Saturday, July 16, 2011

Friday Night Lights: Always

I actually finished watching the final season of Friday Night Lights a couple of months ago when it aired on DirecTV but I decided to wait to blog about it until it closed out on NBC (which it did last night) and in a way that's let me kind of push off dealing with the fact that it really is all over. What I really want to do now is watch it all from the beginning again!

You know, I'm so thankful that we got five seasons of this show. Despite instant and fervent critical acclaim, the ratings were a disappointment from the start and it seemed like it was always on the verge of cancellation. But in a rare example of a TV network having faith in a quality show, it survived to a second season. And then DirecTV made an unprecedented deal to share costs and airing of the show which guaranteed the next three seasons.

Yes, there were missteps (ahem, second season), characters stuck in the same storylines over and over again (Street, Tyra, Julie),  things that never panned out (Santiago? Hastings? Epyck?) but overall, I don't hesitate to call this one of the highest quality shows in television. And it did it all with pretty much no flash or glamour. It rarely ventured outside of Dillon and never strayed from the honest and bare but amazingly un-melodramatic emotions that defined it from the very first episode. I have no personal connection to Texas, small towns or high school football, but this town, these characters, their stories... they got to me.

The last time I blogged about the show was in the middle of season 4, so let's talk about the last two seasons first. At the end of season 3, the show did something pretty risky. After ambiguously advancing the original cast of teenagers through high school, most of them finally graduated and ostensibly left the show. But instead of having Coach Taylor move on with the next generation of Dillon Panthers, it completely shook things up. Building tensions between Coach and the boosters throughout the season finally blew up with his ousting from the Panthers, but the surprise: a second high school was being reopened, East Dillon, and he was hired on to build their football program, the Lions. And just like that, Panther blue was suddenly evil!

I was initially hesitant about this move, but it became clear in season 4 that this was very smart. It put Coach Taylor in a completely different environment and introduced us to different kinds of characters. The Panthers retained nearly all their old players but East Dillon had to start from scratch with all kids from the less privileged areas of town (burning question, how does Dillon have so much "town" anyway??). Coach Taylor was now dealing with kids who'd never played football before, a far cry from the legacy born-and-bred Panthers across town. Landry and Julie (still seniors in season 4, don't ask) transfer over to East Dillon and bridge the gap to the new cast of teenagers introduced. While in the first generations of teens there wasn't really a main character, this time around there is one: Vince Howard, who eventually becomes quarterback. Wonderfully played by Michael B. Jordan, Vince has been in trouble with the law and is basically forced to join the Lions as a "last chance" and immediately reveals natural talent. His family situation proved to be one of the more interesting forces in the last season, as his absentee father returns and clashes with Coach Taylor in how to handle Vince's suddenly bountiful college prospects.

A big surprise among the new characters: Becky Sproles. She wasn't even credited in the main cast for season 4 despite having been in almost every episode but over the last two seasons she really grew into her own. Initially she kind of annoyed me with her fixation on Tim Riggins (he was living in her mother's trailer) but the episode where she discovers she's pregnant and has an abortion really drew me over to her side. In season 5, finding herself essentially abandoned by her somewhat awful parents, she forges a surrogate family with, of all people, Billy and Mindy Riggins, which led to some of the funniest scenes in the series. Mindy and her stripper friends just amused me to no end.  It's really funny how Billy and Mindy became such mainstays of the series. On the surface they're pretty horrible examples for Becky but they, especially Mindy, become fiercely protective of her in a way she'd never experienced before. Becky also has a nice slow-burn storyline with Luke Cafferty, a former star Panther who was exposed to actually be zoned for East Dillon.

One of my favorite things from the early seasons were the scenes of Matt and Smash and Riggins and Landry just hanging out together on the football field late at night and there was one episode in season 5 that kind of recreated that magic with the new generation bonding on a road trip to an away game, getting drunk on the balconies of their motel. I also loved the relatively minor re-introduction and rehabilitation of Buddy Garrity Jr. Talk about perfect casting!

Speaking of the original generation, I can't not talk about Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen. Tim first. It wasn't any surprise that Tim just decided that he didn't like college and came back to Dillon. But what was a surprise was the path they took him down after his return. Strapped for cash, Billy starts an illegal chop shop operation and Tim helps, reluctantly, but when it all goes bad, Tim takes the fall and goes to prison. When he's released in season 5 (with the help of Coach and Buddy Garrity) he's a completely different man. Angry, jaded,'s Tim like we'd never seen him before. Out of all the characters I think it's probably the least clear where Tim will end up in the future but the series did end on a hopeful note for him.

Now Matt: Zach Gilford had one of the best performances of season 4 in "The Son," where Matt deals with his father's death. Matt had put off art school in Chicago to stay in Dillon to take care of his grandma (and be with Julie) but was clearly drifting and the news of his father, who's been overseas in Iraq for years and who he barely knows, rocked him. In the next episode, he picks up and finally leaves Dillon. He returns for an arc in the second half of season 5 after Julie comes out of yet another rebellious and ridiculous crisis that causes her to leave college. I loved loved the scenes of their reunion and how they fell back in step with eachother. Julie alone can be really awful but with Matt...they just make sense. That's probably why I wasn't too outraged when the writers decided to go down the annoying married young route with them in the finale. It did serve as a catalyst for a much more interesting story with her parents' marriage, and hey, this is fiction and no one's going to sway me from believing that Matt and Julie are destined to be Eric and Tami version 2.0.

That brings us to the heart of this show: the Taylors. I don't really know what to say that hasn't been said. It was so wonderful to see a portrait of a marriage so strong but not always perfect. I think probably every fan of this show wants either to be the Taylors or for them to be their parents, or both. Their conflict in the series finale was so amazingly drawn. Tami, who's always supported and followed, for the most part, Eric in his coaching career, is now the one with a career opportunity of a lifetime: becoming dean of admissions at a college in Philadelphia. (How does one go from high school guidance counselor to principal to college dean of admissions in 5 years? Be awesome as Tami Taylor, obviously.) Eric at first doesn't even see moving as a possibility which is a huge blow to Tami. After yet another Julie crisis (announcing that she and Matt are engaged), Eric admits that it's her time. And the series ends with the Taylors in Philadelphia, Tami in her element at the college, and Coach with a new group of boys to inspire.

There's a ton of stuff that I haven't even gotten to--this is a monumental post already--but that just goes to show how brilliant and important this show has been over the years. Coincidentally, the show finally got its first Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series this week (along with well-deserved repeat nods for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton). It probably won't win but I'm happy that it got that recognition at all.

Check out this wonderful oral history of the show, and to end on a happy note:


1 comment:

burkie said...

hahaha, love the tami vid!

i have the two of you to thank for introducing me to this show. there are not enough superlatives that one can use to describe it.

you touched on one of my favorites, too: when they'd play around on the field int he middle of the night. there was kind of an homage to that in the finale. i also thought the move to east dillon was inspired. i really enjoyed some of the non-taylor family relationships: smash & his mom were fantastic; vince & his mom were great and i thought they did a great job of handling the return of his father; matt & his grandma...okay, i'll stop. a comment shouldn't be longer than the original post :)

it was coach & mrs. coach who elevated the show beyond merely brilliant, though. i don't think the show would have survived those low ratings without the great writing & performances for those characters.