TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 8 – ‘Friday Night Lights’

12.24.09 8 years ago 8 Comments


The shows that made it into the Top 10 of my list of TV’s Best of the Decade are all great. There’s not a “very good” show in the group. In placing them and distinguishing between them, that means that sometimes I have to turn the actual ranking over to different parts of my anatomy.

Yesterday’s pick, the unparalleled puzzlement of “Lost,” was a decision made by my head.

Today’s nod, which was so totally neck-and-neck with “Lost” that their places might be switched tomorrow and then back again on Saturday if this list weren’t set in stone, was driven by my heart. My full heart. And, possibly, my clear eyes. Yup. My clear eyes and full heart.
With “Friday Night Lights” at No. 8 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade? I can’t lose.
[A celebration of of Dillon football, the Taylor Family, DirecTV and Killer Landry after the break…]
Before you start complaining, I know that “Lost” is not a show without heart. I know grown men reduced to weeping babies by the ending of “The Constant.” Of course, I also know grown men reduced to weeping babies by almost every single episode of “Friday Night Lights.” I’m not sure if I could explain the cathartic release that seems to come from every great episode of “Friday Night Lights” except to say that it’s like that Lifetime Movie of the Week plot where the battered wife kills her disgusting boor of a husband, only reproduced every single week and with a minimum of abuse and, for the most part (but, alas, not entirely) a minimum of murder. It’s certainly like an underdog sports movie playing out on your TV for 44 minutes every week.
Already on this list, I’ve mentioned several of the decade’s best pilots, pilots that made me take notice. Peter Berg’s “Friday Night Lights” pilot is another that’s in that league, though it may have had more to prove than the “Wonderfalls” pilot or the “Lost” pilot, at least to me. I was an appreciator of Buzz Bissinger’s book of “Friday Night Lights.” I was a big fan of Peter Berg’s film adaptation, one of the decade’s better sports movies. But coming into the pilot for the NBC drama, I had the sensation that by its third incarnation, perhaps there had been degradation to the story. You take a real story, involving the Permian High Panthers. First you adapt it loosely to the big screen, fictionalizing some characters and some plot elements. Then you bring it to the small screen, fictionalizing all of the characters, fictionalizing all of the plot elements and even fictionalizing the Texas town at the center? At a certain point, “Friday Night Lights” is going to be a futuristic animated comedy about Space Football set in Space Texas, it’s been changed so much.
Here’s how I look at the three incarnations of “Friday Night Lights”: In Bissinger’s book, Permian is the star. It’s the story of a town so obsessed with football that, in good years, it can ignore economic hardship and community unrest. In Berg’s film, the football team is the star. You cast attractive and athletic young stars and concentrate on the bone-crushing tackles, the slow-mo cutbacks of the running backs, the roar of the crowd and the inspirational speeches by the stern-yet-loving coach. In both the book and the movie, the Permian Panthers lose, because sometimes the lessons learned are more important than the end result.
When Berg and Jason Katims brought “Friday Night Lights” to the small screen, Permian was still an important character, though it was called Dillon and most of the geographic specificity has been smudged or even erased so completely that by the second season the show’s major hangout became an Applebees. The football team is still an essential character, though as much as I love the TV series, realistic football action has only occasionally been a strong suit.
No. TV’s “Friday Night Lights” has succeeded because it’s about a family.
Primarily, it’s about a literal family. In the movie, Billy Bob Thornton played the stern-but-loving coach and Connie Britton played his patient wife. Britton had maybe a half-dozen lines. In the series, Britton remains, but her Tami Taylor has been upgraded to nearly an equal partner with Kyle Chandler’s Eric Taylor. They fight over finances, they disagree child-rearing and sometimes their professional paths run in opposite directions. They get agitated at each other and frustrated and sometimes they yell and sometimes they throw their arms in the air in frustration, but it’s a relationship characterized much more by love and clear mutual respect than acrimony. It’s as honest and well-played a depiction of a happy and healthy marriage as you’re ever going to see on TV. Chandler and Britton have, from the very start, had an easy chemistry and guarantees that no matter how exciting the football action in a given episode may be, the at-home scenes between Coach and Mrs. Coach (or Principal Coach, since the second season) are the ones you look forward to. The lack of histrionics in their relationship is probably what has kept Britton and Chandler from receiving Emmy nominations, but the fault there is with the voters and not with the stars.
And I wouldn’t want to minimize Aimee Teegarden’s performance as Julie Taylor. Watching the original pilot, I had reservations about Teegarden, thought she wasn’t as put-together as some of the other young stars in the cast. It took me maybe one more episode to realize that I was a moron and that Teegarden wasn’t as put-together as the other young stars in the cast because Julie Taylor was, like most teenagers are, a work-in-progress, a not-fully-formed individual. She rages at her parents. She’s petulant. She makes impulsive decisions that often are wrong. She’s real and believable at every turn and she’s an essential piece of the Taylor Family Unit. [May “Friday Night Lights” air long enough for little Gracie, with her strangely shaped head, to also become a workable piece of that family.]
On “Friday Night Lights,” “family” doesn’t just refer to the Taylors, though they’re the core. It refers to the webs of relationships, friendships and romances, that bond all of the characters. Teegarden and Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen have had one of TV’s great unfolding loves, played for both earnestness, but also priceless humor in the Season One classic “I Think We Should Have Sex.” They’ve been set in contrast to what initially developed as a love triangle between Scott Porter’s Jason Street, the hot-shot QB whose paralysis was one of the series’ main catalysts, perky cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), initially depicted as a self-destructive dumb jock, but now clearly one of the show’s anchors. Into that web, we could weave Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra and Jesse Plemons’ Landry, though as much as I love both characters, their union yielded nothing but trouble. And from those unions, we’ve also gotten to know Lyla’s booster father, Matt’s ailing grandmother, Tim’s townie brother, Tyra’s stripper sister and a slew of satellite characters who have become a part of the show’s extended family.
The concentration on family affirms that “Friday Night Lights” is, at its core, among TV’s most conservative shows. The only reason it isn’t trumpeted to the heavens by folks like the Parents Television Council is probably that characters behave like real people and sometimes they make mistakes. Often the make mistakes. They have sex with stupid people, experiment with performance-enhancing drugs, contemplate having abortions, get into fights, commit murders (sigh), drink copious amounts underage, skip classes and occasionally even sass back at adults! The show has such a good heart and such an unfailing core and places such a high premium on trying to do the right thing that you’d think it would get more credit. It’s also one of the most open and inclusive network shows when it comes to its depiction of religion, taking pokes at zealotry and fundamentalism on occasion, but strongly advocating in favor of faith and hope. It’s odd that I’d want to get so worked up in defending the conservative values of “Friday Night Lights,” but I just think it might get a bigger audience if there was more recognition for how family friendly it really is.
And, of course, the Dillon Panthers themselves are a family. The nonsensical spin on “Friday Night Lights” has always been that the show wasn’t about football, but that’s just the kind of thing marketers try arguing to try to con sports-haters into watching. You know which season of “Friday Night Lights” wasn’t about football? The second season. 
The first season of “Friday Night Lights,” one of those near perfect masterpieces that would certainly be in my Best Seasons of the Decade Top 10, was all about Coach Taylor and Matt Saracen trying to regain control of the team after Street’s injury. It was all about the build of the season, arcing into my personal favorite episode, “Mud Bowl,” and the immensely satisfying finale at “State,” marred only by the fact that Dillon really shouldn’t have won. The first season is all rousing speeches, late-game comebacks and heroic performances, all about keeping the Panther family together. I feel like I sent half of the season blinking back tears and the other half sitting up and cheering.
And the third season focused again on Coach and Saracen, on Riggins’ senior year and late campaign for college, on the disruption caused by hotshot freshman J.D. McCoy, leading to Coach losing control and losing his position. Again, it was a season that generated more than a little mistiness and if there wasn’t as much cheering, that was just because of the nature of the story the writers set out.
I can’t dodge it any longer. The second season of “Friday Night Lights” is awful. It begins with Landry killing a man stalking Tyra and the two of them disposing the body and, as much as I wish it did, it doesn’t actually get better. The season includes Julie’s flirtation with the pretentious teacher, Buddy Garrity adopting Santiago to play tight end, Riggins and Street’s trip to Mexico, Lyla’s career as a talk radio personality, Street’s relationship with the waitress and Tami Taylor’s confusing transition from part-time guidance counselor into a school principal. Note that the last two dud plotlines were able to pay off in Season Three, when the show rebounded with amazing authority, pumping out top-notch episodes like “Hello, Goodbye” (a beautiful send-off for Gaius Charles’ Smash), “New York, New York” (bidding farewell to Street), “Underdogs” and “Tomorrow Blues,” a closing episode so good it wouldn’t have upset me if it had been a series finale.
“Tomorrow Blues” wasn’t a series finale because of the innovative deal worked out between DirecTV and NBC to keep “Friday Night Lights” on the air. While the pact staggers seasons in a strange and annoying way for people who can only view episodes on the network, it’s a sign that some people are trying to figure out a different television business model, one that benefits shows with the miniscule viewership of “Friday Night Lights” and that benefits the audiences who adore those shows, even if the mainstream tells them they’d be better off watching CBS procedurals. Because of DirecTV, “Friday Night Lights” didn’t have to go off the air after Season Two. It had the chance to set everything right with Season Three, to continue the momentum with the first half of Season Four (a season that has showcased a different side of Dillon, bringing the community more to the forefront than ever before) and there’s a Season Five already ordered. That a show with premium cable ratings is somehow going to get at least five network seasons in this business climate is a small miracle.
That “Friday Night Lights” is still able to hold a place this high on my list, despite Killer Landry is also a small miracle. No other show on this list, especially not one this high, has a debacle as large as “FNL” Season Two. And yet, if I’m ranking based on my heart, “Friday Night Lights” might have been as high as No. 2, as only one other show of the decade made me as happy when it was at its best.
So there you are. “Friday Night Lights” is No. 8 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade…
Coming up? Yesterday I went with my head. Today I went with my heart. Tomorrow I go with… My ear?

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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