It’s one thing to binge a show on Netflix, and it’s another to binge a show that you’ve already seen from start to finish. There are few shows that I would deem this acceptable for. One of them is undoubtedly Friday Night Lights — and not just because I’m currently binging it for the second time. As I recently said to a friend: “in life, there are two groups of people: those who have seen Friday Night Lights, and those who have not. The former is the superior group.”
I know I am not alone in this double-binge status, as my current viewing was spurred on by staying with a friend who was re-watching the series as well. In fact, Vulture recently covered this, shall we say, phenomenon. Why are we, as FNL fans (is there a name for this fandom at all? Panthers?), compelled to watch this series over and over again? Because there is literally no other show like it. While entertainment writers, Podcasters, etc. have recommended semi-suitable alternatives (most commonly Parenthood, from the same show runner; and HBO’s yearly mini-series Hard Knocks for the emotional side of sports) nothing will ever match the greatness that is FNL.
If you’re not already a fan, likely the only thing that you know about FNL is that it had a mess of a programming battle — always struggling to survive. As detailed in the amazing piece by Grantland, “An Oral History of Friday Night Lights,” this show just couldn’t win. This show only made it to air because NBC’s President of Entertainment at the time loved the book the show was based on, and initially had wanted to buy it years earlier. Following the pick up of the pilot, it was an endless struggle to keep the show on air — its cause primarily helped by its low production costs (by being filmed in Texas), and a group of relatively unknown actors. While the cast was being headed by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who were known within the industry (with Britton having appeared in the film adaption prior to the television show), the younger actors, who make up the majority of the cast, had never appeared in anything notable. Zach Gilford, who would later be cast as QB1 Matt Saracen, was working at a sporting goods store. Minka Kelly, who would later be cast as cheerleader Lyla Garrity was working as a scrub nurse in between auditions.
Casting wasn’t the only thing that differentiated FNL from your standard show. There were no sets. The houses used were real. There was no scene-blocking. The cameras followed the actors. There were no cuts. The camera rolled from take to take. But while this show was innovative and cheap to produce, it wasn’t without its challenges — how do you sell a show about football, that, in the end, isn’t really about football at all? Critics loved it. Execs said it was the best pilot that they had ever seen… but viewers did not tune in. Every season, showrunners were convinced it was the last. Every season finale was structured to be a potential series finale. Somehow, it survived. It survived for five seasons — thanks to the effort of the cast, crew, and a group of (relatively) small, but loyal fans that willed it to continue to exist.
Here we are 3 years later since the series finale has aired, and it feels like the FNL audience has grown nearly ten times in size since it was live on Friday nights. Word of mouth paired with Netflix has allowed the fan base to grow like it never could have in its premiere year of 2006. It was a show ahead of its time. Compare Friday Night Lights to Breaking Bad for example. BB grew in viewership season after season due to the increased streams on Netflix. Friends shared with friends, bloggers and critics alike (not to mention the rise of Twitter and live-tweeting television) spread the word to check it out — and over seasons 2, 3, 4 and half of season 5 — there was time for new fans to catch up, until ultimately the final episodes of BB exploded in ratings. I can’t help but wonder if this would have been the case for FNL as well if it would have premiered just a few years later. Even I hadn’t seen the full series until 2013. Quality television takes time to build a good audience — and at the time there was barely a platform for those who might have heard about the show after season 1 to catch up in order to tune in for season 2. In 2006 I was still buying DVD box sets of shows that I wanted to watch — certainly a higher barrier to entry than hitting play on Netflix.
While we all would have liked just one more season of FNL (or 6 seasons and a movie…) the entire series is structured in such a way that you almost feel satisfied when it ends. The series finale is often noted as one of the best finales ever produced. But there’s still a feeling that you’re now empty. Why is that? And what has caused so many fans to be so emotionally attached to a five-season show that ended three years ago? Ultimately, this was not a football show — although the football element certainly gives some people an entry to viewership — it’s about a town. It’s about Dillon, Texas. It’s about the people. These people seem real. So real in fact, that Connie Britton said people often tell her that they wish she was their mother (love you, Tami Taylor). The chemistry between Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler was so present that producers were worried they might start having an affair. Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor was stern, wise and lovable. He was the coach you always wanted. He was the dad you want your kids to have. And while Tami and Coach were the heart of the show, the other characters were just as real. Tim Riggins is one of the most underrated characters in recent memory. I can’t imagine any other actor filling the role. Taylor Kitsch nailed it from the audition (he apparently chugged several beers, in the intro alone…) to his final scene as Riggins. And of course, delivers several of the series most memorable lines, including “Texas forever.”
Texas forever…Friday Night Lights forever. FNL is absolutely a show that will always stay with me, remain a classic, and remain one of my favorites. If you haven’t seen it — watch it. You’ll thank me (and undoubtedly ever other fan that’s ever told you to watch it) later.