Time to play some football. But not really. Time to live life.
The last episode of one of my favourite shows ever airs tonight. The bittersweet occasion must be marked, nay, remembered for all time.
I am referring to Friday Night Lights. One of the finest series ever to grace the small screen, leaving us way before it’s time.
FNL started as a non-fiction book by Pulitzer Prize winning author H.G. Bissinger. The book begat the movie, the movie begat the show. Bissinger spent time in the town of Odessa, Texas, where football is next to God, and Friday Night, when the High School team plays, is when everyone congregates. But what of the players, the coaches, the parents, the girlfriends and the townspeople? What happens after the game ends? What happens when the idolized players graduated to nothing?
This is that tale.
The show, which barely limped through through five seasons due to dismal ratings, was a raw, uncompromising look into these peoples lives. Quite often they would not even show the actual game for episodes at a time. In the first episode, the star player is paralyzed in a tackle. For the next three seasons you see him attempting to rebuild his life. In the third season, a wealthy donor to the team constantly locks horns with the coach. You grow to despise the donor and his smug look. And the season four game changer. More on this shortly.
Everything feels human on this series. The story bleeds reality.
And the reality centers around the one constant in this story. The Taylor family. Coach Eric Taylor, wife Tami who also works at the school in various positions, and their teen daughter Julie. Another daughter, Gracie Belle, is born in season two. Players come and go from Coach Taylor’s life and each presents different challenges and dilemmas. Season one alone deals with unscrupulous recruiters, racism, drug use, economic disparity and Julie dating the new quarterback.
One of the major recurring themes is the players (and other characters) constantly chasing after a scholarship. Virtually none of them can afford an education, so football is their ticket out of town, and into a life of their own. The stress this causes passes through so many of them, it is painful to watch. It is also an indictment of the U.S. system where your entire future is dependent upon how well you play football for three years.
This leads to the multiple goodbyes the show has. People will leave when they graduate and many of the scenes where someone earns that magical scholarship are the most emotional. Smash Williams makes it and you cheer for him. Tyra becomes the first person in her family to go to University and you love her for it. And the long and winding path Tim goes on, in and out of high school, makes you want to smack him.
The big game changer was at the beginning of season four. After the town elders screw the Coach out of being the Coach, they plunk him into the reopened high school on the other side of town. New school, new students and players with too much attitude. Betsy starts out annoying but she quickly gains your love. Luke has parents who desperately need a reality check. Coach Taylor starts forming his team and molding them into a cohesive unit. From amidst the chaos, wonders grow.
Now FNL is a memory. The finale was a beautiful tribute to the people in the tale, a coda to the Taylor’s time in the town. State Championship is on the line, and the final montage with its haunting song, bring you all the closure you need. Seeing the Ring on Jess’s hand is one the moments of pure joy. Seeing Buddy with the golf cart makes you laugh. And the last scene, Eric and Tami together as the lights go out, move you beyond feeling.
Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose. That is the team slogan. You will end up saying it everytime they do. It becomes a part of your reality. You feel it permeate every aspect of the show, and you feel it gather inside of you as well. It’s a good feeling.
P.S. It took me 15 years to read To Kill A Mockingbird. I will read FNL before 15 years go by. That is a promise.