The Fall of a Football Favorite: Friday Night Lights

With its five seasons finally concluded after last week’s finale, it is safe to say that Friday Night Lights (“FNL”) is about much more than football. Case in point from the finale: as the quarterback launches a long, spiraling, slow-motion pass into the brisk Texas night, the camera cuts to all the characters in attendance, lingering on each of their faces in turn—first friends and families, then players and coaches. The outcome of the game hangs in the balance, but suddenly it doesn’t matter. It’s the people that matter: the residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.

FNL paints a portrait of a contemporary American small town where football is king. The show revolves around Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), principal/guidance counselor, and her husband Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Both were nominated for Emmys in 2010. Their relationship has been consistently hailed as the “best portrayal of a marriage on TV,” and their conflicts make a perfect target for armchair feminist analysis. The pair shepherd two crops of high schoolers from adolescence to adulthood. Among the students are the strong, convention-breaking blond Tyra Colette (Adrianne Palicki), the stuttering, lovable replacement QB Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the Taylors’ sexually rebellious daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), ex-juvie recruit Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan, a talent from “The Wire”), and of course, the brooding heartbreaker Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).

The show also features Esquire magazine’s 2010 Sexiest Woman Alive (Minka Kelly), a successful abortion (a rarity in TV), a Christian speed-metal band, a teenage girl football coach, and the best parent-teen sex talk you’ll ever see (record it and show it to your kids). There are a few gay characters, and a lot of half-time speeches and “Texas Forever” too. Enough of them for Slate magazine’s Meghan O’Rourke to call the show “singularly designed to make men cry.”

Despite critical acclaim and a cult following, FNL never achieved widespread success, and it only survived past the second season because of a last second co-production agreement with DirecTV. FNL’s inability to make it mainstream may be a product of its lack of a core demographic audience—it was first marketed to men for the football and then to women for the drama. Yet I see this as more of an asset than a detriment: it’s masculine and feminine, teen and family, blue and red state.

FNL celebrates football without shying away from its seedy underbelly. At their best, sports inspire, like baseball did for Japanese-Americans in World War II internment camps. At their worst, they place too much pressure on young people and trivialize real problems, like Tami’s budget crisis at Dillon High when football boosters wanted to erect a Jumbotron. In the same way, FNL plays with the tension between individual and community. Dillon is a town that feels stuck in a time warp, with cars from the 70s and the absence of consumer electronics (until they inexplicably appear in Season 4). Many of the characters want out and do leave; one of FNL’s anthems is entitled “Devil Town.” The town takes children and makes them into their parents, obsessing over a violent sport. But it is a genuine community where Coach’s players—and Tami’s advisees—routinely knock on the Taylors’ door late at night with their quandaries. Football unites them and holds the community together: church on Sunday mornings, and football on Friday nights.

Fortunately, FNL doesn’t moralize on this tension, allowing it to focus on good storytelling. The show’s cinematography brings it further down to earth; FNL was filmed documentary-style in Texas with three simultaneous cameras, a technique that the actors have universally praised.

The end of FNL will be felt deeply by many here at the 5Cs. “The characters are real and reliable and flawed at the same time,” said Gabbi Hybel PO’13. “Anybody can relate to [their] struggles.”

“It goes underneath football, which is a manifestation of their shared culture and experiences,” agreed Hannah Yung PO ’13. “It’s about growth and community, growing together and compromising together and sacrificing.”

For me, FNL rivals The Wire in its ability to teach and change its viewers. I learned how a community works and thinks.

“I understand football after watching FNL,” Gabbi added. Yet as Hannah warned, “You have to be willing to invest emotionally in the show.”

You will also lose huge chunks of your day and cry an embarrassing amount.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!

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