I’m not really into sports. But Peter Berg‘s 2004 high school football movie Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite sports movies. Its even distribution of small town pressure and college hopes gives the characters realistically high stakes, making for a suspenseful and even heartbreaking movie experience. The score, prominently featuring the music of Explosions in the Sky, sets a very moving and memorable tone for the movie.
Naturally, I was hesitant to jump into the television version of the movie I enjoy so much. Not just because I cherish the movie, but also because I’ve been so jaded toward network dramas for the last several years. I honestly believe cable and premium networks (and now Netflix) are where the true art of the television medium resides. Adding to my reluctance was a blurb on the back of the Friday Night Lights complete series DVD collection. Prominently displayed on the back of the collection is the absurdly confident quote: “What may be the best dramatic series in the history of television. That’s right: History.”
Despite my justified incredulity, I went into Friday Night Lights with an open mind. So how was it? (I’ve kept spoilers to a bare minimum. Some light plots may be revealed, but it’s nothing severe.)
Friday Night Lights takes place in fictional Dillon, Texas, in the heart of football country. It tells the story of Coach Eric Taylor (played spectacularly by Kyle Chandler), his family and the players whose lives he touches. From the outset, it’s clear that football isn’t the main crux of the series. Early on I made the connection that the show seemed “like Dawson’s Creek, if Dawson played football and wasn’t incredibly annoying.”
There’s something charming about Dillon and its residents. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for small town communities in TV and movies. I feel like they’re the perfect setting for high quality drama. But, in the case of Friday Night Lights, the writers realize Dillon, Texas to its full potential. They use the town’s heavy hitters as a means of advancing the story without bombarding the audience with obnoxious small town politics that drag out the story.
There are plenty of storylines that utilize the small town community’s political agendas, personal controversies and private turmoil. But it rarely seems forced or disengaging. Dillon fills the show with rich supporting characters that make Friday Night Lights less about football and more about the characters and their varying conflicts.
However, the series isn’t flawless by any means. In fact, I can offer half a dozen dramas that deserve the ridiculously hyperbolic moniker of “best dramatic series in the history of television” over it off the top of my head. (The Wire, The Shield, Lost, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and The West Wing). That’s nothing against FNL itself. And you can argue my picks are mostly non-dramas. To which I would counter that the designation of “drama” is way too broad. But at the end of the day, FNL wouldn’t make the top of my list.
Throughout the series’ run, the writers behind FNL seemed to have a loose relationship with following through on supporting character arcs and even concluding main character arcs. A few seasons into the series, we see characters graduate and leave Dillon. It’s the nature of high school dramas. But most of the characters depart the show with loose ends that take several episodes to resolve, if they ever are.
There’s also the issue of storytelling follow-through. Antagonistic characters are introduced throughout the duration of the series only to be left dangling. Sometimes they stay stagnant for several episodes. (That is fine.) Sometimes they cross over into the next season. (Now you’re testing my patience a little.) Other times, they are dropped entirely from the show, never to be heard from again. (Unacceptable.)
The true problem with the show may be the fault of the overall concept. Each season of FNL depicts one season of football. It’s concise and gives the show yearly benchmarks to meet (homecoming, rivalries, playoffs). The problem is that each season’s premiere takes place a full nine months after the previous season’s finale. As a result, the writers continually have to play catch up with the characters at the start of each season. Shamefully, they never seem to be as diligent in this task as they should be. The status of character relationships, and sometimes even their general locations, are left up in the air for far too long.
But for every storytelling misstep, there are two or three examples of incredible television writing, phenomenal acting and character development that transcends the low expectations set by other network series. Kyle Chandler cultivates one of TV’s best father figures with his depiction of Coach Taylor’s “no nonsense” approach to coaching, fatherhood and mentoring. Likewise, Taylor Kitsch surprisingly brings to life tortured soul Tim Riggins in a character arc that very vaguely reminds me of Sawyer from Lost.
Below you’ll find my breakdown of the series by season.
Season 1 (22 episodes) – Buy the DVD here.
I hesitate to say the inaugural season of FNL is the best overall season. It’s really hard to say when there are so many incredible things in the subsequent seasons. What I will say is that season one is the most well executed season of the show.
The pilot episode plays tonally like a 45-minute version of the movie. It set a high standard for the series and the season never really slowed that momentum. None of the subplots seemed forced or lazy, either.
The first season is densely filled with subplots and they’re all well handled. The show goes some surprisingly dark places, as well. When the show introduces some shockingly out of character violence, it’s juxtaposed with football scenes that work together to make provide a highly memorable tapestry of TV drama.
The season finished with a sense of finality. It is the show’s only full 22-episode season but by the end of it you’re ready to devour the other 54 episodes.
Season 2 (15 episodes) – Buy the DVD here.
FNL’s second season is where the show falters slightly. It starts off strong and the end of the premiere episode introduces a plot involving Jesse Plemons’ fan favorite Landry. Apparently the mere fact that this situation was introduced is viewed as blasphemy to many fans. I, for one, didn’t mind it but I can understand the outcry.
My issue was in its execution. Substantial time is devoted to Landry (and other, unrelated subplots) only for poor resolutions to take place. Landry’s story is given an anticlimactic, convenient conclusion. Elsewhere, a plot involving a reformed thug named Santiago is left dangling. In fact, the last time we see or hear about Santiago is after he’s been involved in a violent incident, the details of which are purposely kept from us. It’s a cliffhanger that’s never mentioned again.
These are just a couple of examples from a decidedly uneven second season. But I won’t write off the season or condemn the show for it. There is a specific reason for these lapses in basic storytelling structure. Season 2 was produced in the midst of the Writer’s Strike. FNL’s original full season was abbreviated to an abrupt 15 episodes. Because of that, the show was compromised and season 2 went down as a disappointment. Although, there were plenty of flashes of brilliance sprinkled throughout.
Season 3 (13 episodes) – Buy the DVD here.
The problems with season 2 lie with the writers’ unwillingness to backpedal. In lieu of producing a miniature prequel episode for season 3, the show treats the first episode of its third season almost as if it were a second pilot episode.
And it works.
The third season opens with some short flashbacks for the one or two storylines that actually do carry over. From there, this is a new, old Friday Night Lights. Characters are in new places in their lives, facing new challenges that are quite fresh for a series entering its third year.
Early season 3 has what may be my favorite plot line of series. Coach Taylor spends the first handful of episodes helping a player who graduated heal from an injury with the ultimate goal of getting him into college. This is where Kyle Chandler shines and where the writers really show us what kind of man Eric Taylor is. The plot is resolved in a scene that has the power to move you to tears.
Season 3 also includes a compelling plot involving the senior quarterback whose position is threatened by a hotshot freshman with an overbearing father. JD McCoy and his father Joe are introduced as potential antagonists. Throughout season 3 they throw a wrench into the way Coach Taylor manages his Dillon Panthers and it really elevates the season’s quality.
The problem bleeds over into season 4.
Season 4 (13 episodes) – Buy the DVD here.
Season 4 shakes things up considerably for the characters and the series as a whole. A big chunk of the show is recast and some characters are displaced. I’m a really big fan of when a show can pull off reinventing itself. Friday Night Lights pulls it off well in its 4th season.
Unfortunately, JD McCoy and his antagonistic dad aren’t featured as prominently in season 4. It’s a shame because in the first episode, JD is reintroduced as a possible villain for the season. Past that, he is barely seen, if ever. It’s a gross misstep in my eyes because his arrogant persona could have been a great asset to the drama of season 4.
Taylor Kitsch comes into his own with his depiction of Tim Riggins in season 4 of the show. Season 4 marks the best growth of the Tim character. He’s given a lot to work with and Kitsch handles it really well. In season 1, I was fairly unimpressed with Kitsch. He seemed to take a depressed, borderline alcoholic teen character and play him as “sad” pretty much across the board.
Over the course of the series, however, Kitsch develops Riggins as a compassionate, misunderstood tragic character. And he plays it so incredibly well that it’s no wonder Peter Berg and the rest of Hollywood keeps trying to make him a leading man in movies.
Season 4 may be my favorite season of the show, upon reflection. Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle) joined the cast and brought to life a troubled youth struggling to stay away from the streets. His chemistry with Kyle Chandler is great. He’s a very welcome addition to the cast.
My biggest problem with season 4, however, involves one of my favorite characters in the show. Landry Clark has an arc where he pursues Jurnee Smollett’s Jess. It is a charming plot line with plenty of material for Jesse Plemons to work with.
The problem is that it takes half the season for the writers to explain that Landry and his girlfriend from season 3 (who was written out of the show in season 4) broke up between seasons. It’s so unclear that I genuinely thought the arc for Landry in season 4 would be about his struggle with not cheating in a long distance relationship. It’s really frustrating.
Season 5 (13 episodes) – Buy the DVD here.
FNL’s final season isn’t as good as the previous season. The show maintains its overall quality well enough, but there are some problems throughout. My biggest complaint is with Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor. She has a plot line in the season where she mentors a troubled girl named Epic. Like too many previous subplots in the series, it ultimately goes nowhere. Epic is written out in a way that makes it seem she’ll return for a proper conclusion but she’s never seen again. I’m thankful, though, because her subplot was my least favorite in the series. It was redundant and didn’t really serve any real purpose.
Aimee Teagarden, who plays the coach’s daughter Julie, has a surprisingly good storyline in the show’s final season. Where most of the characters were written out of the show when they went to college, we follow Julie there. Her arc in the first half of season 5 is a good one. It’s compelling and the drama is well executed. The second half of the season falters a bit for Julie. But Aimee Teagarden is so charming that I didn’t mind it.
Toward the end of the season, things start moving in a certain way. It’s standard “everything is about to change as we close out the series” TV fair. The main event that ushers in the end of the series seems really ridiculous to me, though. I’ll keep it vague but there’s a vote on a situation that just seems forced and unrealistic. It took me out of the show for a bit.
The final season is a good one. It has its problems but it’s a pretty worthy swansong for a series that deserved a good ending. The final football game in the series finale is very well done. It’s the culmination of two seasons of character development and the payoff is really well earned and presented in a way that gave me chills.
Overall, Friday Night Lights is a really good and compelling network drama. I wasn’t fully accurate in my Dawson’s Creek comparison. FNL doesn’t have quite as many soap opera storylines and when a soapy plot is introduced, it’s usually handled well. Even though storytelling issues prevent it from truly being considered the “greatest dramatic series in the history of television,” I can’t think of any network drama currently airing that’s as good as Friday Night Lights was on its best day. I wouldn’t be surprised if I watch the series from beginning to end again within the next year.
So what did you think of Friday Night Lights? Leave a comment and, as always, follow me on Twitter: @ObsessiveViewer for live-tweets about movies and shows I’m watching and keep up with the blog on Facebook for all the latest posts and blog news.