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Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: I Am Now Officially a Friday Night Lights Convert

Confession time: I'm a recent convert to Friday Night Lights.

In the world of television, it's often necessary to make a judgment based on a pilot episode of a series. In fact, one job I held in Hollywood made it absolutely necessary to do just that: determine what would be a worthwhile series based on the pilot script and then the shot pilot. With financial investments on the line, it was imperative that one make a snap judgment based on a single episode of a series.

In a lot of cases, that initial judgment proves to be the correct one. But sometimes, the pilot doesn't quite match the full potential of the subsequent series.

When I originally watched the pilot for NBC's Friday Night Lights, it didn't click with me. I found it preachy, saccharine, riddled with some awkward dialogue, and placing far too much emphasis on the football aspect. I wrote off the series for a bit and then, when I heard about the creative struggles of Season Two, I opted not to go back and catch up.

How wrong I was.

Recently, I watched the entire 22-episode first season of Friday Night Lights in a handful of days, devouring the entire freshman season in the evenings and dreaming of Dillon at night. While the pilot and second episodes still failed to win me over, I persevered through those early episodes and found myself hooked on the series around the fourth installment.

What I had missed out on was a groundbreaking and emotionally resonant series that charted the ebbs and flows of life in a small Texas town. Revolving around a place where high school football was the focus, the residents of Dillon don't just see football as entertainment or sport but rather as an embodiment of Dream, an aspirational activity where the game becomes something akin to communion.

But Jason Katim's Friday Night Lights, while ostensibly about football, isn't really about the nitty-gritty aspects of the pigskin, instead using its importance in the town of Dillon to explore the relationships between the players, the audience, the cheerleaders, the teachers, and the students. Those who are obsessed with the game, those who avoid it, and those who find their fates inexorably intertwined with football itself: Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), whose nuanced relationship marks one of the most realistic depictions of the joys and pains of marriage; their rebellious daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden); and new starting quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford, perfectly cast here).

Then there was the way that Season One of Friday Night Lights handled the paralysis of star player Jason Street (Scott Porter). While most series would have written Jason off after the pilot, the season charted his own recovery, his attempt to regain use of his limbs, and the way that his fractured dreams impacted everyone around him, from his parents to devoted girlfriend Lyla (Minka Kelly) and best friend Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). What developed was a painful and beautiful story of recovery in the face of adversity, of mistakes made, relationships broken, and new dreams created. Porter's compelling performance anchored the season in an unexpected and provocative way as Jason progressed through the difficult stages of acceptance of his new condition and its limitations.

It's a storyline that's built around hope and heartbreak in equal measure and that's true about Friday Night Lights as a whole, really. While the season plots the highs and lows of the Panther's season--from the shock of Jason's accident to their victory at the end of the season--it also follows the emotional state of the entire town as well.

Likewise, the season plunged headfirst into the relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor, setting both up as strong characters in their own right. What other series would take its central characters, in a committed marital relationship, and separate them in terms of space, sending Eric to TMU to pursue his dream of coaching college football while Tami remained--pregnant, no less--in Dillon so that she could continue to work with her high school kids as their guidance counselor and allow Julie to plant some roots in Dillon and continue dating Saracen, who had his own hands full caring for his grandmother, suffering from dementia, while his father served in Iraq.

It also tackled a number of controversial topics including steroid use, bi-polar disorder, pre-marital sex, rape, adultery, Katrina refugees, alcoholism, deadbeat parenting, dementia, the war in Iraq, quadriplegia, and much more, all within 22 episodes that, on the surface, seem to be about a high school football team on the road to the state championships.

It's the rare series that can make this jaded critic cry and yet I found myself wiping away tears during most episodes. That Friday Night Lights managed to do so without resorting to cheap sentimentality is a testament to both the writers and the talented cast, who completely embody these characters to the point that the cinema verite-style hand-held cameras aren't just capturing this drama but recording it as though it were a documentary. Characters cut each other off, talk over each other, and behave as though what's unfolding on the screen is reality, a reality that is impossible to look away from.

I could speak about Friday Night Lights all day, really. I'm perfectly willing to admit when I made an error and wrote off a series too early--though now I am struggling through the creatively uneven second season (and its ludicrous murder conspiracy plot)--but I know that there are much brighter spots ahead. I'll be blazing through the second, third, and fourth seasons all summer long and I'm happy to say that Dillon is a place that pulls me back after each episode, one that has not only captured my imagination but also my heart.


Hadley said…
I also caught on to Friday Night Lights late in the game but totally devoured the first season (thanks Netflix!) in just a couple of weeks. Eric and Tami Taylor are one of the greatest TV couples of all time and Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are so perfectly cast in their roles that you forget that the Taylors are a fictional family.
Cindy said…
Glad you came around. It's a remarkable show!

Unknown said…
It's about time Jace! No, I was in the same boat as you. I didn't give FNL a chance until last fall, and I almost immediately became hooked. The Taylors' relationship is the most realistic depiction of marriage I've ever seen on television. If you can just get through the 2nd season (which I don't think is as bad as many people portray it to be, the murder storyline notwithstanding), you're in for a real treat with the third and fourth seasons.
Are you going to write your thoughts on subsequent seasons after you're done plowing through them? Just curious, because I'd love to read them.
Frances Scott said…
Hey, Jace!

I'd have said, "I told you so," but I was behind the times too. I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but you said it best about FNL. I found it about 2 years ago, while walking on the treadmill and watching on my laptop. (Needless to say I lost about 30 pounds while watching Season One over the course of about 2 weeks.) They almost lost me in Season Two, but thankfully they ended the murder storyline quickly enough. This show resonates with me on about oh, 40 levels.

And you were spot-on with your Modern Family article too. (I am Claire, by the way, with Cam-like neroses as a subtext) On that "Family Perfect" episode, I found my self sniffling at the end, when Jay makes his little speech about how much he loves his messed-up family. Thank you Chris Lloyd (and Peter Berg & Jason Katims)!

Here's to ABC funding and airing a FNL Season Six!
frances scott said…
I should say, "I WISH ABC would pick it up & pay for more production.
Chris said…
I too came across Friday Night Lights late. I'm 4 episodes in to season 2. Started watching sometime in June. I have really been very impressed with the show.

You said it perfectly when you wrote about the Taylor's marriage being realistic. I've been married 26 yrs and I think they are the first TV couple who have really portrayed being married with kids so wondefully.

I'll be sad when I catch up to the current season. I love watching without commercials etc. haha/

Anonymous said…
I'm not sure what took you so long!
Barbara said…
I'm glad you've discovered FNL, and appreciate it for the touching, well-written and fully realized drama that I've been enjoying for 3+ seasons. I'm continually amazed at the quality from both the actors and the writers. Sad, though, because I believe I read that this season is the last, and that the actors were officially told that it was over. Is that what you know to be true, Jace?
jen said…
I only planned to watch the show for Kyle Chandler and got addicted. Welcome to the club!
Unknown said…
So glad that you are on board with FNL, one of the very best shows on television. I, too, often find myself wiping away the tears. The writing and acting are pitch perfect. I hope you will also give a similar chance to Katims' Parenthood. It's not quite as good as FNL yet, but it is close, and getting better all the time. I cried in the season finale. Like FNL, Parenthood is a series defined by its realism, excellent writing, and wonderful acting. Not a lot of action or big soapy storylines; just small, realistic storylines about everyday things that happen to families. And, thankfully, Parenthood avoided the ratings fate of FNL and actually has a shot at becoming a popular show. Katims deserves a much broader audience!
aby said…
I've been a huge fan of this show since the first season. I really dislike football and the only reason I watched was because of Kyle Chandler. I've loved his acting since Homefront. I was hooked right away. The cast is amazing. It is hands down my favorite depiction of a marriage ever to grace the small screen. Goes to prove that a talented writer and gifted actors can portray a happy marriage that is not boring or fake. Keep with it, yes the second season has its problems, but there is still much to love about it.
Happy to say I've been with FNL since the pilot. Loved the first season, suffered through the second, rejoiced as the show got it game back on. Living in Scotland means I have to import the US DVDs to get my fix, so roll on Season 4. I love other series, but FNL touches the heart.

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