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With the end of Breaking Bad, we’ve officially passed through a TV Golden Age that rang out loudly with the family ties and mafia blood of The Sopranos, hit novelistic full tilt with The Wire and Deadwood, and was dragged through the tense, high-stakes saga of Walter White and co. But there’s a name missing from the canon. A show about life, family and football called Friday Night Lights.
Over the course of five seasons, this was a show that quietly dismantled preconceived notions of Texas, sports, religion, and relationships, and patiently watched it all play out in the lives of the residents of Dillon, Texas.
It’s a show that doesn’t assume you love football, and it really doesn’t matter if you do or not. Sports dramas don’t suck. Sports drama cliches suck. And part of the show’s genius is its ability to spin completely away from stereotypes, not only about football, but what we think we know about small American religious towns.
To pay the show the highest compliment, FNL really belonged on cable TV (where it did end up, but only after nearly being cancelled by NBC). Maybe it’s the lack of f-bombs, cheerleader skirt malfunctions and Joe Theisman-esque bone-snaps that allows for more complex characters to develop. The show is unafraid to sit with the characters a bit longer than you expect—lives are upset, everything falls apart, and the camera follows them long after the reaction shot.
Friday Night Lights also features one of the most realistic couples ever portrayed on television. Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), actually respect each other. They fight. They touch. They grow tired and exasperated. But they care about each other. You can see their solidarity behind the bickering. Their conflicts don’t invalidate the relationship. Ever been married? It’s hard work. They’ve nailed it here.
Incredibly sharp writing and humane characterizations are just part of the show’s allure. There’s an overriding theme within all of the story arcs, and it’s something about faith. Sometimes it’s with a capital F, but mostly it’s the faith that the good will win out, that God (or Texas) will provide and, as the team’s unofficial motto makes clear, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
The show also demands a bit of faith from the viewers. Faith that people would see that a teen-aged football drama could also be one of the finest shows of the past few decades. Faith that network TV could create a small-town drama as rich and varied and beautifully shot as any Robert Altman film. Yes, the critics seemed to get it. But we know critical opinion has no traction anymore. The proof is in the clicks. The proof is in passing the word on.
FUN FACT: Look for Jesse Plemons, whose role as the lovable Landry is much less sinister than the psychopathic Todd he played on Breaking Bad.