[13 April 2011]
The fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights offers not only an excellent conclusion to the series, but also puts a fitting cap onto five years of the wonderful characters inhabiting the small Texas town of Dillon. Perhaps the show’s biggest hurdle to overcome in drawing viewers lay in its often-misunderstood premise and perceived audience. Friday Night Lights is not just for the football fan, although it certainly could be. Instead, it offers an intertwined group of characters dealing with their messy lives while football serves as the backdrop.
At the end of last season, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) was at East Dillon High School, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks counterpart to his former job at West Dillon High School. While the West Dillon Panthers have resources and talent to spare, the East Dillon Lions are a ragtag group with little funding and more budget cuts to come. Similarly, Tami (Connie Britton) has also moved to East Dillon as guidance counselor, leaving behind her position as principal at West Dillon. They are more comfortable as time has passed, but the differences between the two schools looms large throughout the season.
Additionally, as the fifth season begins, many changes are in the air: Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and Landry (Jesse Plemons) are going away to college, Tim (Taylor Kitsch) is in prison with three months left of his sentence, and our returning football players are ready to begin another season. Vince (Michael B. Jordan), Luke (Matt Lauria), Jess (Jurnee Smollett), and Becky (Madison Burge) are given storylines that show faith in these newer characters as worthy successors to Jason, Tyra, Matt, and Lyla, among others.
Jordan is especially good, alternately cocky and vulnerable, as the Lions quarterback also dealing with his father’s sudden reappearance in his life. At the same time, Luke’s life is filled with complications as he attempts to use football as his way into college, reconnect with Becky, now living with Billy (Derek Phillips) and Mindy (Stacey Oristano). Becky’s new living situation opens up her character to be a teenager, with Mindy as a surrogate parent. Burge and Oristano do a beautiful job of selling the initial reluctance, and eventual affection that grows, in their relationship. Finally, Jess is given the position of the Lions’ equipment manager, essentially doing laundry for the team, but she relishes any opportunity to learn from Coach Taylor. Her dream is to one day be a football coach and his mentorship to Jess offers further understanding of both characters.
The first episode of the season finds Coach Taylor attempting to recruit basketball player, Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), to the football team. Ruckle is uninterested and says that football is all violence and aggression, while Coach insists it’s about “teamwork and character”. In essence, Coach’s view is what the series is all about. While football does play a significant role, the series is more focused on the ways in which football can be used to tell stories about family and community. Perhaps no better word describes Friday Night Lights as well as community, and Dillon, Texas is as gripping as it is because of the shared triumphs and struggles of this community.
Friday Night Lights has always excelled in illuminating the big, life-changing events through small moments. There’s an intimacy to the series that is achieved technically through the use of frequent close-ups and sometimes shaky camera work, but also through the naturalistic, often improvised acting choices of its actors. Whether it be the tapping of Matt’s grandmother’s feet in a rocking chair or the Taylors having dinner at home, there is an attention to detail that makes the seemingly mundane a genuine window into these lives. Friday Night Lights often achieves a great deal with very little and it is an integral part of what makes the series as compelling as it is.
At the core of the series has always been the Taylor family. They are the center from which stories really come together. Even as it seems they are on the sidelines, such as Vince’s problematic relationship with his father or Tim having trouble adjusting to his family after prison, Eric and Tami are in the background as figures of support and examples of leadership. Vince and Tim admire and learn from their uncompromising morals and sincere commitment to those they care about.
While the majority of the season created successful stories around such a large ensemble, even including some retuning favorites to further wrap up their connections to Dillon, one story was less effective. Julie’s difficult adjustment at college leads to an affair with her TA, a tired, unoriginal story that thankfully, didn’t last too long. Though Friday Night Lights has had previous storylines that also seem to stick out as well worn and unfortunately, unsatisfying, they are easily forgiven in what they do right. It shines is in the stories that you think you’ve seen time and again, yet the series manages to bring a depth of feeling and emotion to them that makes them seem fresh and in turn, affecting.
Friday Night Lights is a series that has had more obstacles thrown in its way than most. From the writer’s strike, to constant threats of cancellation looming, to a last-minute deal with DirecTV, the series has continued for five seasons, almost by miracle alone. Here, in its final season, the show has found a way to make all these difficulties irrelevant. In the end, Friday Night Lights managed to create striking moments out of the small and intimate. It created characters and a sense of place that offered real investment for the viewer, all the while quietly and unassumingly retaining its central premise of family, friendship, and community. Texas forever, indeed.
The DVD includes worthwhile deleted scenes; a featurette on the end of the series, “The Lights Go Out”; and two commentaries. They offer further insight into the show’s technical approach and serve as a fitting addition to the final DVD.