Four years after its initial US transmission, UK viewers finally reached the end of season three of Friday Night Lights, the show based in a backwater Texas town and focussing on the lives of the Dillion Panthers high school football team, which is quite literally the only game in town.
Friday Night Lights has its origins in H G Bissinger’s 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, which chronicled his observations of the Permian Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas. This was then adapted for a 2004 film starring Billy Bob Thornton. When the TV version was subsequently created in 2006, Kyle Chandler was cast in the equivalent of Thornton’s role as Coach Eric Taylor, with Connie Britton and Brad Leland (Tami Taylor and Buddy Garrity) effectively recast in roles similar to those they had played in the film.
The series is notable for its documentary and largely unrehearsed style of filming, with the actors given the flexibility to improvise blocking (position and movement) and dialogue for themselves. Season three was one of transition behind the scenes, as it was the first to be made following NBC’s decision to co-produce the show with satellite broadcaster DirecTV, to whom first-run rights passed.
A year of transition
It was a year of transition in front of the camera too, with some principal characters departing, others graduating and concluding with a massive reset in the season finale. To paraphrase a sporting cliché, it was not so much a game of two halves as one of three thirds.
Season two had been cut short by a writers’ strike, which resulted in an uneven narrative jump at the beginning of this season. Several storylines were terminated abruptly, such as that of Santiago, the former convict taken under Buddy’s wing. And Tami Taylor was suddenly principal of Dillon High, an abrupt promotion from guidance counsellor which required a significant suspension of disbelief.
Nonetheless, most aspects of the transition were handled extremely well. Having ended season two with the Panthers on the brink of the playoffs and Jason Street attempting to determine what (if any) future he had with his pregnant girlfriend Erin, both strands were resolved in a satisfying way that provided much of the narrative drive for the first two-thirds of the season.
The former was deftly wrapped up in 30 seconds of the season opener as it was revealed that Brian ‘Smash’ Williams suffered a serious knee injury in the playoffs, killing both the Panthers’ hopes of retaining the State Championship and Smash’s scholarship at Whitmore University. The first four episodes focused on Coach Taylor’s refusal to give up on him as he struggled with his rehabilitation, culminating in Smash earning a walk-on spot at Texas A&M and walking off into a bright future.
Having been absent for the opening episodes, we then discovered that Jason was left behind in Dillon as Erin returned north with baby Noah. This provided a key arc for the middle portion of the season, as Street headed up an unlikely crew of Herc and the Riggins boys as they flipped Buddy’s old house for profit. This led to Jason grafting his way to a job at a New York sports agency, allowing him to be reunited with Erin and earn his own happy ending.
It was a fond farewell for two of the series’ most important and compelling characters, underpinned by intense performances by Gaius Charles and Scott Porter.
The final five episodes were a helter-skelter dash to the finish, focussing on the twin threads of the Panthers’ run to State and resolving the futures of seniors Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), with the first two playing a pivotal role in a furious second half comeback which nearly clinched a second championship for the underdog Panthers. Meanwhile the reopening of East Dillon High and a falling out between the Taylors and the McCoys, the parents of freshman quarterback J D, resulted in the latter leading a palace coup to oust Eric as head coach, with him taking over at East Dillon.
In a country that lionises sporting heroes and the American dream, how many shows could manage to so successfully depict the realities of life in a small, economically struggling town – of which there are thousands dotted all over the US – where the prospect of a glamorous life in the big city is little more than a pipe dream? How many shows would dare to feature a wheelchair-bound lead character, Jason Street, the all-American hero who is disabled during a football game, the national pastime? Or another, Tim Riggins, who is a drunk, a womaniser, barely literate and a thief, yet also immensely loyal and ultimately likeable? (Equally, how counter to stereotype was it to have Riggins as a white character?)
That is the core strength of Friday Night Lights. This is not a show about football – indeed the game sequences are the least realistic, most cliched and therefore weakest part of the series. Nor is it a programme about perfect, glitzy characters who all look like they have just stepped out of a catwalk shoot and always say and do the right thing. No, this is a series featuring real, imperfect, three-dimensional characters who make mistakes, change and grow as they live ordinary lives in an ordinary town whose one extraordinary feature is its successful football programme.
It is the ordinariness of the issues the characters face – a battle to allocate funds between academic supplies and a jumbotron for the football team, convincing a player’s parents that football can be a positive influence, a struggle to reach beyond the confines of the only town most of the characters have ever known – that makes Friday Night Lights stand out. (And, conversely, it is the more soap-operaish elements like season two’s Landry/Tyra murder storyline which are the least successful.) Season three strikes a good balance in that respect.
It’s not without flaws, though. I’ve already mentioned the uneven transition out of the previous year and Tami’s job change, but even looking solely within this season there are obvious issues. Matt’s move out to wide receiver is just about plausible, but why have another character point out in an earlier episode that he is small and slow, both of which are unhelpful physical traits for that position? And, a common flaw for shows with such a large ensemble cast, some characters spend too much of the season treading water: Lyla has little to do until the final episodes, and Julie Taylor close to nothing at all. However, given the success of other plot-lines and the truncated 13-episode run, these don’t detract too much from the overall high quality. There’s a pleasing balance between keeping the wider story turning over while giving departing or graduating characters a last hurrah.
On paper, there is no way Friday Night Lights should ever have worked as a series. But it does. And season three – despite some obvious mis-steps and being a notch below its outstanding debut run – delivers as a convincing portrayal of a lifestyle which the vast majority of us will never understand and rarely get to see on TV. In that respect, it is as unique as it is outstanding.
Season four of Friday Night Lights begins on Sky Atlantic next Tuesday (11th February) at 8pm.