TV viewers, pop culture-watchers, and Emmy voters, your last chance to get in on the low-key phenomenon that is Friday Night Lights is happening right now. The kick-off, as they say on the gridiron, was last Friday night when NBC aired episode one of the fifth and final season.
That episode, "Expectations," is available free on NBC.com, and the rest of it unspools Friday nights through mid-Summer. All of it has aired already – to exceptional reviews -- on DirectTV, so this is when everyone else gets to catch up.
Not that everyone else has ever showed up in droves. “It’s frustrating,” allows Jason Katims, FNL’s executive producer and head writer. “I’d meet somebody and they’d say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say, ‘I write for television.’ ‘Oh, what do you write?’ ‘I work on Friday Night Lights.’ And the response would be, ‘I hear that’s a great show.’ So many times. Well, when you hear it’s a great show, what stops you from watching it? I don’t know. I think a lot of people who would love the show felt like it wasn’t a show for them.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the same. A show about high school football in a small Texas town? I did live in Texas for a while, but I’m not from a small town, nor would I do well in one. In high school, I attended football games only because I was trying unsuccessfully to fit in. I was an outsider, and I despaired of the culture that revolved around that game and its traditions. But fiction, when it’s done right, erases those differences. Great writing and acting makes all things universal. To me, this is a show about the incredible challenges life throws to everyday people, and their struggle to do the right and decent thing. It’s also about mentoring and fathering and husbanding and setting an example, as personified by Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). It’s about the marriage between Coach and Tami (Connie Britton), and how they manage to stay each other’s best friends, even as they clash and assert their differing needs and agendas.
Last year, Emmy voters recognized what this acting duo has achieved by nominating each in their dramatic lead categories. Given their perfs in season five’s potent finale, which throws them their biggest test yet, I’d be surprised if they weren’t recognized again. “Kyle so committed to the idea of that dilemma, and took himself on an incredible journey to get there,” says Katims. “On the surface it wasn’t the most likable thing for a man to do, and yet you really believe the struggle, and I think it’s what made the last episode so strong.”
There’s also a moment where Tami, distraught over the diminishing prospects for her own dreams to come true, puts on a happy face while admitting Coach’s cronies into their home, then sums up her sacrifice for his career in two words she speaks to him privately in the hallway: “Eighteen years.”
“That moment came out of what was originally written as a much longer scene, but Connie sort of narrowed it down,” said Katims. “It’s an example of what these actors bring to the roles.”
Meanwhile, the younger cast members have turned FNL into something of an American Graffiti-style launch pad. Taylor Kitsch, the brooding hunk whose character, soulful fullback Tim Riggins, takes a prison rap for his brother, is starring in Battleship, John Carter from Mars, and The Bang-Bang Club. Adrienne Palicki, who played Tyra Collette
Banks, will star in David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman series on NBC. Jurnee Smollett – whose Jess was an aspiring female football coach, is on CBS’ The Defenders and is set to play Supremes singer Florence Ballard in a biopic. Michael B. Jordan, the quarterback who must deal with his ex-con father in season five, is in Katims’ Parenthood, and also in George Lucas’ upcoming movie Red Tails, about the WWII flyers known as the Tuskeegee Airmen. And that’s only half of it.
Katims, who for the last two seasons has been simultaneously running and writing NBC’s Parenthood, has now turned his full attention to that show, and its audience share has been rising, culminating with especially strong numbers for this week’s season finale.
In the Santa Monica suite of offices where both shows were written, the former Friday Night Lights writers’ room is now a Parenthood editing bay. But an issue of Texas Monthly magazine with the cast on is cover is still displayed in the waiting room. A game football from the show sits on Katims’ shelf, and a banner on the wall bears the memorable rallying cry, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” And there’s still time to watch the show while its final season is broadcast on a major network. That way, you’ll be able to say you were there then it all went down. Or when it all went up, as the case may be.