Every so often, you’ll run into someone who claims to hold television at arm’s length, like a nervous type holds a baby’s stinky diaper. And, in many cases, it’s hard to argue, since a lot of what appears on the small screen barely rises above the level of guilty pleasure, with far more emphasis on guilty than pleasure.
But, occasionally, a show so exceeds expectations that you not only don’t feel guilty about loving it, you want to hijack a stadium’s public address system and boom to the world about the marvelous piece of art that you’ve found.
For five seasons, “Friday Night Lights” has been such a gift, that piece of popular culture that not only entertains, but nourishes the mind and the soul, the kind of show for which you’re thankful that you have a television.
The show, which has received a Peabody Award, a Humanitas Award and received accolades from the Television Critics Association is loosely based on a movie that starred Billy Bob Thornton,. The film’s origins, in turn, were taken from Buzz Bissinger’s Pulitzer Prize winning study of the culture of high school football as it affected life in Odessa, Texas. I’ve sampled “Friday Night Lights” in all three forms, and while the book and movie are spectacular, the television series is the best of the three.
At its core was coach Eric Taylor, his wife, Tami, and their daughters, Julie and Grace. I’ve watched television for more than 40 years, and with the possible exception of Kate and Doug Lawrence, the parents from the seminal “Family” series in the 1970′s, I have a hard time recalling a marriage more realistically portrayed than that of the Taylors.
Yes, the exceptional writing played a large part in that, but the overwhelming reason that “FNL” nailed the Taylors so well was because of the inspired casting of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. The two of them behaved and talked to each other like a real married couple would. They fought, and disagreed and made up and parented just the way real people do. Few television characters have said more with their expressions than Eric and Tami Taylor, and it’s not by accident that both Chandler and Britton have received Emmy nominations in the last two years, including for this year.
But they were hardly the only remarkable characters. As Julie Taylor, Aimee Teegarden grew up before our eyes, moving from shallow teenager to poised young woman, eminently capable of making her parents proud and breaking their hearts. Her boyfriend, quarterback Matt Saracen (played by Zach Gilford) likewise matures and blossoms. Gilford’s work in the fourth season was nothing short of brilliant and should have been rewarded with at least an Emmy nomination. And Taylor Kitsch’s portrayal of fullback Tim Riggins, the embodiment of a kid who falls and gets back up and falls and gets back up again, earning a sense of nobility in the process, was extraordinary.
More than any other series in television history, “FNL” got the football right. The hitting looked authentic, the injuries were realistic and the Panthers and Lions, the two teams depicted in the show, occasionally lost. Not often, mind you, but enough to lend legitimacy to the storylines.
And unlike other series set in and around high schools, the students in the fictitious town of Dillon were allowed to age naturally and graduate and move on. Characters were allowed to return, and even have a post-graduation storyline, but you never had the specter of 30-year-old actors and actresses straining to play 15-year olds.
If this sounds like a valedictory, well, sadly it is. The lights go out in Dillon on Friday for the final time. I want to hate NBC for failing to give this rapturous show the time and publicity it deserved. But, the truth is that NBC gave the show at least two more years than it would have gotten, say, at CBS, by working a deal with Direct TV, which shared production costs with NBC for the last two seasons and got to air the episodes in the fall, leaving the reruns for the broadcast network in the spring and summer.
And to the lasting credit and wisdom of folks at ESPN Classic, they’ve begun airing reruns of the show. Also, all five seasons are available on DVD, and yes, I own them all.
The final episode, which airs Friday at 8 p.m., was nominated for an Emmy for writing, and the series finally got the Best Drama Series nomination it should have received from the very beginning. By the time Coach Taylor utters the motto that serves as the title of this post, you’ll be in tears and not just because of the storyline, but also for the loss of one of the best reasons to own a television.