5 Favorite TV Shows of All Time, #3: Friday Night Lights

FNL
Key characters (from left): Tim Riggins, Smash Williams, Eric Taylor, Jason Street, Lyla Garrity, and Matt Saracen

Okay, with #3 we’re getting into major fanboy territory.  I’m going to try not to gush too badly when I talk about this show, because it’s really close to my heart.  Now, I’m immediately going to dispel one misconception that Friday Night Lights really can’t seem to shake: I know many people who are reluctant to watch it or outright won’t watch it because they think it’s all about football.  These people could not be more wrong.   FNL is really about the ups and downs of life in contemporary Middle America, with football serving as a nice backdrop for all this to play out against.  Honestly, if football were all the show was about, it wouldn’t really be that good.

In case you noticed the resemblance, FNL draws major inspiration from the book and movie of the same name, set in Odessa.  The show is set in the fictional small town of Dillon, Texas, which is supposed to closely resemble Odessa.  As the show opens, main character Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has taken over head coaching duties of the Dillon Panthers, and he is blessed with inheriting an elite team, with star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) at the helm.  Street is sort of the “Mr. Teenage America” character, as is his girlfriend, cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly).  Other prominent characters in the show include boisterous running back Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), drunk womanizer Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), shy backup quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and Taylor’s wife Tami (Connie Britton).

Coach Taylor
Coach Taylor

The actors on this show are all top-notch, and very convincing in their roles.  But probably the biggest strength of FNL is its stark and realistic portrayal of the rural South.  In Dillon, football rules the town, and people structure their lives around it.  This scene is set in the very first episode, when the camera pans around the town to show that just about every local business is closed because the owners are watching their beloved Dillon Panthers play.  The hero worship of the players is also front and center, with the cheerleaders and rally girls doing everything from making them brownies to doing their homework for them, in some cases.

The character development is also very good.  Every character on FNL is human, flaws and all.  There are no Mary Sue characters on this show whatsoever.  Especially in the first season, my opinion of each character changed with each episode as more layers of their character and motivations were uncovered.  Very little about any of them is black and white… FNL sets up camp in the grey areas of their lives.  One example of this is Eric and Tami’s marriage.  It has ups and downs just like any marriage, and the high and low points are shown with equal treatment.  Many screen marriages end up at either extreme, uncharacteristically stable or unrealistically bad, so it’s refreshing to see a show where this isn’t the case.

An outgrowth of the realism and humanity of is that the writers don’t shy away from seismic plot twists that can alter the whole fabric of the show.  That is true from the very first episode, when a tragedy befalls Street and backup Saracen is forced to take over for him.  I won’t give many more examples of that, because I wouldn’t want to ruin the show for those who have yet to watch it.

The only negative about FNL is that it was somewhat screwed over by the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08.  While FNL got a full first season, the strike scuttled the show’s second season and nearly resulted in its cancellation, as it was a critical success but suffered from low ratings for most of its run.  DirecTV saved it by entering into an arrangement with whereby DirecTV would air new episodes first on its 101 Network, and they would then air later in the year on NBC.  Unfortunately, this meant that seasons would only last about 13 episodes.  I generally think that American TV shows have too-long seasons, which often results in needless filler and an overly drawn-out plot, but if there’s one show that deserved full seasons, it’s this one.  The shorter seasons forced the writers to condense some plotlines on the show, and resulted in the story’s not being told in the richest and fullest way that it could.  FNL adapts just fine to this constraint, however, and delivered three strong seasons under this deal.   There are rumors of a movie sequel brewing, but I’m not sure it needs one.  I feel the story of this show has been told, and it can properly be laid to rest (plus, the series finale is great, and ties up everything that it needs to).  Don’t be like the scores of people who missed out on this masterpiece.  Pick up the DVDs tomorrow and start diving into it.  You won’t be disappointed.

If my future wife is half as awesome as Tami Taylor, I will be a lucky man.
If my future wife is half as awesome as Tami Taylor, I will be a lucky man.

 

 

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