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08.25.10

Will Friday Night Lights Finally Win?

FNL has always been denied the Emmy it richly deserves. Jace Lacob talks to its starring couple about their long-overdue nominations and the end of TV’s most criminally underrated show.

“It’s sort of like a marriage ended,” said Kyle Chandler, the star of DirecTV/NBC’s drama series Friday Night Lights, which returns for its fifth and final season this fall. “When Connie’s around, when the crew is around, the family is all together… That’s just the way it is.”

The Connie in question would be Chandler’s on-screen wife, Connie Britton, who, like Chandler, is nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on the emotionally resonant Friday Night Lights, which has been perpetually snubbed by the populist Television Academy, despite the fact that it’s been lauded by AFI, the Television Critics Association, and the WGA. The duo play Eric and Tami Taylor, a typical couple with typical problems whose marriage might be the one constant—besides football season—in the small town of Dillon, Texas.

Give Friday Night Lights an Emmy Already!

While other shows push their central couple through infidelities and other obvious tropes, showrunner Jason Katims never took the Taylors that route, instead allowing their internal dramas to come from the small moments that pepper every marriage: arguments over missing keys and empty milk cartons, or what Chandler calls “the small nooks and crannies that really make up the day of two people who live together, trying to make their way till death do us part.”

View our complete coverage of the 2010 Emmy Awards“Kyle and I, right from the beginning, agreed that we did not want this marriage to ever go into the territory of adultery or betrayal because that’s just not what we were creating,” Britton told The Daily Beast via phone from Austin, where she was packing up her house before moving back to Los Angeles. “Most people aren’t living soap opera lives.”

But this very commitment to realness over melodrama—which is what separates Friday Night Lights from just about every other show on American television—might be what nearly got the show killed on NBC.

From the beginning, Friday Night Lights was damned if it did, damned if it didn’t. By holding fast to its ideals and keeping the focus on the quiet rhythms of everyday life, the show soared artistically—and failed commercially. Attempts to introduce a soapier, more sensational arc in the second season (which was truncated due to the WGA strike) backfired completely. The show’s strikingly realistic tone was sacrificed for a storyline in which teens Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) murdered the man who had attempted to rape Tyra, and then covered up the crime. The result was a jarring departure from what made Friday Night Lights click with its small band of viewers in the first place and proved that the show just wasn’t built for the kind of ludicrous ploys for attention that, for other shows, haul in big ratings and big awards.

It is a painful reminder of the pressure that television shows face today to pull audience numbers at all costs, often regardless of the creative fallout. Fortunately, while the show has a small viewership, its fans are rabidly loyal ones, rooting for the show with the same fervor that Dillon has for its Panthers. Which might be just what DirecTV recognized when it saved the series at the end of Season 2 with a revolutionary last-minute deal, giving the show a reprieve from cancellation.

That deal—and a subsequent one for the fourth and fifth seasons—was a game-changer not only for the television business (DirecTV has since made a deal with Sony Pictures Television for exclusive rights to two seasons of Damages) but for the show itself, which had ended its third season with Coach Taylor being pushed out of his job as football coach at Dillon High School (where Britton’s Tami is the principal) and being forced into the coaching position at the run-down East Dillon High, a racially mixed school.

Chandler’s Coach Taylor has had his share of obstacles over the years, as the two teams he coached—the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions—were often the underdogs, constantly having to beat back adversity to achieve a win.

That could be a clear analogy for Britton and Chandler’s own situation.

“We never had any sense of expectation or entitlement about it,” said Britton about being overlooked in the past. “We got nominated about two weeks before we were wrapping the show. It was definitely a bittersweet time… I feel it’s unfortunate that the show wasn’t nominated, but I feel that this is really a true acknowledgement of everyone.”

It’s been a long time coming. With the exception of a handful of technical nominations over the years, Friday Night Lights has been more or less shut out of the Primetime Emmys’ major categories until now. The innate strengths that have made the series so admirable—the way it captures the nuance of small-town life and the issues (everything from alcohol, drugs, and peer-pressure, to pre-marital sex, discrimination, and abortion) that it kicks up—might have also made it a perennial underdog to be recognized by the Academy, which tends to go for glossier dramas and fare with more mass appeal.

Scarily, the show’s unique qualities and its emphasis on preserving a grounded approach to its storytelling may have made it easier for the Academy to criminally ignore it, and for its broadcast network to undervalue it. (It hasn’t helped that NBC has chosen to air the series in the summer, months after the DirecTV window, rather than during the regular season, where it could attract a wider audience.)

Just don’t mention being Emmy race underdogs to Chandler.

“I’m not even thinking about it like that,” said Chandler. “I’m still trying to find my shoes that I’m going to wear. I’m definitely not going to write a speech, I can promise you that.” So no Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose-style speech then? “I’ll call Jason Katims and have him write something for me,” he joked.

Regardless of whether they win or lose, it’s only fitting that both Chandler and Britton should be nominated together in the same year. “That we were both nominated is a real commentary on how much people appreciate that marriage,” said Britton.

Both actors are figuring out what their next move will be, post- Friday Night Lights. Chandler is biding his time as he waits to see what other projects come up. And while Britton’s name has popped up on several media sites as the ideal candidate for NBC’s in-development American remake of Prime Suspect, she’s noncommittal about tackling a version of the role that Helen Mirren made famous.

“Well, there’s all kinds of conversations going on about all kinds of things,” said Britton, laughing. “If I’m going to do something different, I want it to be a real departure from that because Tami just has to stand alone.”

But before then, there’s still the fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights, which will air beginning in October on DirecTV (before making its way, likely next summer, to NBC). Both Britton and Chandler were tight-lipped about just where audiences will find Eric and Tami Taylor.

“We’re going to see dynamics between them that we haven’t seen before,” said Britton. “Kyle and I really noticed as we were playing the scenes, oh, wow, we’ve never gone here before; we’ve never done this before. It was really fun to find new nuances to the foundation of this marriage, to throw it in a different direction, and see how the marriage handles a new situation.”

Chandler, with his deadpan wit fully intact, offered a different—if completely fabricated—tease for the upcoming season.

“One of them dies,” he joked. “It’s a slow death, a 13-episode death scene.”

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.