By Ryan McGowan
When the lights went out for the last time in Dillon, American television got a little darker.
For five seasons, Friday Night Lights was a bulwark against stupid TV, the likes of which are polluting our collective nights worse than ever before. Americans are typically entertained by writhing piles of garbage on the small screen, and lately (especially since the 2008 Writers’ Guild strike) the amount of mindless trash on the networks has begun to resemble the inside of Snooki’s mind.
(Yeah, I’m looking at you, Jersey Shore. Whatcha gonna do about it?)
FNL was different. When you watched FNL, you didn’t feel like you were watching standard-issue network slop. Maybe the very fact that the show never reached high commercial success helped to make it what it was—the best written, best acted, best conceived, most honest appraisal of American life this side of The Wire.
In fact, The Wire might be the best show to use as a comparison piece to FNL, if only because each speaks to a different reality of America, the kind that TV and movies don’t show, politicians don’t talk about, and most people don’t want to acknowledge. While The Wire broke through the stereotypes and images of police and drug dealers and showed the inherent corruption in all human institutions, FNL shows the enduring passion of Americans as individuals and the power of their dreams and actions in the face of that corruption.
You need to look no further than the Dillon Panthers boosters, a corrupt group of seemingly benevolent men who imposed their will on Coach Taylor’s idealism, eventually unseating him in a coup d’etat for political reasons played out in the arena of small-town high school football. Is there really that much difference between Joe McCoy and Avon Barksdale? Avon was just a gangster who wanted his corners; McCoy just wanted his kid to be a star. Just a hedge fund manager, I suppose.
Over five seasons, FNL showed us how people press on, day after day, no matter what their circumstances. Season 1 showed us the saga of Jason Street, All-State quarterback who gets paralyzed from the waist down in the pilot episode, who eventually accepts his fate and becomes a successful New York sports agent years down the road. Tim and Billy Riggins press on despite their shaky upbringing and strive to get a better life for themselves than their absentee father had for him. Matt Saracen fights to first get then keep his starting job as QB1 despite his physical limitations and his at-home demands. Eric and Tami Taylor remain fully committed to each other and to their marriage despite one struggle and crisis after another. Vince battles it out every day to help his mother overcome her addiction, and then struggles with the reintroduction of his father into his life. Even JD McCoy, the inherently unlikeable Golden Boy of season 3, shows a human side by admitting to the pressure he feels to live up to his douchey father’s expectations.
If you didn’t watch FNL because you thought it was a show about high school football, then you sorely missed out. If you didn’t watch it because it wasn’t completely centered around football the way a Varsity Blues or The Program was, then you missed out, too. No show on network TV has ever been more direct, more poignant, or more sincere without being afterschool-special preachy. The characters on FNL weren’t just stock types pulled from the archives of every sports or high school movie over the years. There aren’t any Jeff Spicolis or Ferris Buellers or Lance Harbors here (although Riggins probably has a little Spicoli in him). Every character is three-dimensional and no one feels like they were written lazily into the script (though I can’t figure out why they didn’t develop Hastings Ruckle more; that guy would be interesting to follow in a spin-off).
Let’s count down some of my favorite things about Friday Night Lights. This list is not exhaustive of course, and it’s in no particular order:
The hot chicks. Let’s face it, FNL employed more hot actresses than any show on TV, unless you count the extras on Entourage as “actresses.” How many shows can you say you would have a hard time choosing between a mother and a daughter? Yet how many of us would struggle with deciding between Tami and Julie Taylor? (By the way I just looked it up—Aimee Teagarden, who plays Julie, is 21. So she’s fair game.) In the early seasons, Minka Kelly as Lyla Garrity was an eminent smokeshow, and there are always those who love Tyra (or her stripper sister Mindy) though I was never a fan. Even Jess and Becky have had their moments too. That’s proof enough that FNL was never intended to be “chick TV.”
Tim Riggins. Tim Riggins is everything I wish I had been in high school. Long-haired, chiseled, chicks falling over for him, devil-may-care attitude, wisdom beyond his years. The only thing we have in common is that we both wore #33. Riggins was always the most fascinating character on the show, with underrated actor Taylor Kitsch just nailing the role every time out, and giving it depth and nuance, especially in scenes such as when Landry was tutoring Tim on Of Mice and Men and when Tim takes his nephew Stevie out in the stroller to teach him life lessons in the series finale. Riggins’ tortured friendship with Street, made more complex by Lyla’s involvement with both of them, was a centerpiece of the first two seasons.
Buddy Garrity. Every small town in America (not just in Texas) has a Buddy Garrity. What a great character. I think he definitely would have sponsored a Little League team and been a North Attleboro Red Rocketeers booster had he grown up in my hometown. I was always a little too creeped out by Buddy, though. I always felt like he was one step away from getting killed by a hooker in a contract dispute. Or killing a hooker. Either one wouldn’t have surprised me.
Last-second finishes. In all likelihood, football teams win games on the last play of the game maybe once in a decade. Hail Mary passes just don’t work that often, and last-second field goals often fall short or go wide left. Not in Dillon, though. It seemed like at least every other game (including Coach Taylor’s last game at East Dillon, the state title game which came down to a Vince Howard bomb) was decided on the last play as time ran out. Watching an Eric Taylor-coached team must be like watching an NBA game—don’t even bother watching until the last two minutes, because the lead always changes hands at least three or four times.
Tami becoming a guidance counselor. One of my favorite loopholes in the show occurred way back in Season 1 when a bored Tami Taylor left the house looking for a job and ended up coming home as the new guidance counselor at Dillon High School. Of course—high schools generally just hire guidance counselors off the street. Can you imagine that day behind-the-scenes for Tami? She goes to Wal-Mart, no greeter positions open. She goes to the local supermarket, no grocery bagging positions. She goes to McDonald’s and they already have a fry cook. So she goes to the high school, asks to fill out an application, the secretary brings her out back to meet the manager principal, next thing you know they give her an office and access to every kid’s top-secret files with their medical, family, and academic histories. Then of course two years later and she’s Dillon’s principal. Now she’s the dean of admissions at Braemore College! That’s quite a leap in five years. What am I doing wrong with my career?
Lance Landry. The show wouldn’t have been complete without Landry, played to a tee by Jesse Plemons (who was incidentally in Varsity Blues as Lance Harbor’s little brother). Plemons is, ironically enough, the only member of the cast who played football in real life. A true Renaissance man, Landry manages to found and star in a Christian rock band (Crucifictorious), make the Dillon Panthers as a walk-on (though Coach never remembers his name), inexplicably dates Tyra, then accidentally kills a man who was harassing her, has his policeman father cover it all up, transfers to East Dillon, becomes a mediocre kicker for a terrible team, somehow kicks a career-long field goal on the last play of the game to beat the mighty Panthers, enrolls in Rice University, and snaps off more one-liners than anyone else on the show. No one on the show has a better story arc than Landry.
Vince. Thank you to the FNL casting directors for bringing Michael B. Jordan back to TV after he was (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) killed at the end of Season 1 of The Wire. It was great to see “Wallace” back on TV, especially since the character of Vince kind of reminds me of what I would have imagined Wallace to grow up to be, if he had gone back to school like he said he was going to do at the end of season 1. Though I have no idea how any big-time Division 1 college would be recruiting Vince Howard to play QB since he throws like Vince Young. I hope it works out better for the younger Vince.
East Dillon Panthers. What I will most remember the show for, from a storytelling perspective, was the decision to totally reinvent everything after Season 3 and move Coach Taylor over to the fledgling East Dillon team. Somehow, they changed everything, yet everything remained the same. A whole new cast came in (Luke, Vince, Becky, Tinker, Coach Traub), some other lifers remained (the Taylors, Buddy, the Riggins boys, Landry, Saracen), and others moved on (Street, Smash, Lyla, Tyra).
Somehow it felt a lot more like real life that way. Unlike on 90210 when everyone went to the same college (except Brenda, and Andrea, who was 70 years old by then) and the plot just kind of continued from there, FNL reinvented itself in a way that felt more authentic. That’s what happens in life—some people move on, others stick around, others are kind of around but not in the same way as before. Moving over to East Dillon was the best thing the show could have done. And even though the Taylors are now in Philadelphia, and Coach Taylor is coaching up the boys of the Pemberton Pioneers (my fantasy team name this year, of course), life goes on. Friday Night Lights wasn’t perfect (the Landry murder plot, the Vince’s dad subplots, and Coach Taylor’s TMU experiment come to mind), but it was pretty damn close. The lights will be shining a lot less brightly next fall when there is no more FNL, but we’ll always have Dillon.
… can’t lose. Texas forever.