You don’t have to love football to get why Friday Night Lights is such a damn good TV series.
Sure, touchdowns and tackles are part of the story, but the real draw of this Peter Berg-created masterpiece is how it gives fans an authentic snapshot of small-town life. It’s got an incredible cast — think Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler — and a compelling plot. There are school rivalries and high school drama and yes, sometimes there’s murder and doping scandals and spontaneous trips to Mexico to inquire about illegal medical procedures. But, at its heart, Friday Night Lights is a show about community, about family — the family you’re born with and the family you make.
It’s also a hell of a good choice for your next at-home binge-watch which is why we’ve put together a ranking of the series’ best episodes.
Here are our picks for the moments you should watch out for.
15. “Leave No One Behind” (Season 2, Episode 14)
The Story: Matt Saracen hits his breaking point as Julie becomes more jealous of Tyra’s relationship with her mom.
Why It’s On This List: Saracen really struggles this episode and for good reason — the kid’s been through hell, his depression is warranted. But it’s how Coach Taylor handles his drunken meltdown, first with a bit of tough love and cold shower to sober him up, then by assuring him that there’s nothing wrong with him and that people like his dad and Julie aren’t leaving him because he’s broken in some way. It’s enough to leave you a little choked up.
14. “May The Best Man Win” (Season 2, Episode 15)
The Story: Smash faces an uphill battle in landing a scholarship after his brawl at the movie-theater and Coach Taylor must fight off one of his wife’s former flames.
Why It’s On This List: The trivial subplot of Coach Taylor duking it out with Tami’s ex (played cheekily by the show’s creator, Peter Berg) offered up a bit of humor at the expense of Kyle Chandler — who delivered a believable performance as a jealous, drunken husband ready to flaunt his machismo. But the best part of this season two finale is Smash’s story, which began a few episodes back with a racially-charged assault that left the star athlete in a bad spot. It wasn’t fair that Smash took all the blame for that fight, nor is it fair that his hopes of playing at a prestigious university are dashed because of it. But his decision to go to a smaller, HBCU with help from Coach Taylor, was one of the most emotional endings to a main character’s journey we’ve seen on FNL.
13. “Thanksgiving” (Season 4, Episode 13)
The Story: The Taylors host a Thanksgiving dinner for select team members as the Lions prepare for a season-determining game against the Panthers.
Why It’s On This List: So much happened in the season four finale: Vince and Jess finally came clean about their feelings for each other, Matt came home from Chicago, and the rivalry between the Lions and Panthers came to a head on the field in an epic showdown. But the episode’s strongest performance came from Taylor Kitsch. Sure, Tim Riggins was a bad boy with a drinking problem and a strange aversion to clean tees, but he redeemed himself when he took the fall for his big brother, going to prison for their illegal chop shop outfit so that Billy could be there to raise his kid.
12. “Underdogs” (Season 4, Episode 12)
The Story: Matt makes a confession to his grandmother while Coach Taylor tries to manage a team in chaos right before the biggest game of the season.
Why It’s On This List: The introduction of yet another star quarterback challenging Matt Saracen for his starting spot made most of season four frustrating as hell but it did earn fans a spectacular showdown at State. The Panthers take on the undefeated South Texas Titans in the championship game and, thanks to poor performances from Saracen and the meddling of J.D. McCoy’s abusive dad, it’s the freshman who scored the first string title. Unfortunately, McCoy begins to choke under the pressure which leads Coach Taylor to give a rousing half-time speech and put Saracen back in the game. The team loses, but it’s a hard-fought comeback that’s inspiring, despite the final score.
11. “Always” (Season 5, Episode 13)
The Story: East Dillon’s football program nears its end which leaves Coach Taylor with a difficult decision to make: return to the Dillon Panthers or leave Texas.
Why It’s On This List: Wrapping up any show is hard, but this is a send-off that knows exactly what its audience wants and delivers most of those happy endings in a way that feels authentic. Matt and Julie reconnect, current and past players set off on promising new adventures, and most importantly, the show uses the Taylor’s decision to leave Texas so that Tami can pursue a new career opportunity as a way to highlight power imbalances in relationships and praise the healthy marriage of its two leads.
10. “The Son” (Season 4, Episode 5)
The Story: Coach Taylor is firmly in place at East Dillon but he’s called to help a former player when Saracen suffers a family tragedy. Meanwhile, Vince is pushed to his limit in order to provide for his family.
Why It’s On This List: The fourth season introduced new characters, a new school, and a new team of players for fans to care about. Things could sometimes feel disjointed, especially when the show tried to pair storylines of old favorites with plots revolving around rookie characters. The Son succeeds in that because the two major storylines of the episode — the death of Saracen’s dad and Vince’s family trouble — circle a similar theme. For Saracen, a young man who’s been burdened with the responsibility of providing care for his family his entire life, mourning the death of his estranged father is a confusing, frustrating act. Zach Gilford plays that bitterness and disappointment beautifully. Vince, too, has become a young man forced to shoulder a lot for the sake of his family, particularly due to his mother’s drug addiction. Both boys have parents who have failed them and are trying to rise above the expectations of the town to which they belong.
9. “Wind Sprints” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Story: After a humiliating loss to an easily-beatable opponent, the entire town turns on Coach Taylor while the team’s in-fighting threatens to derail its chances for another run at State. Tensions between Riggins and Smash reach a breaking point, and Coach Taylor is forced to go to extremes to get the boys back in line.
Why It’s On This List: Everyone loves a winner, and the Dillion Panthers were great at winning, but it’s when they lost, when they failed miserably, that we were treated to some truly brilliant performances by the cast of the show. Kyle Chandler does some fine work in this episode, playing a man conflicted between doing what’s right — giving Saracen another chance at QB — or caving to the demands of the angry mob of parents and bringing in a new player. Smash finally steps up to lead the team in a rain-soaked climatic moment that set the tone for the show moving forward, and Taylor Kitsch showed off his chops by having a heart-to-heart with Coach Taylor that saw the character confronting some of his greatest fears and deepest regrets.
8. “Texas Whatever” (Season 5, Episode 12)
The Story: Tami gets a prestigious offer that could take the family away from Dillon as the Panthers recruit Vince by managing to ax the East Dillon Lions.
Why It’s On This List: It would’ve been easy to include the series finale on this list – it’s a great episode that neatly ties any ends fans have come to care about – but the series penultimate episode had a harder job. We had to say goodbye to some characters in a way that felt fitting for their story arcs, while also setting up a conflict that would help inch the entire series over the finish line. Texas Whatever manages to do both, saying goodbye to fan favorites like Riggins and Tyra while giving us a bit of a cliffhanger in the Taylor household’s dilemma over whether to move East for Tami’s new job. Not only does this spotlight some deserving characters, it also sets up tension in the most important relationship of the show – Eric and Tami’s marriage – even though we know by series end, they’ll have worked things out.
7. “I Can’t” (Season 4, Episode 10)
The Story: Becky has a life-changing decision to make when she discovers she’s pregnant, and Vince is forced to reconcile his mother’s addiction with the life he hopes to lead.
Why It’s On This List: Friday Night Lights never shied away from the tough issues, but this episode took things to another level when it thoughtfully and even-handedly handled Becky’s abortion dilemma. No matter where you fall on that debate, the heart-to-heart that Tami Taylor and Becky have on the topic is beautifully nuanced and plenty emotional. The show gives us a tangible look at the consequences of unplanned pregnancies, specifically the burden placed on young women, who must make such difficult decisions and then be judged for them.
6. “Leave No One Behind” (Season 2, Episode 14)
The Story: Smash reaches a crossroads in his life and in his football career as he begins his three-game suspension following an altercation at the movie theater. Meanwhile, Saracen hits rock bottom as the stress of being the “man of the house” finally causes him to crack.
Why It’s On This List: There weren’t a lot of shining moments in season two of Friday Night Lights, which is why this episode, particularly the moments between Coach Taylor and Saracen, stands out. Eric Taylor has served as a father-figure for plenty of men on the team, but it’s his tough-love approach to Saracen that felt particularly special. Taylor could easily hate the guy who hooked up with his daughter in season one or at least make his life hell on the field. Instead, he shows Saracen the compassion and empathy he’s been lacking in his life, showing up for the kid in his darkest of moments. If watching Coach Taylor comfort his QB as Saracen cries about how unworthy and unloved he is in the shower doesn’t break you a bit, you probably don’t have a heart.
5. “I Think We Should Have Sex” (Season 1, Episode 17)
The Story: The Panthers continue to fight their way to the playoffs after persevering in their last match despite some corrupt referees and disturbing racial discrimination. Off the field, Julie decides she’s ready to take things to the next level with Matt, who struggles to provide the kind of romance she wants.
Why It’s On This List: After the heaviness of the previous episode that centered largely on the game of football and the bonds of brotherhood it can create, this episode gives fans a nice change of pace by focusing on the show’s female characters, particularly the relationship between Julie and Tami Taylor. Having the sex talk with your parents is always awkward, but the show does a beautiful job of giving us the flip-side of that dreaded conversation. It turns out, parents hate talking about sex with their teens as much as their kids do. Connie Britton is a force of nature in this episode, delivering a beautiful breakdown that carries so much emotion and nuance with just a handful of dialogue. It’s an episode every mother and daughter should watch together.
4. “State” (Season 1, Episode 22)
The Story: The team has finally made it to State, and all that stands in the way of their impressive comeback season is an old enemy and the uncertainty of their coach’s next career move.
Why It’s On This List: Friday Night Lights’ first season finale did everything it needed to do. We got a ton of action in the final game of the season, we were given something to invest in -– watching the team, particularly Saracen, confront their old nemesis Ray “Voodoo” Tatum -– and it all ended on a cliffhanger. Not one of those frustrating, wanna tear-your-hair-out cliffhangers, but a bittersweet reminder of the show’s uncertain fate, something that was mirrored in the Taylor’s own journey. We got a victory, literally, when the team won State and were left with questions as to the future of the relationship between Eric and Tami when it was revealed that she was expecting a baby, and he would definitely be leaving for that TMU job.
3. “Mud Bowl” (Season 1, Episode 20)
The Story: The Panthers are inching closer to State, but a freak accident threatens to put a halt to their comeback tour. Coach Taylor is still mulling his college job offer, which leaves Tami and Julie in an uncomfortable limbo.
Why It’s On This List: As the first season of Friday Night Lights started to close, the fate of the show was very much up in the air. Because of that, the final few episodes felt like a goodbye of sorts, with this episode giving Coach Taylor a beautiful kind of home-turf send-off that still left some loose ends untied. The episode also doubled-down on what made the series as a whole so special: the bonds formed by such a close-knit community unified in a singular goal. Watching the team, the town of Dillon, and the players’ families rally around them to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity embodied the very best of what FNL had to offer. And watching the cast roll around in the mud for 60 minutes wasn’t too bad either.
2. “New York, New York” (Season 3, Episode 8)
The Story: Jason and Tim take a road trip to New York City where the former QB decides to make a go of it with his baby-mama and pursue a career as a sports agent.
Why It’s On This List: Jason Street was a character with a lot to offer but unfortunately, that promise just never translated well on-screen. Much of his arc after his accident felt like filler, a subplot that eventually fizzled out, but this was a lovely way to say goodbye to the character, giving him a sendoff that felt promising. It’s not the last time we see Street, but it does mark the last buddy adventure between the QB and Riggins. These two were always better when they were together, and watching Riggins buy two-for-one suits and give Street a “Texas Forever” pep-talk felt like the perfect amount of nostalgia to end their story.
1. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Story: Eric Taylor is established as the new head coach of the Dillion Panthers, a high school football team drowning in trophies and the expectation of a town steeped in tradition. The pressure’s on to produce a winning season, but the team’s first game ends in a tragedy no one saw coming.
Why It’s On This List: When Friday Night Lights premiered in 2006, it gave us that rarest of TV gems: a pilot that actually worked. The first episode of any show is usually fraught with indecision. Somehow, writers must set up the plot, introduce the players, give us enough action to get invested and do it all without it feeling formulaic. It’s a tall order, but FNL delivers by getting up close and personal with its main cast. There’s the chaotic build-up to the first game, highlighted by off-screen interviews and footage that has a first-person feel, but those shots are balanced out with quieter moments that focus on the relationships that would ultimately drive the show. Simply put, FNL’s pilot is a masterclass that every hopeful TV show should take note of.