The roll-out schedule for the fifth and final season of “Friday Night Lights” has been strange even by the standards of the show’s later years. The 13-episode season, like usual, originally aired in the fall and early winter on DirecTV, which kept the high school football drama alive after two low-rated seasons on NBC. And, as usual, those episodes will now begin airing on NBC, starting Friday at 8 p.m. In between, though, the entire fifth season was released on DVD last Tuesday, meaning that every single episode will now have been made available by two different means before a single minute airs on the show’s broadcast home.
That speaks to the show’s position as an afterthought in the NBC Universal empire. DirecTV picked up most of the production costs, so NBC has treated the show as glorified repeats for the last few years.
If it still feels strange for one of the best dramas in the history to air on network television – even if only two of those seasons first aired on network TV (and one of them is better left ignored) – to go out this way, at least we got these three extra seasons courtesy of the DirecTV/NBC partnership.
And because I’m writing this review with the benefit of having seen all 13 episodes – as opposed to the three episodes I had to work with at the start of the DirecTV run – I can give a much more accurate, and positive, review of the final season. (Some extremely minor spoilers follow.)
First, the deficits: The season starts slowly, with the first three or four episodes feeling like an elongated bit of throat-clearing. (Or like those episodes you get 2/3 of the way through a standard-length network season, when everyone’s tired and hasn’t worked up a finishing kick yet.) There are a few iffy story arcs, one involving Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) mentoring a troubled student, another about Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) off at college, and new cast addition Grey Damon (as a basketball star recruited to play wide receiver) never gets much to do.
Now the positives: Every damn thing else.
The fifth episode, in which Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and the Lions travel together for an away game, is among the best pure looks at football culture, and the forging of a team identity, that the series has ever done. As Coach turns the Lions from a laughingtstock into a respectable team, he has to deal with the expectations and distractions that come with success – including the new high profile of quarterback Vince (Michael B. Jordan) – and that gives Chandler (and Jordan, for that matter) some incredible moments. Over the course of the season, many familiar faces return, never for gratuitous reasons, and their stories never trample over the status of the newer castmembers (or promoted bench players, like Derek Phillips as Billy Riggins). The back half of the season is packed with the kind of raw, emotional, beautiful moments that this series has specialized in, and that will absolutely raise the dust levels in your living rooms.
And the finale (which NBC will hopefully run at its full length in a 90-minute timeslot) is just about perfect.
If you’re one of the few but proud people who have let “Friday Night Lights” mess with your emotions for the last five years – the type who instinctively hears the phrase “Clear eyes” and calls out “Full hearts, can’t lose!” – chances are you care enough to have sought out the episodes by now in one form or another. But if you love the show and haven’t been able to see them before this week, then I envy you. Because there’s an awful lot of fine work coming, and you get to experience it for the first time.
As I said last week when the DVD set was released, I intend to stick with the plan that seemed to work pretty well in season 3 (and that I would have used for season 4 if I hadn’t shifted websites in between the DirecTV and NBC runs): I’m simply going to take the original version of each post, with the DirecTV comments included, and bump them up so they reappear at the top of the blog at the end of the East Coast NBC airing.
This is going to lead to some confusing bits for a while: the reviews will appear out of order on the list of all reviews – so look for the episode title if you get confused – and it’s possible that certain reviews might disappear for a day or so in between when I re-set the clock and when they’re due to be republished. (Nobody at HitFix has ever tried this before, so we’ll just have to see what happens.) But the great majority seems in favor of being able to be part of the original discussion, and since to this point the discussion in each post is limited to what happens up through that particular episode, it seems safe.
But for those of you who watched on DirecTV, or the DVDs, I’m going to ask you to be respectful of those who have to stick with the NBC schedule and DO NOT DISCUSS ANYTHING PAST THE EVENTS DEPICTED WITHIN THAT EPISODE. If you want to rejoin the discussion with the DirecTV folks, great, but don’t even allude to stuff that comes later. If people aren’t enjoying a storyline that you feel takes a sharp right turn for the better at some point, you can say “It gets better,” but not much more. (Even something like “You’d be surprised where this goes” is a no-no, please.)
Everyone behaved just fine back in season 3 and 4, so with only this last season to go, hopefully we’ll be fine. Thanks.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com