I’m writing this at a quite appropriate time–Friday night. I can’t see the lights from here, but they’re somewhere in the distance, shining onto the field at Bethlehem Area School District Stadium, where I began my sports writing life 45 years ago.
Just about every sports journalist who works at a small newspaper experiences some version of those lights on fall Fridays, covering high school football wars, passions high, loyalties fraught, bragging rights on the line, every word you write a potential insult to an alumnus who has lived in the town forever. Years later, when someone would ask me if I got nervous interviewing a famous athlete, I’d say: “No. Nervous is being a a 21-year-old sports writer criticizing the local coach.”
All that is background to the point of this, which is my recent blaze-binge through Friday Night Lights, the series that ran for five seasons beginning in 2006. FNL was a minor masterpiece, not least because it could’ve been so bad. It was based (increasingly loosely as it progressed) on a great book of the same name by Buzz Bissinger. That is usually a recipe for disaster. Beyond that, the whole setup was tailor-made for clichés—actually, Taylor-made since Coach Eric Taylor is at the center of the drama—the highway of small-town football, storybook victories, overzealous fans, overinvolved parents and overheated hormones being one that has been heavily traveled.
Then, too, FNL had a built-in narrative problem since it was based on high school kids who graduate. (Most of them anyway.) FNL did the quite remarkable thing of literally and figuratively shifting the drama from one side of town to the other, emphasizing its final two seasons on race and class, as the Taylors moved from the Dillon Panthers to the East Dillon Lions. That isn’t an easy storytelling trick to pull off, particularly within the strictures of network TV.
There’s another reason I liked FNL so much. It wasn’t until going back through it that I realized the interesting casting connections it shared with Breaking Bad. More on that later.
It was impossible, of course, for FNL to avoid all of the obvious setups and tropes of sports fiction. Fans of the show can close their eyes and conjure up the familiar voiceover that accompanied so many games. Well, Panther fans, there’s one minute to go and Coach Eric Taylor needs some kind of miracle to … He usually got it, too. And there’s no way that a guy like Taylor would allow a cute high school girl, who is also involved with the star quarterback, to hang around the locker room as equipment manager. That’s what the writers did to get the character of Jess Meriweather (played by Jurnee Smollett ) into the action.
Then, too, there was an almost universal happy ending to the whole thing, even for Taylor, who, transplanted from Texas because of his wife’s job, is determined to bring that damn Alamo spirit to those Pennsylvania boys. About the only one who came out on the short end was gung-ho two-way player Luke Cafferty, who at the end of the drama is seen shoving off from the Dillon bus depot in an Army uniform. Knowing Luke, he’ll probably come home with a chestful of medals.
Despite some of the clichés, though, it was a series with both grit and heart.
Herewith some reflections on FNL, which kept getting renewed not because of boffo ratings, which it never had, but because its loyal audience demanded it stay on the schedule:
–What I liked most about the Coach Eric “Clear Eyes/Full Heart/Can’t Lose” Taylor character was not the football moments. The actor, Kyle Chandler, looks like he stepped out of a John Ford Western, so he could’ve played a Texas football coach with his eyes closed. (Which, considering Chandler’s squinty-eyed good looks, he often seemed to be doing.) No, what I appreciated most was his performance as the put-upon husband-father, another staple of American TV.
Coach Taylor would come limping out of his bedroom in the morning, wearing boxers and rubbing those half-closed eyes, and already all hell would’ve broken loose. Wife Tami is on a tangent about something, his lawn his dotted with get-outta-town signs, his rebellious daughter Julie stayed out all night, his star running back broke a rule, the family of his paralyzed quarterback is suing him, Tim Riggins is AWOL, and Buddy Garrity’s pounding on the damn front door.
It wasn’t that Chandler was never nonplussed; quite often he was very plussed. But there never seemed to be a false moment from Chandler no matter what the situation.
–Bubbly Connie Britton was a great choice to play his wife, though if I never again hear her Tami Taylor character drawl out a “Hi, y’all” I will consider it a blessing. My wife, a retired schoolteacher, watched a minute of the show once, took a gander at Tami roaming the halls of Dillon High in her short skirt, cleavage-revealing blouse and cowboy boots, and said, “No principal would ever wear that.”
“Well, I’ve never been to high school in Texas,” I said, “but I’m guessing that’s exactly what a principal would wear.”
The relationship between Eric and Tami was so spot-on true-to-life, that the ultraserious Atlantic did a piece praising it.
–The aforementioned Buddy Garrity, played by Brad Leland, was among the show’s greatest creations. The car salesman/football-mad booster is a cliché if there ever was one, but Leland infused it with so much heart that you never got tired of seeing him. Buddy had some of his finest moments after Taylor moved to lowly Dillon East and Buddy’s life changed, beginning with his gig as a host on a Spanish radio station. “We’re en fuego here in East Dillon!” he’d yell.
Here’s the only YouTube video I could find of Leland, who later had a memorable bit part in an episode of Veep.
–-Wherever Tim Riggins ended up after FNL (he had already been to the joint), it was a softer landing zone than the one awaiting Taylor Kitsch, the character who played him. Kitsch, long hair shorn, got caught in the middle of a muddled script in True Detective. But he was utterly believable in FNL as the classic Small Town Hero/Screwup, more intriguing after his football days were over when he tried to gain control of his ever-spiraling-out-of-control life.
What wasn’t believable was the volume of beer Riggins consumed throughout the show’s five seasons. A Lone Star boy likes his Lone Star brew but, damn, Tim. Riggo seemed to miss half of Taylor’s practices, but the coach never benched him, probably because he may have been the most valuable player Dillon ever had—he ran, caught passes, blocked, tackled and left everything out there, including, presumably, a few gallons of beer sweat.
In one of our final views of Tim, he is sitting in a lawn chair surveying his patch of “Texas forever” land. The estimable Tyra Collette is at his side, suggesting—kind of, sort of—that they may have a future together. (No chance on that by the way.) Tim is okay with the mere fragment of that dream, largely because he has a coolerful of cold ones at his feet.
Some of Riggo’s best moments were with brother Billy, who in the hands of Derek Phillips was among the show’s most memorable minor characters. The writers had to find something to do with Billy after Tim graduated, so they made him one of Coach Taylor’s assistants, an overcaffeinated volume machine who tunes up the team with Samoan war chants. Here is Billy delivering a special teams oration.
–Riggins’s foil, in the early part of the series, was stuttering Matt Saracen, played to bumbling perfection and ever-increasing maturation by Zach Gilford. Matt was the exact wrong type of personality to be a successful Texas high school quarterback, which is why it’s so wonderful when he succeeds. (Plus, Matt is the only one who gets The Girl, though clearly he and Julie Taylor should spend some time together in Chicago before tying the knot.) When I later saw Gilford for a couple minutes in a forgettable film, I was astonished that he spoke a sentence all the way through without hesitation. I guess that’s why they call it acting.
The scene when Matt and Julie bumble every attempt at their first sexual experience is priceless. I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but what you can find is an endless parade of Matt and Julie moments backed by sappy soundtracks. They deserved better.
Some of Matt’s best moments were with Grandmom, played superbly by Louanne Stephens. (I never saw Stephens in anything else but IMDB tells me she can be found on Twitter at@mamalou8. Who knew?). I wish the writers would’ve found more to do with Kim Dickens, who came in late as Matt’s absentee mom. Dickens hardly needed it, though—she went on to Treme and a bunch of other things.
(In a completely irrelevant aside, Zach Gilford’s real-life wife, who is named Kiele Sanchez, was previously married to an actor named Zach Helm. How many people meet two Zachs, never mind marry two of them.)
–Bringing up Saracen moves us to his best bud, Landry Clarke, who represented the nerdy side of Dillon High. In one of the FNL‘s most improbable moments, Landry (whom Coach Taylor repeatedly calls Lance) wins a Thanksgiving Day game with a 47-yard field goal, even though prior evidence suggested that he’d have trouble converting an extra point.
The most interesting thing about Jesse Plemons, the actor who played Landry, was, of course, that he went on to meth and murder as Todd Alquist in Breaking Bad, his portrayal of a blank-faced sociopath downright immortal. Perhaps going from 800-on-the-college-boards Landry to murderous Todd wasn’t that much of a jump—after all, Landry did kill a guy inFNL, too, though it came in defense of Tyra and was easily the drama’s most ridiculous plot invention.
Here’s Landry and Tyra together:
Another FNL–Breaking Bad connection: During Season 5, a troubled East Dillon student with the improbably spelled name of Epyck (pronounced like “Epic”), looked familiar. I eventually remembered that she was Jesse Pinkman’s much-loved girlfriend, Andrea Cantillo, in Breaking Bad, who is played by a splendid actress named Emily Rios. And we all remember who plugs Andrea in the back of the head in quite possibly the coldest moment of Breaking Bad—Todd Alquist/Landry Clarke.
I found the clip of that murder on YouTube and was going to attach it here. But I couldn’t do it. Too excruciating as Jesse (Aaron Paul) watches the murder from the car.
Still another FNL-Breaking Bad connection: One of Todd’s neo-Nazi buddies was Jason Street’s quadriplegic homey on FNL. The actor who played both BB’s Kenny and FNL’s Herc is named Kevin Rankin.
Which brings us to Jason Street. I had forgotten how quickly the FNL writers got him paralyzed—in the first episode. No one lost more on FNL than Street, whose presumed future NFL career and charmed life with the beautiful Lyla ended when he stopped his own pick-six. The things that Jason went through—depression, anger, desperation, false hope—were excruciating, and I’m glad the writers kept the actor, Scott Porter, around as long as they did. A little invention at the end of the series was nice, too: As the camera pans around an empty Dillon High locker room, there is one name scrawled on the wall—Jason Street.
Here’s the worst moment for the quarterback, although looking out his lonely window at the lonely rehab center and seeing Lyla and Riggins locking lips might come close.
–Like Fox News, FNL was—how shall we put this?—extremely aware when it made its female casting decisions. It would be creepy for someone my age to describe in detail the qualities of, Lyla, Tyra, Julie and Jess, but they were all great in their roles, rarely lapsing into stereotype even though their broad strokes—Lyla the Head Cheerleader, Tyra the Town Slut Who Becomes a Real Person, Julie the Rebellious Coach’s Daughter and Jess the Football-Loving Cutie—suggested as much.
There was also Becky, Riggo’s young pageant-participating neighbor, but I didn’t include here because, frankly, she drove me nuts. She knocked on his trailer door so often I thought Riggins might actually have to pretend he was reading a book to get rid of her.
I’m a little surprised that the cast’s females haven’t made much of an impression in the post-FNL world, aside from Lyla’s (Minka Kelly) collection of celebrity boyfriends, who included Derek Jeter and John Mayer. (I guess everybody knew this but Kelly is the daughter of former Aerosmith guitarist Rick Dufay and an exotic dancer named Maureen Dumont. Goes a long way toward explaining Lyla’s attraction to Riggins.) But a glance at IMDB reveals that most of FNL‘s female cast members are working in some fashion.
–In another interesting aside, Lyla’s foray into serious religion (she tried, but celibacy wasn’t for her) brought her into the orbit of a righteous young man named Chris Kennedy, played by Matt Czuchry. Czuchry soon turned into more of a hardballer, playing the young step-on-your-grandmother-to-get-ahead lawyer Cary Agos on The Good Wife. Cary would most definitely not have resisted Lyla.
–The dramatic tension on FNL was always good, but when Michael B. Jordan came aboard in Season 4 it went up exponentially. To put it another way, Michael B. Jordan is the Michael Jordan of playing troubled and talented high school athletes. (He’s in the photo above with Coach Taylor.) And Jordan only got better after FNL with roles in movies likeFruitvale Station.
There were countless parent-child relationships on FNL. The Taylors and Julie. Buddy and Lyla. Tyra and Angela (who was desperate enough to bed down with Buddy). Matt and the absent Henry, who died in Iraq. Tim and his brief encounter with golf bum Walt. Jess and the mostly silent barbeque-owner Virgil. Spoiled J.D. and horrible dad Joe McCoy.
But none was as sharply drawn as the relationship between Vince and his father, Ornette played by Cress Williams. That was serious stuff.
There was much talk a couple years ago about a FNL movie—one with the TV cast, not the feature that starred Billy Bob Thornton—but it looks like it will never happen. That’s okay. Perhaps it’s better we remember the original with clear eyes and full hearts.