We miss you, Coach Taylor.
We miss you, Coach Taylor.
NBC Universal

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose: Why Friday Night Lights Still Shines Bright

I hadn’t thought about Friday Night Lights in a while until recently, when Netflix announced that the onetime NBC show was rolling off its platform at the beginning of October. Then, the outcry from friends and other fans began rolling in. People were legitimately upset that a show – which had been on Netflix for years, mind you – was set to leave the streaming platform.

Having already seen each episode of FNL’s 76-show run several times apiece, I wasn’t too distressed for the same reason I don’t watch Seinfeld on Hulu, despite it being my favorite comedy of all time. After a while, particularly when you can recite an episode verbatim, perhaps it’s time to take a breather. And yet, while flipping through Netflix the other night looking for an hour to kill, I pined for the FNL series finale. It wasn’t there, and this bothered me.

Friday Night Lights’ place in the pantheon of peak TV is unquestioned. It wasn’t as thrilling as Breaking Bad. It’s storylines didn’t weave together as well as The Wire. It certainly didn’t feature sex and violence on par with The Sopranos. And it wasn’t as quite a fine character study as Mad Men. Even so, FNL is the best television show of all time. Not bad for a show that had to craft a series finale for damn near every season finale, since the show’s return to the airwaves was always in doubt.

Friday Night Lights premiered on NBC in October 2006. The fall premiere season was upon us and NBC had just landed NFL broadcast rights on Sunday nights, so it made sense that the network would go all-in on a preexisting property – Friday Night Lights the book paved the way for Friday Night Lights the movie, and so on – about the most popular sport in America. And therein lay the problem.

Friday Night Lights was initially marketed as a show about football in small-town Texas, when it was anything but. Yes, the show technically revolved around the fictional Dillon Panthers (and later the East Dillon Lions) of Dillon, Texas, but to call Friday Night Lights a football show would be akin to calling Breaking Bad a meth show. Sure, such a description is technically accurate, but just as Breaking Bad used the meth trade as a way of showing Walter White’s villainous descent, FNL utilized football as a backing track for the importance of family, friends, loyalty, and hometown.

Once NBC abandoned the notion of Friday Night Lights being a ratings juggernaut on par with the CSI and NCIS franchises, and partnered with DirecTV after Season 2 to keep the show on the air for another three seasons, FNL evolved into what it was always intended to be – a show that would never gain widespread appeal but would instead receive universal adoration from anyone fortunate enough to call themselves a fan. Like its literary and cinematic predecessors, only better, Friday Night Lights was a slice of life masquerading as a show about football.

Like any show, Friday Night Lights was only as good as those at its center. And in the annals of television couples, no one did it better than Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor and Connie Britton’s Tami “Mrs. Coach” Taylor. The two had such chemistry that some people admittedly suspected the two were having an affair behind the scenes (this was not the case). But that central relationship, in which the two love and support one another through good times and bad, laid the foundation for the supporting characters that comprised one of the great casts in television history.

In addition to Michael B. Jordan (an outright star) and Jesse Plemons (on his way to becoming one of the great character actors of his generation, and coincidentally enough, a guy who also played a crucial role on Breaking Bad), FNL’s cast was buoyed by dynamic performers like Taylor Kitsch’s Tim Riggins, Gaius Charles’ Smash Williams, Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra Collette, and Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen. Each of these actors – many of whom had little to no prior acting experience before FNL – had their moment within the show, moments that added up to one of the weightier, more heartfelt programs in TV history. Whether it was Matt learning of his military father’s death, Tyra getting into college, Smash overcoming injury to get a scholarship, or Vince becoming a leader of men, FNL was always better away from the field.

Where FNL pops up next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps its returns to Netflix at some point. Maybe syndication will be an option. Hell, you can always go old-school and buy the DVD box set. For those who have yet to experience FNL the TV show – and, keep in mind, football fandom is not a prerequisite to enjoying the program – there’s always a way to get in on one of the most gripping shows in television history. Same for the diehards who simply wanna cue up an old episode when they’re feeling whimsical or simply looking to burn a few minutes.

Friday Night Lights is more appreciated in its absence than during its initial run. And perhaps it’s better that way. The greats don’t just show up, burn out and go away. Rather, they age with grace. They are evergreen in their impact. Shows like Friday Night Lights never go out of style, same as the catch phrase for which the show is best known.

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose. Texas forever.

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