yeah, but we would have them somewhere nicer than a car dealership.”

Being born and raised in New England, for me, Friday Night Lights was a glimpse into foreign place; for her, it reminded her too much of home. She never asked to watch another episode.

II.

It didn’t take long for NBC execs (namely Ben Silverman, who is no longer employed by the network) to try and jack up Friday Night Lights’s ratings by introducing some dreadfully outlandish story lines. The 2007‘s writer’s strike shut down production of the show halfway through the second season — cut from 22 to 15 episodes — which was probably more of a mercy than a mistake.

Actually, to be honest, I never watched the second season. (I skipped it at Nick’s suggestion.) Instead, I read the Wikipedia summary, which shows the trading of Friday Night Lights’ believable depiction of Dillon for implausible, shark-jumping plot twists: exaggerated family drama, arbitrary hook ups, and even a murder. (The show’s creator Jason Katmis acknowledged that the murder plot line was a huge misstep.)

Friday Night Lights was only renewed because NBC was able to strike an odd deal where the episodes would run first on DirecTV, meaning Friday Night Lights could be watched by JetBlue passengers and the eight people who still have satellite television.

III.

Still, I’m not willing to blame the entirety of Friday Night Lights’s struggle to find an audience on its lackluster sophomore year. It still maintained high praise from critics and bounced back with a terrific third season, which further established the show as a beautifully scripted character drama. The characters capture relatable experiences without being too broad; they’re familiar yet foreign. But, as Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, puts it: the show didn’t appeal to any major demographic.

Purist sports fans found the depictions of the games too brief and technically not very believable. Family-TV seekers were put off by the moral complexity of the show. And, overriding all of this: FNL never had the aura of being cool or gritty or groundbreaking; it didn’t court a cult following like Lost or Buffy did; it didn’t often try to test the limits of TV standards and storytelling the way The Shield or name-your-favorite-HBO-show did. Season after season, it fell between the genre cracks, admired only by those of us who loved — loved — its lack of irony and sarcasm and hip knowingness.

Friday Night Lights was never going to be the kind of show with big reveals or lawnmower accidents that viewers could tweet about. The truth was that it was always doomed to be underrated.

IV.

While it was hard to be a Friday Night Lights fan with the looming threat of the show’s cancellation, I think the uncertainty of its season-to-season survival has a lot to do with why it’s so good. Season four reboots the series, shifting the setting and replacing most of the principal cast.

Dillon is split into two high schools with two football teams. Betrayed by the Panthers, Coach Taylor finds himself coaching the Lions on the poor East side of Dillon where he no longer has star players, sparkling athletic facilities, or millions of dollars of booster support. There’s a renewed sense of urgency, not just to win games, but the tension from a divided community once unified by football.

The conflicts of the fourth season parallel the show’s own struggle to stay on air. Reboots and big changes usually happen after a franchise has gone stale. But Friday Night Lights’s writers knew they wouldn’t even have the chance to let the show get to that point without reinvention. And it turns out to be one of TV’s smartest reboots, as the fourth season is undoubtably the show’s best, even earning the show its first Emmy nominations. Perhaps fittingly, it’s also the season with the least amount of football.

V.

Last week’s episode, the final one of season five and the series finale, was a sentimental mess. The loose ends were hastily clumped into a knot, and I don’t think there was a single character who didn’t say “I love you” to someone else. But it was entirely satisfying without being in the least bit surprising.

The penultimate episode left Coach Taylor with a choice: would he continue coaching football in Dillon or leave with his wife Tami, who was offered the position of Dean of Admissions at a small college in Philadelphia? Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club called the decision “a foregone conclusion” — obviously Coach is going to Philly — but it’s the scene when he finally relinquishes and says, “It’s your turn. Will you take me with you to Philadelphia please?” that makes the episode so convincing.

The State Championship game comes down to a final play, the Lions down by five points with three seconds remaining. The last shot of the game is a single 63-yard Hail Mary pass thrown down the field in slow motion. But just as the ball is about to be caught (or dropped?) we suddenly cut to eight months later, to an epilogue montage that gives us brief glimpses at the lives of Friday Night Lights’s characters. (The Lions’ victory is divulged, but only in passing.)

The delayed reveal of the Lions’ win is a clever way to build suspense over the outcome, but it also proves that the game itself doesn’t matter. We’re more interested in the fates of the players than the final score, because whether or not a ball is caught doesn’t change the course of anyone’s life. And maybe that’s the hardest part of selling Friday Night Lights to the uninitiated: it’s a show about football where the football is the least important part.


Photo by David Clow

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.