I’m pretty picky about how I watch TV. Given a particular show, if I miss one or more episodes (especially those in the opening seasons), I refuse to join in on later episodes until I’ve properly caught myself up. Many times, however, I purposefully hold off on a show entirely until it has finished its run so that I can partake in the true joy of marathoning them in all of their designated glory. During these non-stop marathon sessions, the viewer is pummeled with the true, genuine emotions these show creators and writers intended all along. Marathoning a TV show is reassuring for me—it satisfies some sort of addictive habit and allows television to exist in its most purest, uninterrupted form. The role of the viewer seems to transcend into the show, itself; giving you the ability to emotionally stay with the character in powerful, pivotal moments. In that suburban kitchen, you’re in Don Draper’s head and you can physically feel the gravity of the situation as he quickly unravels and admits to his secret life and endless string of affairs to his wife, Betty. Do you really want to be interrupted in the middle of something that powerful so that Gold Bond can tell you all about their newest athlete’s foot cream or baking soda? No. Neither do I.And so given the mountains of positive praise for Friday Night Lights (and following Kyle Chandler’s upset win over Jon Hamm for the Best Actor Emmy last year), I had to check it out. Admittedly though, I’ve never really been a big football fan and, growing up in Connecticut where high school football culture is hardly even a Thing as it is a way of life in Texas, I was a little apprehensive. However, reassured by many that I didn’t need to be a fan of the sport to enjoy the show, I gave it a shot.
It would be really easy for a drama that largely takes place in high school to become the dreaded High School Drama—where (with random anti-drugs and bullying PSAs interjected throughout) pretty people with petty problems becomes the norm and no one in the real world really cares or is at all invested in the characters’ lives and futures. And though there are pretty people in Friday Night Lights (hello, Tim Riggins) with sometimes petty problems, the show’s creator Jason Katims and his team of writers have been able to take a premise about small-town Texas football and turn it into a universally relatable show… but not without flaws.
The opening of the show, as you can see, is masterfully done. In just under 4 minutes, you know that Jason Street is the prodigiously talented star Quarterback with an immensely promising future; that Head Coach Eric Taylor is new to the position and struggles with the intensity of Dillon Panther football; that Smash Williams is the cocky, but talented hot-head who loses his temper when the death of his father is brought up; that Tim Riggins is the brooding bad boy with a disappointed brother in the stands and an equally disappointed team in the wake of his hangover; and that little Matt Saracen, in the wake of Jason Street’s enormous shadow, struggles to find his own identity and worth on the field as he digs head-first into the trash for one of the coach’s discarded plays.
At its very best, Friday Night Lights has the bottled power and emotional wallop of nearly any episode of The Wonder Years. And like Breaking Bad masterfully creates tension in ways I’ve never before seen on television, FNL captures the raw and unbridled emotion with deceptive ease. Hearing the surrounding chaos and sound dip in the hospital as Jason Street’s helmet is sawed off his now-paralyzed body gives you chills as you realize what’s now been lost in the blink of an eye. Listening to Tami Taylor candidly and tearfully discuss sex for the first time with 15 year-old, Julie shows us just how terrifying and emotional that conversation can be between mother and daughter. After the enormously talented Smash suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury, he works his ass off along with Coach to win a walk-on spot with Texas A&M—the closing shot of his grateful smile (above) was more than enough to melt my icy heart. While Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are consistently fantastic throughout the show, though, the series’ best episode gave the reins to Zach Gilford as he portrayed Matt Saracen, the universe’s punching bag, reacting to the news that his absent and vilified father was killed in Iraq. Universally hailed as one of the best acting performances ever seen on screen, “The Son” is an episode that can bring you to your knees. Between the look of horror on Matt’s face at the funeral home where he drunkenly demands the caretaker to show him his father’s disturbingly disfigured corpse to him “having a moment” at the Taylors’ house as he poked at the carrots on his dinner plate, I sincerely can’t even write about this particular episode without tearing up. It’s that good.
Which is why it’s so frustrating when the writers drop the ball—and it happens enough where it can be distracting and almost infuriating. Because when an episode like “The Son” and those subtly brilliant moments and more exist, it’s hard not to take the recycled or reaching plot points as a personal attack when you know how good it gets and how great it can be. In a strange twist of events, I’ve become so invested in the show (and especially its characters) that it’s almost an act of betrayal on my part to write something that pokes holes in the series. With those recycled plot points and a tendency for sloppy writing, though, it’s frustrating for me—on a personal level—to say that I didn’t wholly love the show. Given the show’s shaky trajectory on primetime TV and its difficulty in giving every character a well-developed, deserved arc (there are many, many characters in the Friday Night Lights universe, after all), it’s somewhat understandable that these flaws exist. With that said, though, I do recommend Friday Night Lights—while you will undoubtedly come across some stale material and under-developed or unexplained plot points, experiencing and unearthing those diamonds in the rough makes it worth it a thousand times over.
After all, life is a marathon, not a sprint.