Teary eyes, full hearts: a look at the first season of “Friday Night Lights”

As promised on my podcast, “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan,” I’m writing up my belated thoughts on each individual season of “Friday Night Lights” as I finally get through them. All thoughts below are based on knowledge of Season 1, and nothing else that follows. Please keep any comments below centered around Season 1, and Season 1 only.

We’re at an interesting time for television viewing, as well as criticism. The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert recently called the current crop of viewers “gold miners,” able to enjoy programming on an asynchronistic level. His point, which has been made by others as well, is that it’s possible to enjoy television in a way devoid from both the time and social networking aspects inherent to watching it upon its initial airing at a predetermined and singular time. But by the same token, that makes talking about past television difficult: what constitutes a spoiler in a day and age in which anyone at any time can still catch up on the entire series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “The Wire”?

I’ve been a miner for some time now, either watching shows that I didn’t have access to the first time around, perhaps didn’t have time to do so at the time it initially aired, or simply missed the boat due to preconceptions about quality. Here’s the thing: I’m hardly alone in this, but throughout my initial foray through “Friday Night Lights,” the general response has been, “How can you possibly have missed this the first time around?” To which my response (in my head) has always been, “How can you possibly be shocked by anything anyone has missed?” In this day and age, there’s simply too much good television to keep up with on a weekly basis as is. Trying to catch up with stuff you may have missed in ADDITION to your normal viewing schedule is akin to suicide, social or physical.

My viewing/mining of “Friday Night Lights” came along at possibly the best time for me to do so, even though fans of the show might wish that I (along with a few more million people) might have watched it when, you know, it initially aired. Back then, a couple of things prevented me from watching it: 1) a bad time slot, 2) an uncertainty about liking its subject matter, 3) a ridiculously packed writing schedule, and 4) a worry that it was one of those shows that would get cancelled just as I might get into it.

Worry #1 was dumb: even then, I had a DVR and could have record it. Worry #2 is just straight up ignorance, coupled with a marketing scheme that didn’t exactly hook me as part of the problem as well. Worry #3 was justified, in that I was writing 6-8 articles a week on top of a 9-5 job. Worry #4 is something I know longer worry about: I have a Zen-like approach to shows I like these days. I will watch something I like for as long as a network will produce episodes of it. Some will turn out to be like “Lost.” Some will be like “Terriers.” So it goes.

friday-night.jpgWith “Friday Night Lights,” there’s the advantage for me of knowing there’s five seasons of this stuff to get through. But it’s clear upon watching Season 1 of the show that they thought they were going the way of “Terriers,” not “Lost”: a one-and-done season into which they packed as much story, drama, and resolution as they possibly could. Another NBC, “Chuck,” has often come across the same problem of trying to provide a satisfactory end for a particular run of episodes, unsure if they are producing the end of a season or a series. There’s a kitchen-sink approach to both series’ storytelling at times, which can be thrilling but also leave said shows in a kitchen without a sink at a later point in time.

First up: I know it’s almost sacrilegious to say anything bad about a show this beloved. But let me start off pointing out a few flaws that jumped out during the six weeks it took me to squeeze in these 22 episodes. First up: the show really didn’t know how to film its football scenes. Now, the show’s not REALLY about football, so this is a minor quibble, but not only were the scenes confusingly shot for a majority of the season, but 90% ended with Dillon winning on the last play of the game. Having the Dillon Panthers be constant underdogs is fine: having ever game turn into  “No F#cking Way” game from the “Madden” videogame series is another.

The second quibble stems from the first: the show tends to get overly soapy in its storylines. The over-the-top nature of the football games themselves sometimes crept into the storylines surrounding the team as well, whether they concerned Voodoo’s eligibility (a storyline the show seemed to realize was a mistake right away) to Smash’s steroids use (a storyline that overstayed its welcome by roughly a half dozen episodes). In these cases, the show seemed to think it had to go big, throwing a literal or figurative Hail Mary in order to connect with audiences. What it soon realized, however, is that the smaller it got, the bigger the impact truly was.

(Ranting over. It’s all clear sailing to the end zone now, people.)

Earlier, I mentioned that this show came along at the perfect time for me. Here’s what I mean by that: near Memorial Day last year, I wrote my final column about “Lost” in the wake of that show’s ending. I’d spent three years writing about the show 4-6 times a week, producing an ungodly number of words about electromagnetism, time travel, and mystical symbols related to the possible endgame of the show. Well, the finale basically said to me, and many others, “You’ve been looking at this show the wrong way.” I was trying to SOLVE the show’s puzzles, when I should have been simply ENJOYING its characters.

street1.jpgNow, could I have written those (quite possibly literally) millions of words about simply enjoying the show? Of course not. Do I view those years as wasted? Absolutely not. I never thought I was discovering THE answer for the show, but rather bringing in a host of theories, related pop artifacts, and hopefully the occasionally insight to provide a deeper understanding of the ways in which “Lost” participated in an interconnected cultural dialogue. I didn’t pretend that “Lost” was always ever directly contributing to this dialogue, but I liked that so many aspects of things I enjoyed could be unpacked through the show’s themes.

What I was analyzing was structure, when I should have been looking at character. And while “Friday Night Lights” sometimes fails in terms of structure, it pretty much never fails when it comes to character. Had I still looked at the show with my pre-“Lost,” goggles, I think I would have come away a bit colder from Season 1 as a whole. I would have thought that the nominal backbone of the season (the march to the State Championship game) was somewhat sloppily done, with the timelines never quite making sense and the overall stakes at times muddied. But post-“Lost”, I saw what the show was trying to accomplish: “Friday Night Lights” is about the small moments far away from the supposedly “important” ones.

Watching the show as I did, what came through loud and clearest was the theme of absent parents. That, above all else, provided the emotional through line for the season. You can trace the arc of nearly every teenager in the show can trace via this prism of absent parents. These parents can be literally absent (such as Matt Saracen’s father), or figuratively absent (Lyla Garrity’s father spends more time as a booster/skeezeball than a parent). This isn’t a Charlie Brown world in which adults don’t exist; they simply don’t provide the proper grounding to allow their children to grow up in a healthy manner. It’s no wonder Tim Riggins and Tyra Collette keep circling round each other: the former has a brother who has to act like a father and the latter has a mother who keeps acting like her sister.

kyle-chandler-connie-britton-friday-night-lights-8915578-676-396.jpgAll of this makes the centrality of Eric and Tami Taylor all the more important. They stand out not only because they are one of the more realistic couples ever put forth on the small screen, but in many ways they are the de facto parents for an infantilized town. Everyone puts everything they have into the Dillon Panthers because looking at the reality of their own lives absolutely terrifies them. Not only do Eric and Tami have to raise their daughter Julie, but they also have to step in as parental figures for Dillon’s students as WELL as adults.

At its heart, “Friday Night Lights” is a conservative show in a way devoid of the way “conservative” is used in political discourse today. If anything, it’s trying to recapture that original meaning. The “family values” boasted about by philandering politicians actually exists inside the Taylor household, in which honest conversations yield positive results. It dares to put family at the center of a meaningful society, and does so without pandering. Tami might have gotten the credit for helping Julie decide she really wasn’t ready for sex with Matt in “I Think We Should Have Sex,” but a lot of the groundwork for that decision was already made in scenes like a simple game of ping-pong between Eric and Julie earlier in the season. Simple conversations, not bloated histrionics or unidirectional orders, end up salvaging the situation.

What makes these scenes work is that the way in which “Friday Night Lights” is filmed gives the overall sense that we should not be watching what is transpiring. So often the documentary-style way in which certain shows or films are shot lends an odd distancing effect, in which one can never be sure how often someone is acting for the camera. Even in scripted shows like “The Office,” it’s clear there are times people are either playing up to the camera or find themselves shocked to realize they momentarily forgot they were being taped. “Lights” has the immediacy of those other shows, but uses its camerawork to capture moments that are 1) often so fleeting as to be missed, and 2) played on a level that is recognizably real. It’s that level of seeming reality that makes us want to look away: the camera is capturing that which normally off-screen, and by seeing it, we almost feel more voyeuristic than we do when the participants KNOW they are being filmed.

By “recognizably real,” I mean that conversations on this show unfold in the way that conversations actually happen on the other side of the television screen. They are filled with stutters, overlaps, fumbles, retries, and, most importantly, are delivered in an understated nature. People in “Friday Night Lights” don’t declaim, they simply speak. Sure, there are occasional outbursts, but these outbursts mean something because they are seismically different in tone and volume than the way in which 95% of the dialogue in this show is delivered. The effect of such speech is that the listener (both onscreen and at home) has to really listen to what the other person is saying, or, in many cases, NOT saying.

Most of my favorite scenes from Season 1 consisted of the Taylor family talking, not only for the reasons listed above, but because they consisted of two people actually and honestly talking to each other. This pair pretty much kills any argument for shows needing to keep two characters that are destined for each other apart. These two aren’t saints (something I feared given the general love for this pair as I heading into my mining quest), but don’t put things aside or keep things bottled up for any meaningful amount of time. “Lights” never felt the need to keep secrets between them for the sake of long-term drama. A-freakin’-men.

On top of that, the show manages to keep both on an equal playing field (imagery intentional). It would have been so easy for the show to make Eric a powerful public figure and keep Tami as a powerful domestic force. But that’s not equality! That’s simply two people with different sources of power that never overlap. This balance came to a head in the end of the season, with a plotline that probably will play out better in my head than it will during Season 2: the impending separation of the two as Eric leaves for TMU. The way in which he simply assumed that Tami would come with him was pretty boneheaded, but the show didn’t let this boil down to a divorce storyline: it let two adults with differing points of view offer those POVs and then come to a messy, mutual understanding.

friday-night-lights-kelly49.jpgIt’s the type of low-key solution that doesn’t make for good sweeps-era commercials, but still feels ENORMOUSLY important because “Lights” places you in a small town that feels vast not because of its size but because of the depth of feelings you have for its citizens. The decision for a couple to stay together or not is only as important as your feelings for that couple. And while you rely on the Taylors to be your emotional bedrock of the show, you have also watched the season’s other Perfect Couple (Jason Street and Lyla) basically torn down to absolutely nothing during the season. That sliver of doubt you feel while watching the final few episodes is small but acutely painful, and that pain is the sign of a television series working at its absolute peak.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been short on actual specifics, but I’m assuming that 1) you’ve already watched the season and 2) will cut me some slack/thank me for not literally recapping the events of these 22 episodes. The events to me matter less than the little moments that caught me by surprise and either made me laugh, cry, or somehow do both at the same time…Street’s return to the football field…Matt confronting his cowardly father… …Matt and Julie lying on the floor with their legs entangled in the cabin…Riggins, Street, Smash, and Matt’s impromptu practice before the semifinals…Landry surprising confession to Tyra at the roast…Eric’s reaction to Tami’s news on the hotel balcony. Those are six of about 200 I could have listed (and I think half of them feature Saracen, which makes the fact that my first exposure to Zach Gilford was via “Off The Map” all the more surreal), but I’m sure you’ll be able to list many of your own in the comments below.

These are moments that reinforce the way I’m trying to look at television now, in the post-“Lost” era. There’s something to be said about the way a show is structured, and one should never lose sight of that when looking at television. But if the characters aren’t worth a damn, then neither is the structure, nor matter how cleverly or elegantly constructed. For me to love what I watch, I first and foremost have to love whom I am watching. There are a dozen plus characters on “Friday Night Lights” I genuinely love, and that’s why I ultimately loved the first season of this show.

OK, my turn’s over. Time to offer up some of your favorite moments/memories of the first season of “Friday Night Lights”! And, as mentioned at the outset, if you can keep comments focused on Season 1 and Season 1 only, I’d greatly appreciate that.


  1. Jay
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Great article Ryan. I already watched all five seasons, it is eye opening and fun reading your perspective knowing how events will eventually unfold, and how arcs will be handled.
    Based on season one, what do you think about Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly as actors? Do you see this show as one mainly about the kids or about Coach and Mrs Coach?

  2. Anna Kathryn
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Favorite. Show. Ever.
    I think you hit the nail on the head as to why I am so forgiving of the show’s flaws (the unrealistic football scenes being first and foremost). As much as football matters in the structure of the town and show, it really does not matter at all. I mean, technically speaking, if we took all the football games of season 1… Coach Taylor is basically the worst coach ever. Ha. Anyway, I felt that the show ultimately ended up very much like LOST – it is about this town, these people. The community they have created.
    Some of my favorite moments:
    The football game post-Street’s injury – the sound of the saw on his helmet still haunts me I swear.
    Coach’s pilot-ending speech and the montage of everyone. Particularly the moment where Jason’s mother gingerly takes hold of his limp, hooked-up-to-machines hand.
    Matt singing Mr. Sandman to his grandma.
    “They had a blanket!” “You are an idiot”
    Everything in the Mud Bowl episode. Coach and Tami in the field, “I LOVE IT!” Julie tackling Matt after the game… But especially the game being intercut with Tyra’s ordeal and the absolute elation versus absolute terror/hurt.
    After they won State, the “Devil Town” montage. Perfect song, perfect montage.
    Tami saying, “You are 15! You! are not! Allowed! To have SEX!
    The team running windsprints in the rain late at night.
    Jason Street describing Matt to Coach Taylor.
    I’m starting to feel like I could go on forever so I’ll stop. Also I haven’t watched Season 1 in a while, so these are just the top of my head answers.

  3. Jesse Jackson
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Ryan – you are correct it isnt’ a perfect show but it is a show with perfect moments and characters that are so real that it can make you ache. Glad you enjoyed the first season and I’m sure you are going to enjoy the rest of the seasons as well.

  4. Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    The blanket line might be one of my five favorite lines ever. Good call.

  5. djones
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    You have no idea how much I envy you getting to move into the much much weaker second season with the certainty of three more complete and much better seasons to follow. It was heartbreaking thinking the series would get cancelled on the mid-season cliffhanger thanks to the ratings and writer’s strike. Season 2 still has some quality work in it, and while a lot of the plots are terrible ideas, they do execute them decently. Anyhow, you’ve done an excellent job of capturing why the show connects so strongly, even if it has those problems you mention, and I’m very much looking forward to the perspective on each season from someone watching them all after the fact. I think the general consensus is that season 1 was the best, but it’s hard to measure that when spreading it over five years.

  6. Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Pretty much anything that had to do with the Members Only jacket was about the most hilarious thing that FNL ever did. But the worst thing the show did was start Minka Kelly’s career.