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Sad Eyes, Full Hearts As We Lose 'Friday Night Lights'
February 8, 2011  | By Ed Martin
 

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One of the finest drama series in the history of television comes to an end this week -- and, sadly, most people won't even be aware of it. Then again, that unfortunate circumstance is nothing new for Friday Night Lights, a sublime example of dramatic programming at its best that during its five-season run has never received the level of attention it has so richly deserved.

For reasons I will never understand, the broadcast (and, later, satellite) television audience never embraced Lights to the degree necessary to turn it into a hit -- or even an unqualified success. (The inexplicable fact that members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences never saw fit to honor it with any significant Emmy nominations until last year didn't help matters, either.)

It's a miracle, in fact, that Lights survived its first season on NBC, a network that did almost nothing right during the last five years, but nevertheless saw fit to renew the show for a second season, and then partner up with DirecTV to further extend its life by another three. What a shame they couldn't extend it for three more.

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Where will we be without this one-of-a-kind show; one that stood apart from so much of dramatic series television in its unapologetic fondness for small town life as it is lived by millions of Americans? Lights didn't need doctors, lawyers, detectives or crime scene investigators to keep its stories moving. Instead, it focused on the challenges faced by ordinary working-class people for whom the simple pleasures were the best: family dinners, time spent with friends, town parades and especially Friday night high school football games. And it did so with so much grace and compassion that it transcended much of its medium -- especially broadcast.

In this week's quietly emotional series finale (premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on DirecTV's The 101 Network), Lights to the last continues to deliver everything we have come to expect from it since the beginning. Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami quietly and realistically grapple with and work through a very difficult situation that would change their marriage if they let it; one that would have most television couples ranting and raving and weeping and screaming like lunatics. In fact, their scenes together in the final two episodes should be required viewing for marriage counselors everywhere, not to mention scriptwriters. Further, every actor working in television should feel obligated to study the performances of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Together, they made the Taylors' relationship the warmest and most realistic marriage seen on television since that of John and Olivia Walton 40 years ago.

The final episodes are set during the Christmas season, so many of the original teenage characters who previously left the Texas town of Dillon (and the narrative) to attend college are back in town for the holidays. (Seeing them again really does feel like being reunited with dear old friends.) Tim Riggins is back, too, fresh out of prison (with much time off for good behavior) and determined to make the most of life in his hometown, rather than run away from it. Scenes in which Tim and his friends pick up friendships and relationships right where they left off, while revealing that they are all just a little bit older and a wee tad wiser -- but not all grown up yet -- are triumphs of richly insightful writing and uncommonly nuanced acting. Taylor Kitsch, the underrated actor who portrays Tim, should be an Emmy contender for his deeply felt work here.

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The new kids who have populated the show during its last two seasons are also well-served by the series finale, especially Vince (Michael B. Jordan), the quarterback who has had to overcome unrelenting family issues while trying to better himself, and nice-guy Luke (Matt Lauria, now on the new Fox series The Chicago Code), who has had family problems of his own. One of these guys continues to pursue a dream he never thought possible, while the other decides that it's time to quit dreaming and get real. True to form for this always truthful show, their storylines emphasize that no two teenagers are exactly alike, and that simple decisions made at that age can reverberate for the rest of their lives.

Lights debuted on NBC in 2006, and at the time it proved to be a much-needed reminder that not everyone in America had succumbed to the unprecedented greed and rampant consumer spending that was devouring so much of the country at the time. That may be why it didn't register with a large audience. Who wanted to be reminded that ordinary folks like the residents of Dillon were still living in small homes, driving old cars and struggling to pay their bills while selflessly caring for their loved ones -- not when there was so much money to spend and so many good times to be had and there were so many McMansions to be built? Then the economy went into the tank, and Lights in its last two seasons suddenly reflected a newer and broader reality.

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Right from the start, something about Friday Night Lights has reminded me of the classic 1971 movie The Last Picture Show, an uncompromising account of life as it was experienced by high school students (some of them on their school's football team) in a dying Texas town in the early '50s, many of them destined never to go anywhere. Not that Dillon was shown to be dying, but throughout the series it was clearly a town with severe economic concerns.

During its second season, when it seemed like Lights was headed for cancelation, I suggested to programming executives at a pay cable network that they consider picking it up, in part because Lights felt to me like a really great cable series struggling to break out of the broadcast mold, and also because I thought the greater creative nurturing that pay cable offers would allow even more realism in the telling of its stories. Part of me still thinks that Lights could have achieved a level of greatness comparable to Last Picture Show in the pay arena.

But it is hard to argue that this singularly enriching show didn't achieve its own kind of perfection against all odds.

(TV's Friday Night Lights is available on DVD here.)

 

7 Comments

 

Jon Sheiner said:

FNL is about two people who not only have a good marriage, but how they go about turning teenagers into adults. For all of the discussions about education in this country, we need only look to Eric and Tami Taylor to see what we need in our teachers.

Comment posted on February 8, 2011 4:53 PM


Bofish said:

You're so right, one of the best series ever on TV, and so unjustly ignored. I don't have Direct TV, so am waiting impatiently as NBC postpones running the final season until only us die-hards will see it.... They hardly promoted it, spent the first season or two changing days/times. Really they couldn't have done more to ensure its demise. What a waste of fantastic talent, writing, production.

Comment posted on February 8, 2011 5:23 PM


Bruce said:

Thank you for the well-written, loving and sad obituary for one of the best TV shows ever. FNL was about real people, in a real community, in real time. The acting, writing, directing, everything about has been superb. I, too, await the last season. (I don't have DirecTV.)
It seems that too much that is true, and real, and honest, and full of integrity, such as FNL, albeit fiction, is losing ground to style, celebrity of the crass kind, and too much that is meaningful for decent lives lived decently, blah, blah, blah. I'm feeling too sorrowful to write any more about this right now.
Thanks, Ed.

Comment posted on February 8, 2011 8:56 PM


Jill Center said:

I first became aware of this series thanks to Fresh Air. I am not a fan of the football, so that prevented me from starting to watch sooner. Then, finally, I Netflixed the first program, and "could not put it down."

I also became aware of how many others, including friends in distant parts of the US, were citing it as their favorite show.

And so I have caught up, via Netflix, to allow me to watch the last three episodes in real time. Everything y'all have said is so true. And, how astonishing that it will have had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like a Great American Novel, for the 21st Century.

So, all of us will continue to talk about it. More will see it, and talk about it. Such is the way of cult classics aborning. And each of the astonishing actors, and writers and crew -- and audience members who participated, in our part of the dialogue -- will come away with that rich, well-deserved feeling of personal and group accomplishment. It's a feeling just too rare these days. So, when it comes around, there's naught to do but feel grateful, and enjoy it.

Thanks, from San Francisco

Comment posted on February 9, 2011 12:23 AM


Mark N said:

I want to thank this site for continuing to champion this wonderful series (as David did in print). I came to it at the start after first seeing the movie, which was very good but nothing special. So I was interested when Berg got to make a series out of it. To be fair, they were two different animals. I found myself caught up quickly in the stories and enamored of certain young cast members..lol! I tried getting others to watch with very little success. Describing the show just never did it justice...was it about High School football?...or was it a character drama (with a wonderful sense of humor)? Well, to me, it was all things. A show I watched weekly in real time to make me feel good and play on my emotions like a fine Texas dobro. And it had this cast that I became friends with. The acting level was of the highest order. Connie and Kyle were just unbelievably consistent and great. I watched with horror as it went through the network cattle shute, expecting cancellation constantly. Its shunting over to Satellite was no problem for me, as I have Directv -- but, again, making it harder to get friends to try it. So, I feel priviliged that I got to watch this jewel of series for five years and feel all the better for having done so (the highest compliment I can give in this reality TV wasteland). Thanks for the memories, Friday Night Lights!

Comment posted on February 9, 2011 11:33 AM


chris shank said:

I'm astonished that NBC would cultivate such a fine, fine show as FNL and then let it wither on the vine. I just watched the final show on Directv and the writing and acting was brilliant to the very end. I wish everyone involved with the show, the writers, actors, crew, etc., nothing but future success. You all deserve it!

Comment posted on February 9, 2011 10:36 PM


Angela said:

I already posted under David's blog about my feelings for FNL before I read this, so I'll just say quickly that it really was everything wonderful Ed Martin wrote about.

I haven't seen the final season yet, but I'm so happy to know it lives up the previous 4.

I plan to gift the DVD set to anyone I can think of who is is a parent or planning to be a parent, or has grand-kids or.babysits..,you get the idea. :-)

FNL WILL live on, because I've made it my personal goal to make it so, as I'm sure so many others plan to do too.
Full Hearts!

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 7:15 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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