When I visited my family in Seattle a few years ago, one of the first things I did was drive to nearby North Bend to have some coffee and pie at Twede’s Café, the real-life Double R Diner from Twin Peaks. For my 22nd birthday, I braved the endless Lincoln Tunnel from New York into New Jersey to eat at Holsten’s, the diner featured in the final episode of The Sopranos. (There was a jukebox at my table — the table — but it didn’t work, and even if it had, “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was nowhere to be found.) I took a self-guided Breaking Bad tour in Albuquerque, and all I got was this speck of Walter White’s (fake) blood from an all-time classic episode. I love visiting real-life pop-culture landmarks, even when they’re only minutes from my apartment.
Literally across the street from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, 10 minutes from downtown, even closer to where I currently live, is an abandoned football field. The bleachers are rusted, with trees shooting between the openings. The grass is 2 feet tall. The tall lights that used to shine down on high-school athletes are now temporary homes for birds. At least that’s what the field used to look like. Now it’s been cleaned up for hundreds of Friday Night Lights fans attending the Austin Television Festival.
For the fifth and final time, ATX Television Festival brought together the cast of the great football drama for an evening of clear eyes, full hearts, and Lone Stars. The Friday Night Lights Tailgate & Pep Rally Blowout — complete with live music, tacos, and a screening of a “fan-favorite episode” — was held on Panthers Field, where much of FNL was filmed. (It took $10,000 to clean up the grounds, which were in such bad condition, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “NBC’s Revolution filmed one of its apocalyptic scenes there.”) Zach Gilford, Taylor Kitsch, and Minka Kelly were busy out of town, and Kyle Chandler and Michael J. Jordan were absent, but the reunion was attended by Connie Britton (Tami), Gaius Charles (Smash), Scott Porter (Street), Adrianne Palicki (Tyra), Matt Lauria (Luke), Brad Leland (Buddy), Dora Madison (Becky), Derek Phillips (Billy), and Jesse Plemons (Landry/Lance), among others.
Here’s what we saw.
Before the cast and creator Jason Katims came out for a Q&A, the heat-stricken crowd (it was dangerously hot, with little to no shade available) was treated to musical performances from Calliope Musicals, Ruby and the Reckless, and most importantly, Crucifictorious, everyone’s favorite “extreme grindcore with heavy thrash influences” band. Unfortunately, the group — led by Plemons and Stephanie Hunt, who played Devin — no longer channels Satan with a sore throat. Crucifictorious now sounds like a chilled-out Kurt Vile cover band, playing one easy, breezy indie-rock tune after another. The songs were largely indistinguishable from each other, except for set-closer “She Don’t Use Jelly,” featuring Grandma Saracen (Louanne Stephens) on the tambourine.
All songs should have Grandma Saracen on the tambourine.
As the oppressive sun was setting, the cast took the stage, escorted by football players from nearby Pflugerville High School (team mascot: the Panther). These were a bunch of teenagers, and I’m just imagining the razzing they gave to the poor bastard who had to walk hand-in-hand with the guy who played Buddy Garrity, instead of, say, Adrianne Palicki. The last time the cast was at Panthers Field — where Plemons once tore his ACL during an off-shoot game — was during the series wrap party, over five years ago. Since then, Connie Britton has probably had the highest-profile career, and the rest of the cast is still in awe of Mrs. Coach. She was, by far, the most common answer to the question, “Who would you have a crush on at (East) Dillon High?” Becky tried to play it cool by picking Luke, but that’s puppy dog love. Props to Stephens, though, who without hesitation replied, “Landry.”
Before the screening, the cast also toured the restored Panthers Fieldhouse.
The line to touch the “J. Street” autograph was 15 minutes long.
Fans were allowed to vote for which episode they wanted to see at the screening. Naturally, they picked “The Son,” the saddest episode of the entire series. It’s also possibly the best, but still, goddamn. At least the sweat dripping down our faces could hide the tears. “The Son” is the Emmy-nominated episode where Matt Saracen deals with the death of his military father. It begins with QB1 watching a video message his dad left him on his Christmas, and ends with Matt working through his angry, sad, confused feelings by throwing dirt on a coffin.
That’s heavy stuff for an otherwise relaxed pep rally and tailgate, with families on blankets and lawn chairs. But it was received well (the cast was off to the side, so I couldn’t tell if they were watching, too), and I even heard a few people behind me sniffling and trying to hold back the ugly tears. (You never go full ugly tears in public, even during the heartbreaking scene where Matt sees his dad’s not-all-there face.)
The loudest applause came after every act break and whenever the action, particularly an early scene where Vince runs a different play than the one given to him by Coach Taylor, cut to the field we were sitting on. Here’s where Landry kicked an extra point! Here’s where Vince ran the wildcat! Here’s why Tinker Tinder’d! It was pretty neat, despite the somber tone of “The Son.”
It’s hard to pick a standout episode from a show like Friday Night Lights, though — they’re all so good and better taken as a whole, murder plot notwithstanding. But I probably would have gone with the season four finale, “Thanksgiving,” which pits East Dillon against Dillon; if nothing else, it would have made the crowd feel guilty for wearing Panthers blue when they should have been rocking Lions red. (The split was probably 80% Dillon, 19% East Dillon, 1% me wearing a Carolina Panthers shirt.)
Both colors are commonplace around Austin, as are “Clear Eyes” hats and comically large glasses of wine (that last one might be unrelated to the show). High-school football is a way of life in Texas, and for someone like me, a Yankee from upstate New York, Friday Night Lights — which showed both the highs (winning State) and lows (everything else) of playing pre-college athletics — was my way into that world. I just needed a coach (Taylor) to guide me.
Texas forever? Eh, maybe not. Friday Night Lights forever? Yes.
Connie Britton’s hair is a Hail Mary touchdown on fourth down followed by a 2-point conversion, y’all.