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Friday Night Lights has always been the runt of high-quality television series. Ignored by viewers when it began on NBC and then surviving from season to season on the kindness of strangers (DirecTV underwriting some seasons), it always seemed the most likely series to be canceled.
But people love the runt. They love the underdog. And FNL is nothing if not the longest of the longshots. When was the last time people talked about a network drama and considered it on par with respected cable series? FNL has become, through the years, a show nobody wanted to kill. And so, despite the odds, it begins its fifth and final season on NBC starting April 14. (Nevermind that Season 5 has already run on DirecTV or that the Season 5 DVD boxed set came out just ahead of this final broadcast season.)
NBC can be blamed for numerous things, but no ill will should be sent its way with regard to FNL. The network might be throwing it on the air and kissing it off, but die-hard fans will finally get their closure. And none of that would have been possible without NBC finding some kindness in its bean-counting heart all these years.
Luck, faith, magic — whatever elements that have been in play for FNL can now all stand up and wave to the adoring masses (well, adoring collective audience that’s still not very big). The little show that could is ending its run. We are unlikely to see another drama survive like this one did. It’s a real miracle story (like much of the heart-tugging story lines in the series).
And that makes this more of an appreciation than a review.
Honestly, it’s hard not to love Friday Night Lights. The series has several faults (and it does not come out particularly strong in the first few episodes of Season 5), but its strange concoction of emotions — covering teenage coming-of-age moments, hard-earned lessons for adults, race, sexuality, religion, small-town life and the importance of family — makes for some seriously compelling television.
Despite the popular nonfiction book it was made from and a big-screen movie adaptation, a lot of people just never understood what FNL was about as it premiered as a weekly drama on NBC in October 2006.
They heard about the high school football element. They knew it was set in a small Texas town. There were adults in the cast, but the feeling was that FNL was going to be akin to Beverly Hills, 90210 with football tossed in. If you felt too old to watch that, or you hated football — or Texas, for that matter — then you chose not to watch. And you were not alone.
But the critics loved it. They touted the truisms — that it was so much more than high school cliques and small-town football. That it was shot like a feature film each week. That the writing and acting were stellar, that the coming-of-age stories were as richly conceived and as deeply felt as a more modern Last Picture Show.
There are, indeed, some flaws. Inconsistency in the storytelling has been the primary complaint during the past two years. For so much hype (which you can find online in droves), there are hiccups — beyond the dreaded Season 2 — that prevent FNL from being a truly elite drama.
But stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton (as Eric and Tami Taylor) were doing the best work of their careers and seemed shockingly well-suited to dramatic realism. They became the best portrayal of a husband and wife on television in decades — maybe ever.
As FNL begins this final season, change is the predominant emotion. Landry and Julie are heading off to college. Tami is having trouble fitting in and adhering to the status quo at underperforming East Dillon (she’s the new guidance counselor), and Coach Taylor is worried that his team is too high on itself. But mostly he and Tami are struggling with the fact that Julie is leaving the nest. But change is good, mostly.
The first few episodes don’t always click (strangely, the Tami story line doesn’t feel real), but even when the storytelling hits a rough patch, there’s enough raw emotion and drama — on and off the field — that hits the right note, saving the hour. At this point, closure is what viewers will be monitoring most closely. They have battled to this point and want to see FNL do justice to their dedication. The question is, do you want it all wrapped up in a bow or do you want the story, as it has for four seasons, to adhere to the fluctuations of reality, where not everybody’s life or choices turn out to be what Hallmark moments are made of?
Is it too late for you to jump on the bandwagon? Probably. Much of the emotion this season derives from the familiar backstories and rich character development that the actors could milk from familiarity and growth. What that does mean, however, is that you can still rent the series from the start of Season 1. All the hard work of survival has been done for you. FNL ran five seasons and deserves to be discovered, however late, either on NBC or via the local rental store.
As Coach Taylor says, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
He was right about that.
Airdate 8-9 p.m. Friday, April 15 (NBC)
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