“FNL” airs Fridays at 8 on NBC. Your festivities can wait till 9. Click here to get caught up.
If you’re still not watching “Friday Night Lights” because it’s “that show about football,” you need to find a better excuse. In a hurry. Because at this point – if you like anything about television, anything at all – you’re starting to look pretty foolish for passing this one up. We’re four seasons and five episodes in to its network run (no, I don’t have DirecTV either), and I can now tell you with absolute confidence what I could have told you back when Street broke his neck or Taylor bolted for TMU: this is the best show on television. Bar none. Better than “Lost.” Better than “Mad Men.” Better than “30 Rock.” Better than anything else on AMC or NBC or TNT.
And it’s not about football. Overcoming feelings of worthlessness; escaping a predestined future of small-town monotony; conquering stereotypes; sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll? Sure, it’s about all of these things. But not football. “Friday Night Lights” instead centers on the in-it-for-the-long-haul marriage between Eric Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (the smoking hot, too-good-for-TV Connie Britton). He’s the new coach at dirt-poor East Dillon. She’s the principal at privileged state power West Dillon. They spend their days on either side of a community on the brink of swallowing itself whole. They come back to each other at night. This is what life in Dillon, Texas is like. It’s the same.
Not so much the characters. They’re an underdog bunch of big-hearted overachievers, conflicted college dropouts, fast-track golden boys, cutthroat boosters, castoffs, drop-dead pre-coeds, and a 19-going-on-34 ladies’ man. Made one by laces and leather, together they breathe life into a map dot that’s otherwise just smoky barbeque joints and godforsaken trailer parks. The names on the backs of the jerseys are proof enough where this town’s priorities lie – there’s a Riggins, a McCoy, a Landry. No pressure, kids. But the football neurosis serves only as a platform from which to launch other trials and tribulations. The crosses to bear only get bigger once you step off the field.
Matt Saracen, a former quarterback for the mighty [West] Dillon Panthers, is the poster child for this dichotomous balancing act. His unenviable task in seasons past of replacing a town hero behind center served simply as training for even less enviable roles – caretaker to a grandmother, guardian to a widowed mother, man of the house at 19. He also dates the coach’s daughter. Again, no pressure.
Panther alum Tim Riggins is in the same boat. Broken home. Broken dreams. Inescapable pull of Nowhere Texas. A hundred unresolved relationships. Life after football. Now what? If Saracen is the show’s measured dark horse, Riggins is the down-for-anything tragic hero. He boozes to kill time, shoots small creatures for the hell of it, tinkers with carburetors because he can. He parties resident drunks under the table, never washes his hair, lands a busty bartender with a smirk and her daughter with less. The guy’s built like an ox, but never works out. And he could do anything he wanted if only someone would show him the way. All heart, no motivation, he instead backed out of a scholarship to pursue his life-long goal of sleeping with every woman in Dillon. Still, the dispirited, nostalgic way in which he says “Texas forever” suggests he’s not totally satisfied with this big-fish-in-small-pond existence… The perks aren’t bad, though.
As is the case with any drama five hours in to its 13-episode run, “FNL’s” fourth season has already laid most of the groundwork for some fateful climax – in this case, an inevitable collision between juggernaut West’s monied prep stars and upstart East’s ragtag collection of misfits and zoning casualties. The town divided is both a result of an offseason redistricting effort and a booster-driven power play to replace Coach Taylor with big-name assistant Wade Aikman. At East Dillon, Taylor busts his ass to build from the ground up a program far removed from his former employer’s world-beating mini-empire. He plucks kids from off the streets, pillages his own checkbook for new unis, even lucks out when scandal forces Panthers star Luke Cafferty to move east.
Best laid plans aside, Taylor’s Lions still measure success in moral victories, the Panthers in state titles. The gap closes slowly, if at all, which makes time for a dozen riveting storylines to play out in the meantime. Race. Religion. Sexuality. Death. Life. Abuse. Abortion. It’s all fair game, and all handled with deft directorial touch and the best acting this side of Hollywood. That the last handful of episodes introduced a black-white locker room schism, an interracial couple, a gay coach and, just Friday, a son shoveling dirt over his father’s grave gives you some idea of where it’s all heading.
I don’t know exactly how the next eight hours play out, but I can promise you weathered storms and growing pains, the triumphant return of cowboy babe Lyla Garrity, a lifetime’s worth of last second plays, and a dogged devotion to the best adage in sports: “Clear eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t lose.”
Words to live by.