Friday Night Lights
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In the small fictional town of Dillon, high school football is life. The Panthers’ new football coach, Eric Taylor, serves as a father figure to his players while facing pressures from the town to win. His wife, Tami, is a counselor at the same school and struggles to balance her career with the demands of motherhood while playing a supporting role to her husband. The football players are each working through their own issues, from dating and sex to alcoholism, racism, and a lack of opportunities in their town — the reason the stakes of the game are so high. Football is their escape route from a place that seems to hold no future.
One of the best reasons to watch Friday Night Lights today is to see all the now famous faces who broke out with the show. Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor) was more recently in Bloodline and Mayor of Kingstown. Connie Britton (as his wife Tami) starred in the first season of The White Lotus. Taylor Kitsch (as troubled football star Tim Diggins) went on to be in X Men: Wolverine and Waco. Minka Kelly (Lyla, a Panthers’ cheerleader) was most recently in Euphoria. Adrianne Palicki (Tyra) now stars in The Orville. Jesse Plemons earned a recent Oscar nod for The Power of the Dog. And “Sexiest Man Alive” Michael B. Jordan, now in Creed and Black Panther, pops up in later seasons.
With the Writer’s Strike dovetailing with summer, it may be a while before a really compelling new TV series builds a world we want to stay in for a while. So this is a good time to revisit the (recent) classics.
I didn’t watch Friday Night Lights when it first aired, nor did I watch it during Covid. My dad watched soccer 24/7 and hardly anyone paid attention to my high school’s football team. When I taught high school, none of the players actually understood football, and they lost every single game (despite this, they were ecstatic to be on the team and the students cheered them on, as most didn’t understand how football worked either).
A few months ago, a friend of mine told me about his experiences as a high school football player. He described endless running drills, doing lunges around the school, and being smacked to the ground multiple times a day. When he was 16, he broke his hip, effectively ending his football career. Although the injury has healed, he still has knee and hip problems. The more he described the culture of high school football to me, the more fascinated I became. How did people get so into it? And why does football continue to dominate the lives of so many?
After asking other friends these questions, they told me to just watch Friday Night Lights.
With five seasons and 100 episodes, Friday Night Lights is a commitment, a seemingly daunting one if you don’t understand football. Yet the pilot immediately hooked me. Despite having more football talk than I expected, I easily followed it.
Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) takes over as head coach of the Dillon Panthers, a monumental task considering the entire town rests its hopes and dreams on this team. But then a tragedy strikes, and the entire team is turned upside down. As the coach rallies around his players and does his best to support them. Even though the players are local royalty, they defy a lot of the football player stereotypes, and each one faces their own personal demons and pressures, which leads some of them to steroids and alcohol.
As interesting as the men are in Dillon, the women held my focus. They face an entirely different set of challenges. High schooler Tyra (Palicki), whose sister is a stripper, gets painted as the town harlot, but there’s so much more to her. Her mother has been in multiple relationships with abusive men, and Tyra is determined to escape Dillon and the same fate. Coach Taylor’s wife, Tami (Britton), is often seen by the others as just “the coach’s wife.” While Tami and Coach Taylor have one of the healthiest marriages you’ll see depicted in a TV series, she doesn’t accept this role. Tami is determined to help her students achieve their dreams – and to pursue her own.
The Season To Skip. After a brilliant first season, the second season takes off in inexplicable directions. Most of this was apparently due to the 2007-08 writer’s strike. When the series returned for its third season, the writers hit the reset button and acted as though season two never existed. So you can skip the second season.
The remaining season return to top form, and each one goes deeper into the characters of the different themes that face this every town in Texas — the economic disparities, the role of religion and race, the lack of school funding, the polarized views of abortion — and the ways that all the divisions somehow unite around a team of high school athletes.
The 2000s ushered in a fascination with anti-heroes. But Coach Taylor doesn’t really have a dark side. He cares deeply for his wife, his daughter, and his players. He stands up for what is right. He gives his players rousing pep talks, always finishing them with the phrase that became the show’s mantra: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
With so much tough news, true crime, horror, and dark drama, this is a world that will give you some hope and invite you in to stay a while.
An uplifting, well-written, and fascinating look into a uniquely American phenomenon, Friday Night Lights stands the test of time. While it’s a series about high school football, it’s really about the rich tapestry of small town American life, the things that divide people, and what can ultimately unite us.
Friday Night Lights was a network show on NBC, so it’s broad enough for the whole family – teens on up. Itt can be an ideal family watch, as there’s much to discuss. But this is also a show for people who are trying to understand “the other side,” the world seemingly obsessed with sports, or small town and middle America. For international viewers, it’s a great window into a significant part of American culture.
The series is adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name by H.G. Bissinger, which was later adapted into a film of the same name in 2004.