Thanks to on demand and DVD, great canceled shows are no longer gone forever. Pat Brothwell reminds us why Friday Night Lights is worth your time.
On February 9, 2011, the lights went out in Dillon, Texas. Not enough people were cheering from the sidelines, even though those who did show up gave it their all, and with little fanfare, one of best written shows of the past few years scored its final touchdown. I’ll stop with the terrible metaphors now. It’s just, looking back, I’m bummed I was one of those who in a sense, pulled the proverbial light switch.
Like many of you out there, I’m a fan of the new ways of watching television technology has bestowed upon us. I never was a regular TV watcher because I could never get behind the concept of having to be home at a certain time, just to watch a show. In fact, I laughed at those who had a “TV schedule.” Fortunately I don’t have this problem because of the new phenomenon known as binge-watching. I can watch at my own pace and discover entire series that slapped past. Friday Night Lights is the most recent of said series.
I started the series aptly, on a Friday when I didn’t have much else going on. By Sunday night I had finished all 22 episodes of season 1 and was midway through season 2. I’d never devoted myself to television that stringently or finished an entire series so fast. I was done with all five seasons in a little over two weeks and it only took that long because my job inconveniently got in the way. I cried three or four times (maybe more, but that’s all I’m admitting to). I can’t remember ever being that emotionally invested in a show; the emotions with FNL ran the gamut from sad to happy tears and despite only meeting these characters two weeks prior, I felt a sort of void, knowing that the stories of the players and coaches and students of Dillon High were all but finished.
I mention this new way of watching television because Friday Night Lights is one that could have benefitted from DVR and HULU. It can certainly be argued that the series was cut down in its prime. Despite being critically lauded, it was never what you’d call a ratings juggernaut. It struggled in its Friday night time slot and was almost cancelled several times; devoted fans sending broken glass into NBC and imploring them to not “put the lights out” gave it an additional three seasons, but that was all it got. I’d say the only good thing to come out of this is that the creators were able to give fans a definitive ending, to provide a sense of closure and hope for these beloved characters.
I didn’t watch because a Friday night time slot would have interfered with my collegiate extra curriculars. Part of me also wonders whether I would’ve liked it as much then as I do now. Despite being a show where a large focus is on young adults navigating through high school and the first years of college, I think I especially enjoyed it because I’d already lived those moments. I found myself relating to a lot of the characters and often not in flattering ways. At the time the series played, I would have been exhibiting these unflattering ways and probably would’ve convinced myself that I was better or smarter than the characters; it’s only hindsight that allows me to know I’m not.
For those of you unaware, Friday Night Lights is based off of the film of the same name, which in turn is based off of the non-fiction novel Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, A Dream, which chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. The show chronicles 5 seasons of the fictional Dillon Panthers. The book, as well as the television show, both celebrates the positive impact football can have and at the same time is a scathing indictment of the negativity it can wrought on those touched by it.
I grew up in small town not unlike Dillon. Unlike Dillon, we didn’t have a football team. In fact, up until five years ago when I took a job teaching in a big football school, that microcosm of American society was extremely foreign to and maybe another reason I didn’t watch the show in its heyday. But, even though Dillon is defined by its football, FNL’s accurate portrayals of the other idiosyncrasies and stock characters that populate its town hit close to home. The students of Dillon dressed like my high school friends. We hung out in restaurant parking lots and drank in cornfields and couldn’t escape the small town gossip mill if we’d tried (no, I didn’t grow up in a country song). Part of me wondered whether or not those who didn’t grow up in such small towns, maybe wouldn’t gravitate towards the series as much as I had. This was a stupid train of thought, because as I’ve already alluded, I’m not a football guy, and the games and team are the axis around which Dillon and the show rotates.
That being said, the true heart and soul of the show, what Friday Night Lights and any good show is about, is the people. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances have the same casual alcoholic tendencies as star running back Tim Riggins and I’ve seen them receive acceptance and not help. I sympathized with characters that didn’t quite fit in and laughed and cringed at familiar sibling dynamics and laughed at kicker Landry Clark’s amazing, well, weirdness. All of those things transcend football and small town life, even if I reluctantly found myself empathizing most with Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter who wanted to move onto bigger and better things, yet inexplicably finds herself unable to let go of “devil town” she grew up in.
That’s why Dillon is relatable. It’s arguably a protagonist in a way, but there’s something inherently dirty and desperate and corrupt and pathetic about the way it conducts itself. This is not Remember the Titans or Miracle or The Mighty Ducks. Dillon is seedy. Most of the characters have seedy sides. Friday Night Lights does not offer us clear cut answers or moral pedestals or apple pie role models, but rather explores the gray area that takes up so much of life. It’s the hallmark of good writing, and as one of my favorite authors, another sharp critic of Middle America, Tim O’Brien, more eloquently puts it, “A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand up on those mysteries.”
One thing that is black in white is the awesomeness of head Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami, superbly acted by Kyle Chandler (who won an overdue Emmy during the show’s final run) and my newest forever crush Connie Brittton, without question the actual core of the show. It’s refreshing to see a portrayal of a married couple that’s realistic and doesn’t ever have you question whether or not they’ll go down the will-they-or-won’t-they-stay together road, without being upliftingly sickening or saccharin. I want them to teach me life lessons over margaritas and shots of whiskey at the local Applebees, which is impressive because I didn’t think anything could make me want to drink at Applebees.
I could go on and on but I won’t. Those of you who’ve always been fans of the show are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “why couldn’t you have liked this four years ago?”, “why couldn’t you have helped keep the lights on.” I know, and I’m ashamed, but would else could I do? There’s five solid seasons. They can’t be tainted. They can still be enjoyed which is why I’m simply trying to pass on the good word.
I do remember hearing one of the taglines for the show back when it was on and rolling my eyes at what a stupid concept it was, and thinking that it would be the catchphrase for a show about high school football. It wasn’t stupid. I was. And now I’m firmly Texas Forever.