As I embarked on this inaugural project for Outkick, I quickly realized it would be a daunting task. It isn’t difficult to write about something I feel so passionately about and compose words on a medium I love to the extent I do television. The challenge arises within the assignment itself. I was tasked to list and describe the “why” behind my ten favorite drama series’ of all-time.
The problem is almost all of the choices I made and many I omitted have had thousands of pages written about them, episode by episode, since they originally aired. What can I bring that would be different from those stacks of papyrus or electronic script? That led me to select Chuck as number ten, because I wanted to go out of the box and go against the grain. I love Chuck. I readily admit though, Chuck isn’t the tenth best show of all time. Deadwood, Game of Thrones (even at this stage), 24, Six Feet Under, and several others should have superseded it. I can look back and admit it to myself now because I realize I got too “cute.” I love that show, but it was a mistake.
For the top six programs remaining on my list, only the top slot will draw vitriol, and it will be swift and devastating. I will not be swayed, but it will surprise you unless you personally know me. For those who do, you guys and gals already know what’s coming. We’ve got plenty of ground to cover first though, as that moment is five weeks away. This week’s entry on the list obtained immense critical success, won its share of awards, was nominated for several more, and is generally seen as an utter triumph that was horrendously mishandled by NBC and saved by a satellite company.
Each show on the list has an underlying setting and a catalyst and it’s only to what extent those two entities affect the characters and their motivations that completes the circle for that program’s development and lasting impact. Most great television programs, however, can ultimately be boiled down to their people and the depth to which their respective creative team involves the audience in their lives.
Very few shows, countable on one hand, can approach success in that regard to the level of our next program. The setting is a small town in Texas. The catalyst is the only thing in that area that might challenge a supreme being for superiority. Football.
(TEXAS FOREVER) NUMBER SIX: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2006-2011)
Jason Katims, the longtime lead writer of FNL, is known for emotional writing that tugs at the heartstrings of his audience. For the last several years, he’s found success on a moderate scale back on NBC with Parenthood, a show again that has captivated critics more than its ratings would imply. Before Parenthood (not Steve Martin), however, there was Dillon, Texas and Friday Night Lights.
When the show was first advertised, I believed what most others did about the idea. I knew Peter Berg had developed H.G. Bissinger’s book chronicling the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers football team into a film in 2004. I knew Berg was again associated with this project. Luckily, Battleship hadn’t been made yet so I couldn’t look to that to write him off as I might have. Because of FNL, I could actually overlook it after the fact and still come back for future projects. Bissinger’s book is a classic in sports journalism and the film, driven by Billy Bob Thornton, was good. But could that background alone sell a show premiering alongside a weak NBC primetime lineup?
The answer, thankfully, proved to be yes, though not based on numbers. I didn’t watch Friday Night Lights when it aired live. I binge watched it just as the series ended and was treated to one of the better eight day stretches I’ve ever encountered watching a story unfold on a flat screen. Friday Night Lights is genius, dramatic storytelling and perhaps its greatest achievement is in the spotlight on the mundane.
Eric Taylor is a hell of a football coach. He’s also, relatively speaking, a hell of a man. He’s a good father, though overprotective of his daughters, and he cares deeply for his wife. He works hard, sometimes to his detriment, but he never evades or avoids his family. He earns a fair and decent living and tries to make the right decisions both for his football team and those living under his roof.
Kyle Chandler is a hell of an actor. He worked through the growing pains of Early Edition in the 1980s on CBS, moved on to some other projects, and was given a true chance to explode on the scene courtesy of Peter Berg and the writing of Jason Katims. The hallmark of a special performance is the impossibility of seeing anyone else in the role. Without question, Kyle Chandler IS Eric Taylor. In it’s final year, Kyle walked away with the Best Actor Emmy for FNL.
Tami Taylor is a good mother and a smart, driven woman who believes in helping kids. She’s a loving wife. She becomes guidance counselor at her daughter’s school and later a principal at her high school. She serves as the professional counterbalance for her husband. She sees things through the best interests of the community and reacts based on the best results for academics and for families while he has to place football on a pedestal.
Connie Britton is a hell of an actress. She worked on The West Wing (see number eight), American Horror Story, Ed Burns’ directorial debut The Brothers McMullen, and the Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) critical success Spin City. She was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Tami Taylor as well as her starring role in Nashville, which returns for its third season this fall.
Eric and Tami Taylor become the foundation of not just the show but also the tight-knit Dillon community. They drive the action, the drama, and the performances around them. They aren’t criminals or malcontents or degenerates. They simply command respect and attention. They’re also one of the most loving couples ever depicted on screen in a long-running serial.
As the pilot opens, Eric Taylor begins his first season as head coach of the Dillon High School Panthers varsity football team. The team has enjoyed immense success and has massive tradition to uphold. Sports radio hosts debate his credentials and whether he will ruin their beloved team. Berg, Katims, and the crew do a wonderful job of getting across from the very beginning that football is what counts in Dillon, Texas. Eric Taylor is more of a celebrity than George W. Bush, one of Texas’ own, would have been, even to the staunchest of right wing activists. Tami Taylor is the de facto First Lady of the town and the two walk on the equivalent of red carpets even though neither ask for the treatment.
We will all at some time in our lives, fall. Life is so very fragile, we are all vulnerable, and we will all at some point in our lives, fall, we will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special, that it can be taken from us, and that when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves. (Eric Taylor, S1E01)
If Friday Night Lights was solely focused on Eric and Tami, it would still be a great show. But it’s not just about the couple and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Friday Night Lights is about Eric’s kids, meaning his other kids, those he coaches and mentors. It’s also about Tami’s kids, meaning her other kids, those she advises and teaches.
As much as it’s concerned with the Taylors, it’s also interested in telling the story of Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a backup quarterback called into action after the brutal career-ending injury to Jason Street (Scott Porter), a player with pro pigskin potential. Saracen’s father is serving overseas and his grandmother raises him. In actuality, we quickly find out Saracen is both a student athlete and a dedicated caretaker for her, adding to the sympathy and respect generated from the show for the Saracen character.
Saracen is just the beginning. Maybe no secondary character meant more to a show’s growth than Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) did to FNL. Riggins appears to be a side story until you find yourself drawn to every turn in his personal life and its subsequent reaction to his football career. Riggins’ brother is a black hole of negative truths and Tim’s own love life is never lacking for interest. Because of the richness of the character, Kitsch is the other “star” the show built and he’s gone on to do quite well.
We meet Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), another potential star with a college future, who falls into the trappings of performance enhancing drugs, taking shortcuts, and later injuries. Jason Street never plays football after his injury in the pilot, but his story doesn’t conclude until late in the third season. His girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) plays a role that changes dramatically in simultaneous fashion. Her father, Buddy (Brad Leland) is a Dillon football alumnus who can’t let go. Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) is Matt Saracen’s best friend, a geeky boy who finds his own path to popularity and his personal goals. Tyra Collette (Adrienne Palicki) goes from being the hot blonde to a deeply flawed but hopeful character who continues to strive for something better in her life. Matt Lauria (Parenthood) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) join the show in the final two seasons and both are exceptional in their character work. They aren’t the only ones.
Still to this day, some still erroneously see no lasting substance in the fictional world of Dillon, Texas. A friend of mine in the media industry refuses to watch Friday Night Lights. He calls it a gut feeling and fears the show is basically a serial variation on an after-school special. If you took the two-hour basic adolescent strife stories that once permeated network afternoons, he believes Friday Night Lights to be a five season structured version of those ideas. He isn’t entirely wrong, but where he is incorrect â€“ he’s painfully incorrect.
The beauty of Friday Night Lights is in the depth and humanity it provides in its smallest moments. A father displaced when he returns from Iraq, a sad sack friend who desires and pines after a woman far out of his league, a kid who desperately wants his chosen school to recruit him, a girl going through adolescence and relationships with boys, and parents who go through ups and downs, but none that feel unrealistic. None of these situations are outlandish. None of these character motivations seem ridiculous.
Most, most girls that look like you do, things are easy – they can just coast by on their good looks for the rest of their lives and not really have to…not really have to worry. I mean, I know it sounds stupid, but I’m, I’m proud of how hard you’ve been working for this… I mean, it says something. I just, I think good things are going to happen to you. You just have to keep going. (Landry Clarke, S3E11)
Where Katims impresses, both in Friday Night Lights as well as in Parenthood, is in taking simple situations and injecting a severe, sometimes unbearable level of drama, triumph, failure, regret, forgiveness, and love into them. The created emotion can often be untouchable and dripping in its level of palpability. If you don’t shed tears watching either show on multiple occasions, you may well be a sociopath. The world of Dillon and later of East Dillon is affecting, without fail, during every episode. As a result it’s a great show for husbands, wives, and yes kids to watch, but it never feels overly stuffed with cheddar or tree liquid.
Every man at some point in his life is going to lose a battle. He is going to fight and he is going to lose. But what makes him a man is at the midst of that battle he does not lose himself. This game is not over, this battle is not over. (Eric Taylor, S1E22)
It isn’t a show that ends in sadness or misery. It’s a show that revels in the trials of life and finds a way for most of its inhabitants to find at least a direction to the brightest of…forgive me…lights. It doesn’t glorify darkness. It actually advances and portrays morality and American values in laudatory fashion. While I haven’t talked much about football in this article, that’s not because it’s at all unimportant. Football is the crux of the program, though in many ways it’s fair to say it’s about football the way The Walking Dead is about zombies. In short, it’s used exactly as it should be in order not to alienate non-sports fans but please sports enthusiasts.
Many call Season 2 a misstep, but I actually found it entertaining. It was the only time FNL felt like a television show. That isn’t a compliment, but I was able to allow for the escape the one time the show ventured into something unrealistic. It didn’t fit the tone of the program at all, but it was interesting to watch. You can find many reviews today that will tell you to avoid Season 2 and watch the other four, but I find that absurd. You experience four seasons of the show. At times, you watch the other and there’s a definite difference. It wasn’t ideal, but I enjoyed it.
Looking back on the show, it’s still remarkable it didn’t find more success. NBC, as usual since the days of Warren Littlefield, handled it poorly, but it didn’t fare better in repeats on ABC Family, who pulled it for numbers issues. ESPN picked it up to run on Classic in slots where ratings are rarely expected. DirecTV picked it up off the scrap heap following Season 3 and provided a home and a budget for the final two years. It’s an overlooked classic. What’s striking though is that I find it hard to believe very many people would disagree with its inclusion on this list. It was a critical darling and a commercial flop unlike anything else of respective caliber. In some ways though, that’s part of the charm. When you go back, if you haven’t, and watch FNL today, you get the feeling you’re engaging in an experience many have and will continue to overlook. You found a treasure chest.
Among others, Friday Night Lights won an Emmy for Kyle Chandler as well as for Dramatic Casting, a Television Critics Association award, a Peabody, three AFIs, an NAACP Image Award, and earned several Writer’s Guild nominations. Katims won a pair of Humanitas Prize awards for writing and won a writing Emmy for his work on “Always,” the fantastic series finale.
It’s without question Friday Night Lights is the finest sports-related television show ever created. I also believe it to be the finest sports-related piece of fiction ever executed. That said, I’m not just an enormous fan of Friday Night Lights because I’m a sports junkie who works in the industry.
I love Friday Night Lights, treasure Friday Night Lights, feel so deeply about Friday Night Lights because I am a connoisseur of the finest television imaginable. It fits the bill. It exceeds the bill.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. (Eric Taylor)
Texas forever, Six.
All five seasons of FNL are available on NETFLIX in addition to DVD.
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