We seem to be on an entertainment streak this week, so this seemed as good a time as any to collect my thoughts on the bygone NBC cult hit “Friday Night Lights.” I’m terrified to report that throughout my viewing of all five seasons, I felt unusual things. I’m told these things were called “emotions.”
Along with most Americans, I did not watch the high school football drama while it was on the air. Despite critical praise and ardent fan support, the show never found much of a following. Blame network TV in general because by the time “24” and “Lost” started to suck, I was convinced that the networks would never again air a decent hour-long drama.
I stand totally corrected, and I can only say I’m glad I discovered FNL later rather than never. Like everyone else who’s watched the series’ entire run, I adored it, warts and all, from start to finish. Beyond being a mostly well-acted, largely well-written sports melodrama, it actually had a more compelling racial and economic subtext than one would expect from a show about rah-rah Texas football. The story—which follows the trials and tribulations of Coach Eric Taylor, his wife and daughter, and the romances and athletic obstacles of Dillon, Texas, high school football players—had so much potential to be overwrought, eye-rolling garbage, that I never quite got over how much it wasn’t.
I was continuously surprised by the genuine emotion the show could illicit. Maybe that’s simply because I’m a sucker for sports narratives. “He Got Game,” “Hardball,” “Remember the Titans”—it doesn’t really matter. If there’s a team rallying around each other or players discovering deeper layers to themselves through their sport, I’m in. “Friday Night Lights,” though set in Texas, reminded me again and again of high school in my hometown. Yet while trafficking in this seemingly easy, universal nostalgia for small town Americana, the show’s writers did not conjure some Fox News Garden of Eden, instead creating characters worthy of fulfilling both myth and reality.
From lecher-with-a-heart-of-gold car salesman Buddy Garrity to drunken bad boy stud Tim Riggins, from sharp-witted, consistently heartbroken Landry to the intelligent but surly Julie Taylor, the show felt populated by people that you knew in some other life. This familiarity breeds a loyalty that turns the viewer into a member of the Dillon community.
Of course the show’s central strength was Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach Taylor and his wife Tami. Though I hardly need to second the sentiment here, the two have such vivid on-screen chemistry, you have a hard time believing they’re not actually married. The central plotline of the show, season after season, was Coach Taylor serving as father figure to troubled kids who’d never known their own: Smash Williams, Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, and Vince Howard all abandoned by their dads, all seeking the approval and love of their football coach, who never blinks in his tough-minded support of them.
The show made Taylor Kitsch (as Riggins) a star, and to be sure there is an undeniable magnetism in Kitsch’s deadpan sense of humor and simmering cool.
(And yes, I understand the ladies like Kitsch. My buddy Eric reports that while watching the show with his wife, she would audibly gasp every time Riggins appeared on screen. I would say this should serve as a warning to guys who plan to watch it with their girlfriends if Minka Kelly as Lyla Garrity wasn’t so eyeball-meltingly hot.)
But for me the standout among the students was always Zach Gilford as the accidental quarterback, Matt Saracen. Playing a kid with two absent parents who ends up in the starting role after a tragic play fells up-and-coming superstar Jason Street, Gilford’s shy mumble and tenacious attitude on the field make him possibly the most rootable-for television character ever. When the show cashes in on its Iraq war plotline, I was again shocked by how much sorrow it wrung out of me, with that particular development not feeling the least bit contrived but genuinely moving, tragic, and evocative of the sacrifices of the times.