by Chris Foss
From 2006 to 2011, the prep football drama Friday Night Lights (now available for you to binge on Netflix) redefined the sports film/TV genre in many important ways. It maintained essential elements of the formula: the good, patriarchal, father-figure coach; the players who generally want to do right but have to overcome problems and distractions along the way; the supportive coach’s wife; the outside distractions that always threaten to dilute the purity of athletics. But in what sports show or movie has the coach been fundamentally wrong at times, called out on his crap, and then had to make amends? When has the sports wife gone beyond the support role and become a well-rounded character of her own? When have the kids traveled so far down the path of no-good and then come around in melodramatic, yet raw and believable circles of redemption? Beyond just sports, Friday Night Lights was five years of television featuring fantastic acting, a slice of Americana, and a little bit of football.
Make that a lot of football. The show takes place in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, where Dillon High School has just hired a new coach, Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler (Wolf of Wall Street, the Netflix series Bloodline). Taylor is a vociferous defender of football as a forger of men and a pillar of society, giving the sport a prime catbird seat which is never questioned throughout the show’s run. Right off the bat, it should be noted that the show solidly posits football as a force for good and a force for unity. Although airing at a time when concussions and player safety were coming into public consciousness, this show has almost nothing to say on these issues. In the world of Friday Night Lights, injuries are just an unalterable, fact of life. Social Darwinism—the rule of the survival of the fittest—just takes over, and we are made to accept it. This is not a show that criticizes social structures or the idea of the game itself as a good thing—if you’re looking for an anti-football polemic or even a show that questions whether or not football is a good idea, this show is not for you.
The pilot episode starts up riveting character arcs and mini-dramas that persist throughout the show’s run. Taylor’s rock is his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), who has somewhat reluctantly moved to Dillon with her husband, and is trying to balance her personal ambitions with those of her husband. Their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) is an incoming freshman at Dillon who is also ambivalent about moving, and wants nothing whatsoever to do with football or football players. Not-so-spoiler alert: the Taylor women are knee-deep in football by the time the series is over.
The Taylors encounter high expectations at Dillon. The team is expected to compete for the Texas high school state football championship behind star senior quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter). Street is the prototypical Mister Texas—a stud QB dating Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the prettiest girl in town, and the daughter of Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), the team’s biggest booster in the stands and behind the scenes. Buddy parlayed his car-dealer fortune into providing the school with all the amenities it needs for success, thus he immediately presents an authoritative challenge to Taylor that will play out during the series. An early scene in the pilot where Buddy hosts a season kickoff barbeque and the entire town shows up to the dealership highlights the tensions between winning football and making money, while raising a team of ethical men.
Beyond Street, Taylor faces a host of challenges on his talented club which allows the show to delve into issues of team versus individual, star versus backup, and even star versus star. The most boisterous comes from Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), the talented, self-absorbed running back who always wants the ball and gets ticked off if he doesn’t get it. Smash harbors college and NFL dreams as well, but from the outset there’s a question of whether his ambitions will mesh well with Taylor’s team-first approach. Top receiver Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) doesn’t get along well with Smash, nor does he share Smash’s ambitions; he’s a lost soul from a broken family who is driven to drink and wanderlust when he’s not on the football field. We are also introduced to freshman Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who is awaiting a season of mentorship at QB, but can the shy, pimply-faced benchwarmer really expect much attention from Street?
In terms of characters added to appeal to a more diverse audience than just football junkies, most notable in the pilot is Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), who is seemingly anxious to make trouble between Smash and Riggins. At the same time, though, she’s a troubled young woman who is trying to choose between the two while also figuring out how to just graduate from high school and get her own life together. Thrown in the mix is Riggins’ unpredictable brother Billy (Derek Phillips), who is letting Tim live with him—who knows where the parents are. Adding a touch of sad poignancy to the proceedings is Saracen’s grandmother (Louanne Stephens), who wants Matt to succeed, but also requires near constant care as she battles early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The elements are in place for an outstanding show that brings together football and life, and over five seasons, Friday Night Lights does not disappoint. Without providing spoilers, the pilot ends with an incident that threatens to dramatically change the fortunes of the coach, the team, and the entire town. One other change that should be clear to the prospective viewer from the outset—without spoiling too much—is that over the course of five years the cast naturally turns over somewhat. Kids come and go as they enter into and graduate from high school. The show did a good job over the years of maintaining core cast members while refreshing older ones with great new additions. For example, the final two seasons propelled Michael B. Jordan to stardom as Vince Howard, who down the line enters the show as perhaps the most talented—yet most raw and undisciplined—challenge the coach has ever faced. Later seasons particularly give excellent African American actors a chance to stand out as the show increasingly embraces the diversity of Texas’ vast population.
Friday Night Lights preaches the idea that football is the unifying tool that helps boys become men, and also one through which men teach boys to become men. In some cases—particularly the reckless Riggins brothers—football even acts as the dream that literally keeps them alive. Legendary movie director Alfred Hitchcock might have called football merely the “MacGuffin” of Friday Night Lights. He might have thought this was a show about intimate melodramas and human interactions, with football (and football game footage) as the plot device driving the show along in the background. Some viewers may think this is true, and indeed, as the seasons go along, the times when they are playing the game get repetitive and annoying. Some of the best scenes of Friday Night Lights, in fact, take place in between games—at practice, in the classroom, at church, in the local diner—showing how these kids and adults live. But it always ties back into how football affects their lives. No matter what their politics, no matter what family quarrels they may have going on, football always comes first with this bunch.
In all, this is a show that demonstrates how football, in all its purity and innate goodness, can help bring a town together, even at the same time as the people in the town are about to tear themselves apart with their own petty jealousies. Whether or not you agree with this approach, which seems almost nostalgic only five years after it went off the air, the show is a well-produced, well-written ode to the best values of Americana: love thy neighbor, forgive easily, eat merrily, drink heartily, go to church, and watch a lot of football. If nothing else, viewers will never be able to get Taylor’s classic admonition “what the hell’s he doing?”—complete with Southern drawl—out of their heads.