The Friday Night Lights Series Finale
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on The Daily Beast on February 8, 2010, following Friday Night Lights' final episode on DirecTV's The 101 Network. On Friday, July 15, 2011, the series' NBC run came to an end.
Friday Night Lights, which wrapped up its five-year run last night on DirecTV’s The 101 Network, ended much as it had begun: with its heart full. The series finale gave its characters the happy endings—or new beginnings—that they so desperately deserved. (Spoilers ahead.)
For those who have fallen in love with this remarkable show, its conclusion arrives far too soon, following five seasons of compelling stories, brutal emotion, and, sadly, low ratings. But fans of Friday Night Lights have much in common with the show’s protagonists, who tend to be underdogs fighting against the big boys, and there’s a certain beauty and grace to the way that showrunner Jason Katims and his writing staff wrapped up this often poignant and profound show.
On its surface, Friday Night Lights seemingly revolved around football, which either united or divided the town, depending on the season, and which may have kept more than a few would-be viewers from tuning in. But what these individuals missed was a deeply intelligent, emotionally resonant show that offered a portrait of the ways in which human beings connect with one another, whether that be by supporting the same local team or living in the same house. Would they compromise or collapse, fight together, or against one another?
This was a drama that, unlike anything else on television, strived to depict the truth about everyday life, creating a town in Dillon, Texas where people attempted to improve their lives, to search for happiness, even though they often faced massive setbacks on their journeys.
“These are people who are not necessarily set up to have fabulous lives,” said Katims (who had previously written for My So-Called Life and Boston Public). “They’re people who are really struggling, people who are misguided, who haven’t necessarily been raised well. It’s really about this search for family and love and the wish to make their lives as good as they can be… It’s unique for those to be the concerns of… a television show.”
But where some shows focused on the soapy or the sordid, Friday Night Lights offered a contrast to overblown, hyperbolic primetime dramas. It was a show that thrived on the small minutiae, achieving a rhythm that captured the quintessential elements of real life, the overlapping conversations between spouses, the awkward silences, and those moments of glory that might come once in a lifetime. (The closest thing television has to this, in the wake of FNL’s passing, might be NBC’s Parenthood, which is also overseen by Katims.)
“The show has been able to get really deep into the lives of these characters in a way that’s really unusual,” said Katims. “Watching the episodes is more like reading a serialized novel.”
Katims is right: Over five seasons, there’s a strong arc to the series as a whole, held up by the story of the remarkable marriage of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton, who previously appeared on Spin City, 24, and in the Friday Night Lights feature film. Over five years, the Taylors and their marital struggles remained a touchstone within the series, the sort of idealized portrait marriage that nonetheless faced its own issues, raising questions of marital compromise, of sacrifice, and steadfastness.
“I appreciate the reality that we were able to achieve on our show and the truth of those moments,” said Britton, speaking to The Daily Beast last week. “Maybe the reason why our ratings weren’t so high and why there are still a lot of people who never made it to watching Friday Night Lights is because that reality and those moments of silence and that style did not appeal to them, but it’s a little bit for those reasons that the show is the way it is and why it is so deeply loved and also deeply, deeply missed.”
It was also a show that dared its characters to follow their own paths even as they became a community. The ending, fittingly then, came down to dreams deferred and those lived, with the characters embracing their various destinies and either breaking out of Dillon or choosing to remain in the small town that provided such a memorable backdrop for five seasons of stories and a sense of social awareness that tackled such hot-button issues as race, class, abortion, and sexuality with an honesty and sensitivity that’s rarely seen on television.
The show has, over the years, faced an uphill battle in terms of ratings. Following its critically acclaimed first season, the second season was thwarted by both an unexpected murder conspiracy plot and the writers’ strike of 2007, which truncated the season and left several plotlines dangling. NBC, seeing the devotion of the small but loyal fanbase, embarked on a landmark deal that enabled it to save the show and share it with DirecTV for a third season; a subsequent two-season pickup ensured that the show would, in fact, culminate in a fully realized ending. (Season 5 will air April 15 on NBC; a DVD release is set for April 5.)
Still, according to Katims, it’s not as though the writers chose to end the show when it did.
“That decision was really made for me,” Katims said. “It wasn’t like there was an option to go on further. What I am really thankful for is that we knew very early on, going into the fifth season, that it was going to be the final season of the show. That really allowed us to write toward something that we thought would be a satisfying ending.”
“I’d always pictured that the end of the show would be Coach and Tami leaving [Dillon],” he continued. “The season as a whole, particularly the last four episodes, were really moving toward that resolution… We really wanted to do an ending that was not mysterious or ended on a question. That wasn’t, in my mind, a real ending.”
What the conclusion of Friday Night Lights does achieve, in an age where profitable shows often overstay their welcome by several years, is to wrap up the storylines of Eric and Tami Taylor, of the football players on the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions, and offer each character a new beginning.
Like a great novel, these are characters that will resonate long after the final shot of the show, which depicts the Taylors united once more on a football field, this one in Philadelphia, where they have newly moved, their lives ahead of them. While there’s a sense of culmination and completion, the door is left open for the audience to continue to think about these individuals, to consider what the future holds for each of them.
“We’re all really grateful for the five seasons we had; that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have loved to have seen it go on because I think I could play that character forever,” said Britton. “It is the end of a really great experience in a beautiful world that we created by accident. I feel like it was a really wonderful journey. I mean, what are we going to do without Dillon? I don’t know.”
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.