If there were justice in the complicated realm of pop culture, “Friday Night Lights” would have spent the past five years loading up on Emmy awards and adorning magazine covers. Instead, it has mostly lurked on the prime-time sidelines as television’s most understated and underappreciated masterpiece.
Perhaps it needed some kind of attention-seizing hook. A small-town drama about high school football and so much more, “Friday Night Lights” contains no raunchy vampire sex or Mafia goons. Its young characters haven’t been juiced-up and Snooki-fied. The driven head coach at the center of the show (Kyle Chandler) has only one wife (Connie Britton), who, believe it or not, does not peddle pot on the side.
No, all this show has going for it is some superb writing, exceptional acting and a slew of heartfelt stories about ordinary folk that typically provide at least one lump-in-the-throat moment per episode. Vampire sex, apparently, was never a viable option.
“Friday Night Lights” kicks off its fifth and final season on NBC this week (the season previously aired on DirecTV and is already available on DVD). That means its small but rabid band of supporters has one last chance to break out the pom-poms and lead some passionate cheers for this unique gem.
As always, it would be nice to have a few more warm bodies in the booster section.
I know what you’re thinking: Here’s another preachy TV critic spewing an eat-your-vegetables kind of sermon. Guess again. I’m urging you to give “Friday Night Lights” a chance not because it’s good for you in the way that say, “The Wire,” is good for you. I’m urging you to watch because this just might be the blind date that pays off in the TV love of your life.
From town rabble-rouser Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and troubled but talented quarterback Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), to beauty-queen heartbreaker Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) and headstrong Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett), this show is teeming with characters who worm their way into your heart. Just give them two or three episodes to form a bond and, odds are, you’ll find yourself cheering their triumphs, crying over their disappointments and cringing at their mistakes. Why? Because they feel so incredibly honest and real.
And speaking of real, the performances of Chandler and Britton as Eric and Tami Taylor are off-the-charts brilliant. Like any long-wedded couple, their characters frustrate and annoy one another, but at the end of the day they always fall back into each other’s arms. With a pleasing mixture of humor, warmth and playfulness, they personify TV’s most authentic depiction of a modern marriage — and they do it so well that you forget these are actors at work.
Adapted from a book and movie of the same name, “Friday Night Lights” debuted in 2006, focusing on a high school football team based in fictional Dillon, Texas, and on its coach and his family. Over the years, the series has deftly examined this small town’s near religious devotion to football and how its dreams of achieving glory through sport often collide with harsh reality.
But in “Friday Night Lights,” football is mainly used as a way to tap into a rich tapestry of engaging relationships and to explore an array of personal and social issues. For example, a Season 4 episode in which a player’s estranged father dies in Iraq offered a moving portrait of a young man coming to grips with both his grief and anger. That same season, a student had an abortion — a rarity in prime time — and the show handled the potentially combustible plot line with remarkable nuance.
“Friday Night Lights” separates itself from the TV pack in other ways, as well. For one, it defies TV’s trendy fascination with anti-heroes. Chandler’s Coach Taylor is an old-fashioned straight-shooter, a Gary Cooper-esque character who stands for hard work, honor, discipline and respect. He instills those values in his players while managing to not come across as corny or cynical as he voices his long-running mantra: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”
Even the way “Friday Night Lights” is filmed contributes to its originality. Actors are encouraged to improvise in order to create scenes that feel spontaneous and authentic. Meanwhile, the camera works in slow, exploratory takes that allow intimate details and emotions to emerge.
In true underdog fashion, “Friday Night Lights” overcame several obstacles to establish itself as a scrappy survivor. Thanks to a unique revenue-sharing deal between NBC and DirecTV, it survived modest ratings. It also survived an uncharacteristically sensationalistic Season 2 murder subplot that turned off core loyalists. And later, it survived the departure of several beloved characters.
The bittersweet farewell season provides many new challenges and possibilities for the citizens of Dillon, some of whom will set their sights beyond the city limits. As an added bonus, several familiar faces return to leave their mark, including Zach Gilford, Adrianne Palicki, Scott Porter and Minka Kelly.
Even if ratings for Season 5 on NBC turn out to be less than impressive, I hold out hope that enthusiastic word-of-mouth advertising will allow the show to find new fans in the coming years via DVD. My advice? Just embrace this show with clear eyes and a full heart, and you can’t lose.
Here’s a look at some primary players in “Friday Night Lights”:
ERIC TAYLOR (Kyle Chandler): A high school football coach who won a Texas state championship with the Dillon Panthers. Became a victim of back-room poltics and was forced out of that job. Moved across town to coach at East Dillon, a poorly funded, racially diverse program. THIS SEASON: He faces off-field uncertainty as budget woes may shut down the program.
TAMI TAYLOR (Connie Britton): Strong-willed wife of coach Taylor and mother of two. Former principal at Dillon HS, now a student counselor at East Dillon. THIS SEASON: She becomes frustrated in her new job and eyes an enticing opportunity at a Philadelphia college.
JULIE TAYLOR (Aimee Teegarden): College-bound daughter of Eric and Tami, and ex-girlfriend of former Dillon HS quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). THIS SEASON: A budding college relationship brings major complications.
VINCE HOWARD (Michael B. Jordan): Talented, but troubled, East Dillon QB who took up the sport late in life after run-ins with the law. THIS SEASON: Football stardom goes to his head and a figure from his past reenters his life.
JESS MERRIWEATHER (Jurnee Smollett): East Dillon student, avid football fan and girlfriend of Vince Howard. THIS SEASON: Joins the football program as a team manager and considers a future in the sport.
LUKE CAFFERTY (Matt Lauria): Running back for East Dillon. Attracted unwanted attention when a one-night stand with classmate Becky Sproles resulted in a pregnancy and, ultimately, an abortion. THIS SEASON: Hopes to forge a genuine relationship with Becky, who doesn’t appear interested.
BECKY SPROLES (Madison Burge): East Dillon student with an ongoing crush on former Panthers’ star Tim Riggins. After her abortion, moved in with Tim’s brother Billy and,his wife, Mindy. THIS SEASON: Tries hard to get over Tim.
TIM RIGGINS (TAYLOR KITSCH): Resident wild boy and former football standout who dropped out of college. Serving time in prison after taking the rap for brother Billy, who was operating a chop shop. THIS SEASON: Emerges from prison with a chip on his shoulder.
SEEING THE ‘LIGHTS’
Excuses, excuses. Yeah, we know: Despite all the critical acclaim, you still haven’t watched “Friday Night Lights.” Of course, you have your reasons. Now let us politely dismiss them:
—You’re not a football fan: No problem. “FNL” is much more about families and friendships than X’s and O’s. Football, in fact, often fades to the background. Anyway, did you need to be a surgeon to watch “ER”?
— You hate teen soaps: Yes, the show is heavily stocked with high school-based characters, but it also focuses on their parents and other adults. Even better: “FNL” doesn’t have the melodramatic flourishes and/or ultra-heightened dialogue of many teen shows.
— You’re not drawn to Texas: It doesn’t matter. The stories are relatable, and so are the characters. Spend some quality time with them and they’ll begin to feel like your neighbors.
— It’s too late to start watching now: No, it’s not. “FNL” is an easily accessible show. You can either jump right in now (Season 5 opens with a fresh school year), or start at the beginning (every season is available on DVD).
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
8 p.m. EDT Friday