Judge Bryan Byun isn't crying over the loss of this fine TV show. He's just been cutting onions.
Our reviews of Friday Night Lights (published February 1st, 2005), Friday Night Lights (Blu-Ray) (published January 12th, 2009), Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season (published August 17th, 2010), Friday Night Lights: The Second Season (published May 7th, 2008), and Friday Night Lights: The Third Season (published May 19th, 2009) are also available.
Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't believe this show is over.
After five championship seasons of unforgettable television, Friday Night Lights has played its final game.
Facts of the Case
It's the end of another summer in Dillon, Texas as Friday Night Lights rolls into its fifth and final season. In the Taylor household, Julie (Aimee Teegarden)is getting ready to head off to college as Tami (Connie Britton) starts her new gig as East Dillon High's guidance counselor. The East Dillon Lions, having grown from last season's Bad News Lions into a real football team, are still riding high from their thrilling, unlikely defeat of the Dillon Panthers—especially star quarterback Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), who's attracted the notice of college recruiters. And Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who took the fall for his brother's criminal activities, is still in jail.
For Friday Night Lights fans, it's something just short of a miracle that these last two seasons have even existed. Adored by critics and its small circle of loyal viewers, but ignored by most of TV-watching America, the low-rated Friday Night Lights should by all rights have faded into oblivion after its second season was abruptly shut down by the 2007-2008 writer's strike. Fortunately, an innovative cost-sharing deal with DirecTV brought the series back for a third season, then a two-season renewal. Friday Night Lights never did get the viewership it deserved—neither fish nor fowl, it was marketed both as a show about football, which turned away women, and a show about family and relationships, which turned away men. It was a show about red-state values—God, football, and Texas—told with blue-state sensibilities. Ironically, it's the very contradictions that made the show so difficult to sell that made it so compelling.
The fifth season of Friday Night Lights had an unusual release schedule; it aired on DirecTV between October 2010 and February 2011, and is being released on DVD before its network run, which begins April 15th. Universal's DVD release of the series contains all thirteen episodes on three discs. Because of the way the show's being released, it's very likely that many Friday Night Lights fans are coming to this DVD set without having seen the original episode airings, so this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.
With its final episode aired, Friday Night Lights, like Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, Pushing Daisies, and My So-Called Life before it, has passed into the ranks of great TV series that, for whatever reason, never enjoyed the mass acceptance they deserved. It was a show that should have had wide appeal—a show about a conservative, churchgoing small Texas town that had even dirty-hippie liberals like myself enthralled, and a sensitive, thoughtful show about marriages and families that also brought some scorching football drama to rival the best sports movies. One thing we can't do with this show, though, that we can do with so many others like it, is blame an indifferent network for not standing behind it. NBC believed in Friday Night Lights and enthusiastically marketed it, and the network deserves kudos for supporting the series and keeping it alive long enough to give it a proper run.
Friday Night Lights was a show like no other. It was shot in a quick, guerilla style, run-and-gun way, without rehearsals or blocking, that had camera operators follow the actors, allowing for unprecedented freedom for improvisation and more spontaneous, natural performances. Unlike any other high school-centered series I've ever seen, it kept its focus centered squarely on the town of Dillon, so that, when the characters graduated from school, rather than following them to college, we stayed in Dillon and were introduced to a whole new crop of students. And unlike most TV series centered around teenagers, when Friday Night Lights tackled controversial topics, which it did regularly—issues like abortion, racism, and drug abuse—they were handled, not as Very Special Episodes or Afterschool Specials, but as part of the everyday course of life. It says something for Friday Night Lights that its one serious misstep, one that still smolders in the memories of FNL fans—a murder storyline in Season Two that so betrayed the tone and spirit of the series that the howls of outrage still echo across the Internet—is one that wouldn't have ruffled a single feather on a lesser show. With smart, truthful writing and a wonderful cast, we became so invested in the characters that the show's emotional high points—like Smash Williams making it into college in Season Three, or Matt Saracen's poignant grief over his father's death in the heartrending episode "The Son," one of the finest hours in television history—feel completely earned and authentic, rather than schmaltzy or contrived.
The series also brilliantly rebooted itself in its fourth season, through a dramatic set of circumstances that brought Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) to poor, crime-ridden East Dillon and a fresh start with a football team that wasn't just in crisis—it didn't actually exist. Taylor faced the toughest challenge of his career as he slowly, painfully built a motley group of dispirited, undisciplined kids (some of whom, like Vince, were on a fast track to a life in prison) into a tight, spirited, well-trained team with clear eyes and full hearts. And for a show that was as much a critique of Middle American values and the institution of high school and college football as it was a tribute, it was an opportunity to explore a side of small-town Texas that we didn't see very often in fresh-faced, corn-fed, Heartland of America Dillon.
As terrific as the cast and writing of Friday Night Lights were, it was Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, as Coach Eric and Tami Taylor, who made the series work as brilliantly as it did. I can't think of another TV married couple as believable as the Taylors—this was a TV rarity, a happily married, committed couple with real, mundane, day to day issues, who had conversations and interactions that always felt completely honest and real, without a false moment. Friday Night Lights never stooped to the kinds of melodramatic plot devices that we've come to expect from TV families, and that honesty gave weight and authenticity to its moments of emotionally raw drama. Every time Coach Taylor gives a player an inspirational speech, Chandler delivers it with such understated sincerity that it never feels like phony sentiment—and, when I'm watching it at home, it always, always gets extremely dusty in the room for some reason.
The fourth season brought a renewed energy and sense of purpose to a show that had started to feel a little a tad comfortable and static, and this fifth season continues on that path; the East Dillon Lions, now a real team, face the challenge of maintaining that cohesion as Vince's star glows brighter and brighter. Friday Night Lights has always been about family, but this season's focus is on fathers: we meet Ornette (Cress Williams), Vince's absent father who's been released from prison and tireless football booster and reliable comic relief Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) has a rocky reunion with his wayward son, Buddy Jr. (Jeff Rosick). Eric is faced with one family crisis after another. And on the Riggins front, Tim comes home from jail (I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Tim Riggins doesn't spend the entirety of the final season in the slammer) drained of spirit; there's little left in him, it seems, but a barely suppressed bitterness.
Of course, this being the closing season of the series—one blessing from NBC and DirecTV giving the show two more seasons is that the writers knew this was the final season, and could write to that and give the show a definitive finale—a fair portion of the episodes are concerned with wrapping up storylines. We see some old friends come back, and not merely for nostalgia's sake; the East Dillon football team, and the Taylors, face challenges that bring their stories to a strong close. Football is, of course, front and center this season, but there's a melancholy, autumnal quality to how the characters respond to it that reflects the winding down of the series. We've gone from football being the center of life in Dillon, to an attitude of "it's just a game." It's almost as if the writers want to ease the pain of the show being over—the message we get again and again in the final episodes, as we move closer to the climactic Big Game (again, I don't think I'm spoiling much by revealing that a season of Friday Night Lights has a Big Game looming over the finale) is that, as high as the stakes might be for the players, there's a life after the Big Game, and that life just…goes on.
Universal has given Friday Night Lights some solid DVD releases, and this last one is no exception. Video quality is excellent; the show has a naturalistic look, which means a good deal of intentional grain in much of the footage, but in scenes that are meant to look cleaner, details are pleasantly sharp, with vibrant colors. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and is equally vibrant, clean, and active.
Several episodes come with deleted scenes attached—as usual, most of them just serve to fill out character arcs, but a couple, including one emotional scene between Buddy and his son, add substantively to the episodes. Two episodes get audio commentaries: "Don't Go" (with producer-director of the episode, Michael Waxman) and the series finale, "Always" (with Jason Katims, the show's executive producer and the episode's writer). Both commentaries offer insights into the creative decisions in each episode, as well as retrospective thoughts on the series as a whole. There's also a featurette, "The Lights Go Out," looking back on the show's five seasons and offering a farewell to its viewers, and a "Yearbook" photo gallery of stills from the season.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Much like the Persian rug weavers of old who intentionally wove mistakes into their rugs so as not to offend God, as only God is perfect (okay…maybe not quite like that) every season of Friday Night Lights had its weak moments—especially the second, but let's stop beating that dead horse—and this season is no exception.
For a show entering its final run, Friday Night Lights spends a surprising amount of its remaining time introducing brand new characters. Some, like Vince's dad, Ornette, provide drama for the characters we already know, and add depth to their storylines. Others, like Hastings Ruckle, a star basketball player recruited over to the football team, enter with great fanfare only to go nowhere and leave us wondering what the point was of bringing him in in the first place—and taking up valuable time that could be spent on other characters. I can imagine the writers responding that, although the show might be ending, life in Dillon goes on, and there's no narrative reason why new people would suddenly stop cropping up. And that makes sense. But these dead-end digressions, the kind you'd find in the middle of a 23-episode season with the writers still feeling out storylines, seem out of place in a season that has no reason not to be tightly focused.
The other weak point of the season is the character of Julie Taylor, the older daughter of the Taylor family. I don't think the writers have ever known quite what to do with Julie; she's had the kind of storylines one would expect for a teenage girl going through high school (drinking, rebelling against her parents, dating boys), but rarely ever getting compelling stories. It seems the show's been content to just have her getting into silly-girl trouble—Oh no, she's getting a tattoo! Oh no, she's dating an older man!—and having her pout cutely with adolescent outrage at her parents who Just Don't Understand.
For a show that otherwise deals thoughtfully with its characters, it's a disappointing flaw. In Season Four, Julie joined up with Habitat for Humanity, helping build houses. So what did the writers focus on? Julie having a crush on an older co-worker. This year, Julie's off to college, so what do the writers focus on? Julie having a crush on an older T.A. Julie's supposed to be an intelligent, strong-willed young woman—is there really no better story to tell about her than her weakness for older men?
As heavyhearted as I am to bid farewell to a show as satisfying as Friday Night Lights, I'm grateful to have gotten as much of it as I did, and to have gotten a satisfying, touching wrap-up to the story of Dillon, its people, and the Taylor family. As someone who doesn't even watch sports, Friday Night Lights got me excited about football, which is really saying something. It's disappointing that more viewers didn't tune into the series when it was around, but here's hoping it continues to find audiences on DVD.
The court finds Friday Night Lights guilty of making this grown man
cry like a wee baby—I mean, uh, manfully hold back manly tears—on a
regular basis for five straight seasons.
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