Friday Night Lights: A Retrospective on the Best Network TV Show Ever

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post is long. Like, super, ridiculous, "should be in some sort of academic journal that no one reads unless they are forced to come up with another reference for a paper" long. Even still, there are a thousand things I love about Friday Night Lights that I didn't have time or space to write about. The incredible music, the gorgeous cinematography, the fact that it has made me a lifelong fan of a number of the performers, etc. I'm sure I've missed some important notes along the way. If you're a fan of the show I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you loved, what I missed, etc. Also, for those who haven't watched this show but still have nothing better to do than plow through this column, I did my best to avoid spoilers, with the exception of what happens in the pilot. So delve in at your own risk and go watch the show for yourself regardless. It's just the best. 

Right off the bat, I must confess I came very late to the Friday Night Lights party and my wife likes to give me grief for this. When this show popped up on our “Shows you might like” Netflix Instant interface, she immediately added it to the queue and started watching. She preached its virtues for months despite my protestations that I didn’t believe the show could be any good and made many FNL converts out of our group of friends. Still I resisted, digging my heels in even deeper and refusing to give it a chance. In my defense, it should be noted that my wife has horrible taste in movies and TV dramas. She balances this with excellent decision making when it comes to music and food, but we do not always see eye to eye on TV/movies. Our DVD shelf is littered with wretched programming that I tend to hide away when we have company and often I’ll find a new recording on our DVR that boggles my mind with its awfulness. If the CW has a new show, you can bet my wife will be tuning in.  I, on the other hand, stayed away from FNL for three reasons:

1.) I hate high school dramas. HATE THEM. If there is a stronger word for hate that is invented in the future, I hope that someone from that time period will go into this post and insert that word in place of hate. My disdain for high school-related TV shows cannot be stressed enough.
2.) As an impassioned, obsessed, self-appointed sports expert, I had never seen a TV show that had done the sporting side of their sports-related drama correctly. A few have come close, but most of the time, when a TV show ventures into the world of sport, it’s an unmitigated disaster.
3.) Everything about FNLsuggested that it would be off the air by the middle of the first season and man, it can be tough to buy into a show that you know isn’t going to last. (See: the serious ratings dip for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)

Eventually, though, I started hearing recommendations for FNL from other sources and decided I had to give it a chance. I started my FNLjourney last year, after the show had already ended, and I have spent a fair amount of time over that period hating myself for not being a full-fledged member of the bandwagon from day one. I have a personal history of being ahead of the curve when it comes to great TV shows and to have missed on this one hurts my pride. What I found when I finally started digging into the show was that the drama contained within FNLwas much more significant and REAL than any high school related show I’d ever seen, that the football scenes were incredibly well designed if not always realistic, and that, like Firefly, even if the show had been cancelled after 10 episodes, it still would have been incredibly worthwhile. Through a combination of the rabid support of a small following, a creative agreement between NBC and DIRECT TV, and the lack of ratings-grabbing content in the NBC stable, FNLmade it through five seasons and 76 episodes and became what is, for my money, the best network drama ever. It felt wrong to love a show as much as I love this one and not write something about it.

So what follows is a somewhat haphazard look at what made Friday Night Lights such an incredible achievement to force those of you who haven’t watched it yet to get on board while simultaneously providing a feather for the proverbial hat for any longtime fan who had the good sense to embrace this show long before I did.
NOTE: For this piece, I drew extensively from an oral history of the show published on Grantland last year. You should really check this sucker out

How many times have you watched a show and thought to yourself, “I like this show but (this actor) drives me nuts” or “If (this actor) was replaced by someone else, this show would really be good?” I do it all the time and I tend to fixate on those flaws after a while. Even shows that I love and stay locked into for years often come along with a bad actor or maybe one who just doesn’t quite fit. Sometimes these situations work themselves out and the misfit finds an acting groove but regardless, it’s something many shows have to contend with. 24 is one of my favorite shows of all time and I will swear by its virtues until my dying day. But Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) is one of the biggest beatings in recent TV history. Her character is awful, sure, but it’s partly due to Cuthbert who, bless her heart, just cannot hang with the intensity of the narrative or Kiefer Sutherland himself. It happens.

Show creator  Peter Berg and casting director Linda Lowry had three serious issues to contend with in casting Friday Night Lights:

1.) The majority of the characters are kids, a death knell to many a movie or TV show. Sure, most of the important actors were in their early twenties when they were cast to play high-schoolers but still, young actors are about as big of a wildcard as you can get in the making of a hit show.

2.) FNL is essentially an ensemble and given the tight budget a show like this is handed, virtually ALL of the actors were completely unknown. Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor) was the lead in Early Editionbut I think he and almost everyone else would like to strike that from the record. Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins) had one episode of Kyle XYunder his belt. And Minka Kelly (Layla Garrity) was working as a scrub nurse, for goodness sake. It didn’t quite come down to taking people off the street but that’s not far from the truth.
3.) The cast almost completely turned over after three seasons. As with any high school-related show, the issue of what you do when the kids graduate was a big one and the decision to bring in a new class was as dangerous as it gets. How many high school shows have attempted this and failed? Answer: ALL OF THEM.

Considering all of these challenges, what Berg and Lowry did in putting the cast of Friday Night Lights together is almost unheard of. Needing to fill spots for a litany of important characters and armed only with the “name value” of the dude from Early Edition, they meticulously combed through thousands of audition tapes and selected the right person for EVERY. SINGLE. ROLE. I’m not sure that feat completely registered for me until season four when “the new class” rolled in. Having grown insanely attached to the characters from the original cast, I was wary of these new interlopers and their different school and their lack of proper respect for Coach Taylor. And by the end of the first episode I was once again hooked. That just doesn’t happen, guys. You don’t take a handful of characters that everyone loves deeply, phase them out, and the replace them with a new set that is possibly even more relatable. Those newbies, also a batch of complete unknowns, all hit their marks beautifully and immediately made the show their own. I feel good in saying that in casting the 50 or so characters that really mattered over the course of five seasons, the only misstep Berg and Lowry made was Gracie Bell and her seriously unfortunate forehead.

The first point for which FNL must be commended for is the pilot. More often than not, pilot episodes suck. There’s really no other way to put it. Many of my favorite shows have miserable pilots. (See: Community.) It’s just an expected thing in Hollywood. The pilot is designed to paint a picture about what the show will be in the broadest stroke possible, in the hopes that a wide ranging audience will come back for the subsequent episodes. Very few shows come out of the gate with a bang and those that do stick with you for a very long time. The pilots for Arrested Development, which set the stage for the many absurdities that were to come perfectly, and The Shield, in which we see the clash between good cop and bad illustrated with ruthless flair, are two examples that stand out as immense successes.

Friday Night Light’s pilot is the best I’ve ever seen and it is even better looking back at the whole of the show’s run. Berg (who directed the pilot) was able to do more with five minutes and perhaps 10 lines of dialogue than most dramas can cover in a half season in terms of laying character ground work. By the first commercial break, you feel as if you know exactly who all of the key players are and how their on screen lives will play out. You can play “High School Label Bingo” with this cast and in quick succession mark off all the important boxes. “You’re the drunk, you’re the jock, you’re the golden boy, you’re the whore…” and on down the list. This allows the viewer to immediately begin making connections to the character of his/her choice and moreover, each character is almost instantly tagged with the appropriate label that they carry with them and the baggage that comes along with it. Within five minutes and very limited exposition, you know all you need to know about Tim Riggins to understand his starting point.


Moreover, this sense of familiarity that you get from the pilot sets you up perfectly for the script to be flipped, which is exactly what Berg set out to do. In that Grantland article, Berg says he intended to set up Jason Street (Scott Porter) as some sort of all-American, golden boy… “and then demolish him.” In 40 minutes, Street goes from a small town hero on a sure path to the NFL to a vegetable. You can feel it coming and you know something is afoot but it’s still a shocking, sobering turn of events. In so many ways, what happens to Street is just an allegory for what will happen to the entire cast over the course of five seasons. Berg places each of his characters in these little cookie cutter boxes and then proceeds to break them out in a way that very few shows are capable of. But speaking specifically for the pilot, the drama that unfolds in the final five minutes is gripping, engrossing, and rife with a level of emotionalism that you just don’t feel in a pilot. The cuts from the game to Street’s surgery to the gathering of the players outside the room, all backed by one of the greatest voiceovers EVER…it’s an exquisite episode that immediately sucks you into the show whether you want to be or not.

This point is very personal for me. As I said before, the portrayal of sports in TV shows is usually a cringe-inducing experience for me. I grew up in sports, I work in sports, and if there is any worldly thing I love more than movies and TV, it is sports. Because of this, anytime a show ventures into the sporting world, I key in on every single flaw. I notice if the jerseys are the wrong color, if the equipment looks cheap, if the court has been shrunk, etc. I often (and perhaps unfairly) hold sports movies to a much higher standard than I do, say, a movie about journalism.

I cannot remember a TV show that handled its sporting content with as much respect as FNL does. The on-field action is consistently stellar and only slightly “moviefied.” That is to say, pretty much everything that happens on the field is within the realm of possibilities. The clock may not always run in real time and certainly, the Dillon Panthers lead the world in last second victories but it all looks real and I can’t really think of anything that happens that you would have to call completely bogus. It’s much more than the appearance of the game action, however. The true value of sport cannot be found in just the winning or the losing; it is found in the playing, in the work, in the preparation, and in the aftermath. That’s where most sport-related shows miss the mark: they’ll show the triumph of victory and the heartbreak of defeat, but they struggle in delving into the concept of growing through the process of playing a sport.


FNL, on the other hand, thrives in this department. Football is used as a conduit to show the struggles, the victories, and the growth of a set of boys as they become men. This allows not only for character development and plot exposition, but it also gives FNL a sense of sporting authenticity that you very rarely see. Winning and losing is balanced by the concepts of brotherhood, responsibility, maturity, the facing of adversity, etc. that come along with sport. You get to see just how important a coach can be to a player and the difference one man/woman can make in the lives of dozens of others. And sure, we’ve undoubtedly romanticized the value of sport but regardless, it’s a feeling imbedded in each and every sports fan and no show puts that on display better than FNL.

I think all three of these topics fit together nicely in regards to FNL. In the aforementioned pilot, Tim Riggins raises his beer in toast and simply says, “Texas forever.” That’s a sentiment that I, as a born and raised Texan, can easily embrace and I’m definitely not alone in that. Very few states (or nations, for that matter) have as much pride as we do and while that’s got to be a total beating to the rest of you (which I completely and totally understand, by the way) it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. That said, so many Texas-related movies and shows fall into one of two camps: either they’re disparaging toward our state (I'm talking to you, Courtney Kerr) or they’re so Texas-centric that no one else can embrace them. The 2004 version of The Alamo is one of my favorite films but there’s no way anyone from outside the state of Texas could enjoy it. FNL paints an accurate picture of small town Texas without fervently (and annoyingly) preaching its merits to “outsiders” or treating its subjects as a bunch of backwater, goat roping hillbillies. That’s quite a rare combination.

One way in which this fair treatment of Texas culture is illustrated is in the presentation of faith within FNL. Whether you yourself hold any sort of spiritual beliefs or not, the majority of the humans in this state would count themselves as “Christians” or “believers” if you were to conduct a census. That percentage jumps up quite significantly when you venture into small town Texas. As such, most of the characters in FNL hold some sort of faith and many actively engage with that faith on some level. Minus a somewhat strange tangent for Layla Garrity, you can’t consider any of the characters Bible thumpers or people who express their faith in a Tebownian fashion, but the sentiment, the presence of faith and spirituality, runs through many aspects of the show. Church going is a way of life, the players frequently engage in the obligatory pre-game prayer, etc. and I think the showrunners did an excellent job of showing that without preaching for it or against it.

I’ve made no secret of my own faith, either in my personal life off the internet or in this space here. I’m a Christian and I work for a church. That said, I don’t need the overt expression of faith or spirituality in a movie or TV show in order to get on board. In fact, more often than not it makes me quite uncomfortable as it is usually displayed in a way that either demeans anyone of a different faith (or no faith) or, much more common, demeans the faithful themselves as dimwitted or foolish for being spiritual. Within the confines of FNL, Christianity simply IS. It’s a part of life on the show because in small town Texas it most certainly IS a part of life and FNL not only allows that to exist but casts it in a light that I would think even the most staunch Christian and the most staunch atheist could accept. I have no idea what Peter Berg’s personal faith is and frankly, I don’t care as it pertains to this show; what he (and everyone involved with the show) chose to do with FNL was to keep it genuine, and genuine calls for a fair, balanced approach to this topic. And as a real student of this subject, I'd say that's a rare feat.

FNL took this presence of Southern/Texas/Downhome sensibility to another level whenever it chose to tackle the concept of family. I am keenly aware that to this point in this column, I have described some aspect of this show as, “the best I’ve ever seen” or something similar. I know, but I’m going to do it again and this probably won’t be the last time. There have been any number of TV shows over the last 20 years that have focused in heavily on the family dynamic and many have done so quite well. But very, VERY few have ever taken it on with the fierce accuracy or balance the way FNLdid. Good or bad, family plays into almost every ounce of our being in some way or another and FNL showed that brilliantly. Any number of difficult things happen throughout the course of the show’s five seasons: divorce, death, unplanned pregnancy, alcoholism, and on down the line. You name it and the show handled it at some point. And in almost every case, the role of family comes into play in the way each issue is tackled and that’s not always a good thing (and for many of the characters, it’s NEVER a good thing).

FNL takes the concept of family to a whole other level, though, when you start to look at the role of surrogate family within the walls of the show. I have always gravitated to characters (and the movies and shows in which they exist) that form surrogate families with those around them to replace the lack of relationships they have with their biological family. Boy Meets World contains one of the best examples of this as Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) literally became a part of the Matthews family over the course of the show’s seven seasons. As a teenager I became keenly aware that, for me at least, the concept of “family” is much more fluid than just blood and quite frankly, the bond of blood doesn’t hold a candle to the bond of experience. FNL plays directly into this on a consistent basis. Players form familial units with other players through the challenges of football; Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips) steps in as a caretaker for a teenage girl he doesn’t really even know; and at the forefront of it all, Eric and Tami Taylor become the parents for a host of kids who come through their programs, some of whom have no one at home to guide them and some who have great home lives but simply need that extra bond. It’s not as if this is a new concept to television, but it is handled with a subtlety and nuance that most shows do not have.

Recently I read a review of The Princess Bride and told the reviewer that for me, the best thing about the movie is that it’s difficult to choose my favorite character. “I think it’s probably Inigo but Fessik is glorious and oh, then there’s Miracle Max…” Watching all 76 episodes of FNLinvolved having that exact discussion with myself 76 times. Ask ten FNL fans who their favorite character is and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Contrast that with other great network TV dramas. Who’s your favorite character in 24? If it’s not Jack Bauer the only other acceptable answer is Chloe. What about The X-Files? Mulder or Scully, right? (And be honest, if someone answers Scully you judge them a little.) There’s no clear cut answer with FNLand that is a testament to the strength of every person who happens to pass through Dillon, Texas.

This is where FNL really separates itself from the pack. You could create a show with all of these other elements; you could cast perfectly, shoot a killer pilot, and handle all of your various subjects in uncanny fashion. But if your characters aren’t great, your show will eventually (or immediately) fall flat. And by great, of course I mean, “Otherworldly good in such a way that you will spend the rest of your life trying to decide which one is your favorite.” Tami Taylor is one of the strongest female characters you’ll ever see on screen. Few characters progress and mature the way Billy Riggins does. Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) perfectly personifies that kid that everyone knew growing up who just needed to catch one break in life. The desire to root for a given character has rarely been more universal than it is for Tim Riggins. And Coach Taylor…well, Coach Taylor might just be the best person in the world, fictional or otherwise. That doesn’t even take into account Layle, Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), and a literal host of others who might very well be the best character on any other program.

Finding a weak link amongst these characters is a tall order. For the sake of this piece, I spent quite a bit of time looking back on and sorting through all the characters looking for a miss, for a character that doesn’t measure up to the standards set by the rest of the field. I came up empty. If I had to pick a player from the original cast who doesn’t quite fit, I guess I would choose Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) who I consider to be a little shallower than the rest, but even still, Smash is a superb creation. With almost every other show that I love or have loved through the years I can go through and pick out at least one character that I could live without. The aforementioned Kim Bauer is a total wreck, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) whipped the fire out of me on Mad Men, and Nellie Bertram (Catherine Tate) routinely destroyed any sort of momentum The Office managed to create for itself last season. But from both a quality and quantity standpoint, FNL is essentially flawless in this department across the board.

These are rich, weighty characters that we’re dealing with here and that, combined with the aforementioned strength of the pilot, creates an atmosphere that almost forces you to buy in, to INVEST in the characters and by proxy, the show. And it only gets better from there. FNL does in one, maybe two, episodes what some shows that I love have struggled to do over the course of several seasons. The characters are meticulously and ingeniously crafted and perhaps even more ingeniously written from week to week. I (and everyone else I’ve ever spoken to about the show) care about the residents of Dillon, Texas in a manner that should probably be reserved only for close personal friends and immediate family members. I had trouble sleeping one night because in the episode I finished up with that night, Tim Riggins found himself in yet another batch of trouble and I couldn’t help but worry about him no matter how idiotic that may sound. That sense of family and brotherhood that FNL builds between its characters is extended lovingly toward the audience and after a few hours you feel as much as part of Coach Taylor’s team as anyone actually wearing that uniform.

Moreover, the relationships formed between the characters stand as some of the most compelling examples of human interaction that I’ve ever seen. Saracen cares for his challenging grandmother; Billy Riggins takes responsibility for Tim Riggins who in turn takes responsibility for Becky Sproles (Dora Madison Burge); and Tyra finds familial stability through her admittedly awkward relationship with Landry. At the forefront of it all is the relationship between Eric and Tami, a “marriage of equals” if ever there was one. Over and over these characters are put in tough, real-life situations and time and time again, they cling to each other, sometimes willingly, sometimes begrudgingly, but always they come together. Through it all the characters are enriched both individually and cumulatively and as such, their relationship with the audience is deepened week by week.

It’s also important to note the “goodness” of essentially every character that exists in the FNL universe. To a man, and woman, the people of Dillon have incredibly good hearts and a serious streak of morality runs through the town. That’s not to say that every character makes the right decision every time or that everything that takes place in the show is "wholesome." In fact, when watching FNL you consistently find yourself begging one character or another to not screw up again. But you never question their hearts or their inherent goodness. (Except for JD McCoy, of course. I think we can all agree, that little turd can just die.) That’s a refreshing characteristic in a show of this depth when compared to the other high quality shows of the day. If you asked me to name the best show currently on TV, I would say it’s a toss-up between Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy. My admiration for both of those shows and the characters within them is unquestionable and I thoroughly appreciate their many merits. But the fact of the matter is, every character on those shows is a terrible person. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) might be the best character currently on television, and I love him, but he’s a miserable human being and that’s not up for debate.

Contrast that with Coach Taylor: he’s a hard man with an intensity akin to that of Draper and a man who is quite honestly an incredible pain to live with; he’s not a guy that you want to cross. And yet, over and over again, Coach Taylor comes to the aid of anyone who happens to come across his path. You need a place to crash when you get kicked out of your house? There’s a sleeping bag in the garage. Your dad was just killed in combat? Guess who’s there to provide comfort. You need someone to be a character witness at your trial? Boom, Coach Taylor in the house. He doesn’t always want to be the good guy; there are plenty of times when it is abundantly clear that he would like to do nothing but focus on the upcoming football game which will, you know, decide whether or not he has a job next year, and yet he goes to aid of his third string quarterback because, at the end of the day, he’s the world’s greatest man. And sure, that sort of morality would never fly in the dark and shady world of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce but in the world of FNL, Coach Taylor stands as the anchor for everyone else and his goodness often holds the whole thing together.

As far as heterosexual males who do not have hormonal imbalances go, I’m probably in the 99th percentile of “frequent movie criers.” There are any number of things that can tear me up: kid stuff, war stuff, sports stuff, especially dog stuff, you name it and it’s likely that at some point I’ve gotten choked up about it in the context of a movie. If my life was The Sting and the director of an emotionally impactful film was Johnny Hooker, I would be described as an easy mark. For a long time I fought this affliction but now I embrace the madness (or the sadness, as it were) and don’t shy away from that which makes me weep because more often than not, the payoff for emoting is worth it.

This weekend I finished making my way through the FNL series. I cried. No, that’s not the correct term. More like, I wept like a small girl whose puppy had just been run over by a garbage truck…on her birthday. That’s fitting, considering I’ve given more tears to FNL over the course of my viewing than any other TV show or movie I’ve ever had the pleasure of involving myself with. No network TV drama that I’ve ever seen has been as affecting, as personal, or quite simply, as GOOD as FNL is. Sure, there are some missteps along the way (*cough* Season Two shenanigans*cough*) but every show goes through some growing pains and the writers did an amazing job of getting themselves out of the various jams that come up over the course of five seasons. FNL stands out as special, as an example of just how much you can accomplish with something as dumb as a TV show.

There’s a distinct and lingering impact that FNL leaves on its viewers. At a wedding last year I mentioned it in passing to a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while and we were immediately swamped by a set of passerbys who desperately needed to join in the conversation and compare experiences. It’s like we’re all members of this little club that went through a serious ordeal, some of it great and some of it heartbreaking, and to pass up the opportunity to discuss it would be a crime. I now spend time thinking that if Coach Taylor had been my coach for literally anything I would a professional at whatever he was coaching me at right now. I have debated with other viewers whether, at heart, we should consider ourselves Panthers or Lions. And if and when my wife and I are blessed with a male child, there’s a better than zero chance that his middle name will be Riggins. From episode one to episode 76, FNL is as good as it gets, a show that I will undoubtedly watch over and over again, and one that I honestly feel has left me a slightly better person than I was when before I watched. (Now how’s that for hyperbole?) Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose.