‘Friday Night Lights’: A look back at its greatness and its greatest moments

Senior Television Writer
07.15.11 118 Comments


(Note: This article was originally published in February, when the “Friday Night Lights” finale was about to air on DirecTV. That finale will re-air, in a 90-minute timeslot, tonight at 8 on NBC.)

In the second season premiere of “Friday Night Lights,” one of the show’s high school characters killed a man who had just tried to rape the girl he liked. Then he and that girl conspired to hide the body and cover up the crime.

This upset people, on a level I haven’t often seen even for the biggest of shark jumps. (Heck, even I flipped out about it.) How on Earth, the consensus seemed to be, could a show this good do something this stupid? How dare they ruin this show with this silliness?

That the anger and disbelief over this storyline were so intense is, in an odd way, a testament to the brilliance of the four seasons of “Friday Night Lights” that didn’t involve murder and Mexican threesomes and weird age-inappropriate affairs and a meth dealer obsessed with ferrets. People were so furious and dismayed because the show to that point (and almost as soon as that season was put to rest) had been so great – and, more importantly, because it had felt so real.

There’s a level of honest, raw humanity in “Friday Night Lights” that few TV dramas have ever achieved. Over and over and over, the show and its characters wore their hearts on their sleeves, in a way that somehow made them more solid than characters on other series of comparable quality.

That rawness made the show great, but it was also likely one of the aspects (along with the high school football setting) that kept the show from being a hit, as most viewers don’t turn to TV to be confronted by emotions as powerful as the ones this series brought up. Watching “Friday Night Lights” often felt like being put through a ringer. You felt like part of the town, and the team, and you bled with the characters and cried with them, and on occasion you got to soar with them, too. And a lot of people simply don’t want to get that close to the fictional characters they watch – don’t feel that experiencing the devastating lows is worth also getting to share in the glorious highs.

And for those of us who wanted all of that and more, the murder plot felt less like a disappointment than a betrayal. This isn’t a show that does this! we thought. And these kids would never do this!  But that stupid, sensationalistic storyline is as much a symbol of the show’s genius as all the good seasons, because if the show wasn’t so blindingly brilliant the rest of the time, few would have noticed or cared when this happened.

As we prepare for tonight’s series finale (I’ll have a review, and a post-mortem interview with Jason Katims, up tonight after it’s over, and you’ll also want to re-download the all-“FNL” podcast Dan and I initially posted after the finale), I want to look back not on the show’s most disappointing moment, but at some of its most thrilling, and powerful, and just plain great.

I could pick out the climactic scene from practically every season 1 episode, and from many of the seasons that followed – I could even do a decent-sized list of moments from the finale (you’ll know one in particular as soon as it happens) – but in the interests of both my time and yours, here are just some of the many, many, many brilliant moments that made me care so much about Coach, Mrs. Coach, QB One, the Riggins boys, Lance, Luke, Vince, Gracie Belle and the rest over the last five years.

“Saracen, quarterback’s a captain.” (From “Pilot,” season 1, episode 1):
“Friday Night Lights” was always a show that was simultaneously about high school football but about so much more than high school football: about race and class and spirituality and striving and hardship and all the other things that make life so wonderful and so terrifying. And the climactic sequence to the series pilot episode makes those ambitions plain, as star quarterback Jason Street is paralyzed trying to tackle a player after an interception, and terrified, inexperienced backup Matt Saracen is forced to finish the game under these horrible circumstances. The sequence expertly cuts between the Panthers waging a furious comeback and Street being rushed to the hospital for surgery (the sound of a motorized saw cutting off his football helmet still haunts me). The Panthers somehow win, the crowd and team are temporarily elated, but then the players and coaches from both teams gather at mid-field so Smash Williams can lead a prayer for their fallen teammate, and it becomes clear that there’s only so much that even a thrilling victory can heal.

“CHAMPIONS DON’T COMPLAIN!” (From “Wind Sprints,” season 1, episode 3): One of the earliest, and best, examples of Coach’s tough love approach to his players. The team is in me-first disarray after their first loss of the post-Street era, so Eric buses his players to a remote location and makes them run windsprints, uphill, at night in a torrential downpour, until Smash brings them all together with a “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” chant.

“Why don’t you take your Members Only jacket off and hang it on the coat rack?” (From “Full Hearts,” season 1, episode 9): The best dramas are often capable of being as funny as the best sitcoms, and Kyle Chandler was the series’ not-so-secret comedy weapon for the many laughs he and the crew wrung out of Eric’s thinly-veiled contempt for the way his teenage charges tried to grow up too fast. Here, he’s just barely holding his anger in as his terrified quarterback arrives to take his daughter out on a date. (NOTE: That scene’s not available on its own on Hulu, but the equally funny scene where Matt buys the jacket is.)

“You are not! Allowed! To have sex! You’re 15 years old!” (From “I Think We Should Have Sex,” season 1, episode 17): Connie Britton didn’t get very much to do as the coach’s wife in the movie version of “Friday Night Lights,” and agreed to do the series only after she was promised that this version of the character would be more prominent. Her commitment was rewarded many times over, particularly in this fantastic, tear-jerking scene in which Tami confronts Julie after seeing Matt buying condoms. What could be a shrill and/or sanctimonious lecture instead turns into a candid, heartfelt discussion of sex, and love, and open communication between mothers and daughters.

“Blood, sweat and tears – it all stays right here on this field, right now! This is our dirt! This is our mud! This is ours, baby!”  (From “Mud Bowl,” season 1, episode 20): One of the series’ all-time best episodes climaxes with another great parallel sequence of football triumph and personal pain. When the Panthers’ home playoff game has to be relocated due to a gas explosion, Eric tries to bring the game back to its roots by staging it in a cow pasture, which turns into a mud field when rain hits. As Saracen leads the team down the field on a game-winning drive, Tyra (back in a town that’s nearly empty because of the game) gets attacked by a rapist and finds the strength (inner and outer) to fight him off and escape into the downpour.

“Everybody leaves me! What’s wrong with me?” (From “Leave No One Behind,” season 2, episode 14): In part because of what later happened to Tyra’s would-be rapist, most “FNL” fans like to pretend that season 2 didn’t happen. But that season did have a few redeeming moments right near the writers strike-generated abrupt end, most notably this scene. Matt is out of sorts, having been abandoned at different points by his coach, his father and his girlfriends, and has taken to emulating Tim Riggins and drinking on school days. So Coach hurls him into a shower, turns on the water and demands that Matt get his act together. And Matt turns things back on Eric by pointing out that Eric left him, too. All a chastened Eric can reply is, “There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you at all.” A fine moment not just for the acting from Zach Gilford and Kyle Chandler, but because it was one of the few times that season that felt like real attention was being paid to continuity and characterization – to the idea that everything that happens in this small town is remembered, and that it matters.

“I’m goin’ to college, Mama.”  (From “Hello Goodbye,” season 3, episode 4): Where most high school shows follow their characters off to college if they’re around that long, the “Friday Night Lights” creative team recognized that their show was about the town, the team, and the coach. So starting in season 3, the series began saying goodbye to its graduating original characters, and no one got a more moving send-off than Smash, whom Coach nursed back from a knee injury, then literally walked onto the Texas A&M field for a tryout. The reactions of Gaius Charles and Liz Mikel as Smash and Mama Smash get the good news are just perfect.

“Let’s give him a minute. He’ll be here.” (From “Underdogs,” season 3, episode 12): The Panthers go to State again, and this time lose in a nailbiter where everyone but spoiled, benched JD McCoy leaves everything out there on the field. In the aftermath, an injured Tim Riggins insists on leaving a literal memento in the end zone, and while the rest of the team sits on the bus waiting to leave, he marches back, kneels on the grass of the last place he ever expects to play football, and silently places his cleats as a tribute to that game and to his career.

“No matter what happens, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, I’m gonna be right behind you. Always and always and always.” (From “Tomorrow Blues,” season 3, episode 13): Tonight’s series finale is the third time the “FNL” team has had to craft an episode that could serve as a definitive ending. In season 1, the Panthers won State, but Eric took a job out of town. And in season 3, the State loss and the pettiness of Joe McCoy cost Eric his position with the Panthers, leaving him no choice but to take a job trying to resurrect the long-dormant East Dillon Lions program. As Eric and Tami stand arm-in-arm on the abandoned, run-down field, the camera pulls back in a way that would have worked as a beautiful ending, but instead cleverly set up the drama of the final two seasons.

“We would like to forfeit the game. Is that what you want to hear?” (From “East of Dillon,” season 4, episode 1): The Lions are undermanned, inexperienced and horribly outmatched in their first game, and when Eric enters the locker room at halftime, the kids seems less like football players than soldiers nursing their wounds during a lull in battle. Heartbroken over the way his battered and bruised players insist on going out for the second half, Coach sacrifices his pride for the sake of their bodies and marches out to call a forfeit.

“I wanna see my dad.” (From “The Son,” season 4, episode 5): “Friday Night Lights” was not only brilliantly cast, but, again, written and filmed in a way that consistently let those fine actors put their rawest emotions out there for the audience to see and be moved by. And moments on the series don’t get rawer – or better-played – than Matt Saracen, punching bag of the universe, breaking into the funeral home where his soldier father is being laid to rest after being killed by an IED, and demanding against all advice to get a look inside the coffin at whatever remains. We never see what’s under that lid; thanks to Zach Gilford’s astonishing work, we don’t need to.

“I did it. I did it all. You did not do anything.” (From “Thanksgiving,” season 4, episode 13): Legend has it that during production of “Animal House,” director John Landis realized that the less he gave John Belushi to say, the more his character stood out. In the first season of the show, Taylor Kitsch often seemed like a weak link, but somewhere along the way the creative team realized a similar less-is-more truth about him. As they stripped away his dialogue, Kitsch quickly became one of the series’ bedrocks. And that approach was used so well in his final scene as a regular castmember, in which Tim Riggins – having agreed to take the fall for brother Billy’s chop shop to ensure that Billy’s son would grow up with a father – walks silently towards the sheriff’s station to turn himself in, and a mixture of pride, fear and regret wash over his face as he walks.

“There’s a lot of dude talking going on out here.” (From “Kingdom,” season 5, episode 5): The East Dillon Lions were supposed to be a joke, but through luck, and perseverance and great coaching, they somehow turned into a team. That transformation is solidified in this marvelously low-key, fly-on-the-wall scene in which Vince, Luke, Tinker and Hastings – the core of this improbable juggernaut – enjoy some quiet time together on a road trip, talk about how far they’ve come since that early forfeit, and just enjoy the heck out of each other’s company, all while Coach listens in unseen from his own balcony and marvels at what he’s accomplished.

“It’s time for you to let Tim Riggins come home.” (From “Don’t Go,” season 5, episode 10): Tim is up for parole, and the three men who come to speak on his behalf are Billy, Coach, and… Buddy Garrity? Buddy was often the show’s designated comic relief and/or stand-in for all the evils of Texas high school football, but the writers and actor Brad Leland humanized the character now and again, and demonstrated that Buddy’s passion and persuasive abilities could be used for good as well. Here, he gives a fiery speech on behalf of the boy he once believed wasn’t good enough to date his daughter, and by the end of it, even the broken, haunted prison incarnation of Tim Riggins can’t help cracking a smile.

“You’re gonna be the star quarterback of the DIllon Panthers next year. And you are gonna shine.” (From “Texas Whatever,” season 5, episode 12):
One of the things that makes Eric Taylor such a great coach, and such a memorable lead character, is that he usually knows exactly the right thing to say to get the most out of the young men under his command. Here, in the devastating aftermath of a school board decision that eliminated the Lions program in favor of the more traditional Panthers, Vince finds Eric, seeking some kind of reassurance, and Eric tells him just what he needs to hear. And Vince, whose life was more or less saved when Eric agreed to get him out of jail and put him on the team, hugs his coach, and Eric – not usually much with physical displays of affection – hugs him right back.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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