Friday Night Lights

The beloved cult drama ended its five-season run last night with an emotional conclusion. Jace Lacob talked to Executive Producer Jason Katims and star Connie Britton about its legacy.

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Murder Conspiracy

Friday Night Lights’ fans haven’t always embraced every storyline equally. A controversial second season plot had Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) covering up a murder after they accidentally killed Tyra’s would-be rapist. While it pushed the two of them together relatively quickly (no bond like a murder conspiracy plot), it tested the suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Still, executive producer Jason Katims defended the storyline.

“Only because everybody has said they don’t like it, I would do it differently,” he said. “I didn’t expect when we were doing it that people would look at that as such a great tonal departure from the show.

“Ultimately, what that story serviced was Landry and Tyra’s connection to each other and the two of them falling in love,” he continued. “While people rejected the murder story, that relationship was something that was pretty much cherished by the fans.”

 

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Hastings Ruckle

Season 5 introduced a new character to the East Dillon Lions, Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), a “hippie” basketball player whom Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) encouraged quarterbacks Vince (Michael B. Jordan) and Luke (Matt Lauria) to recruit. But Hastings never received a storyline of his own, often having less dialogue than the Taylor’s toddler daughter, Gracie Belle.

“He did get [lost in the shuffle] a bit,” said Katims. “The plan was to expand that team a little bit. What we found in the course of the 13-episode season where we are coming to the close of these stories with characters that we’ve lived with for either two or five seasons, there wasn’t unfortunately that much room to sort of build on that with this new character. We definitely utilized him as much as we could find ways to. I think [Damon] did a great job doing that, but we just didn’t have the story time to service that character as much as we would have wanted to.”

 

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Teacher’s Pet

This season, Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) embarked on an affair with her married TA, which eventually put her on a path to marry her high school sweetheart, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), now an art student living in Chicago. It was a storyline that some viewers found challenging, though Katims defended the decision to push Julie into bed with Derek Bishop.

“Her affair and her struggle at the beginning of college was something that I really liked because… it wasn’t just, oh, she went off to college and got out of Dillon and lived happily ever after,” Katims said. “There was a struggle there and that seemed very believable that she would be going through. Julie seemed to me somebody who was in one way very mature and wise beyond her years and, in another way, still very young.”

“It was kind of a risky move, that whole affair with the TA,” said Connie Britton. “I think it was a hard one to tell and a hard one to sell… I wish we could have spent some more time seeing what led Julie to that place or see her spin out a little bit more. I think there are lots of different ways we could have gotten to the ending with Matt Saracen. I don’t know that it was a necessary choice, but it certainly [had] an impact.”

 

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Jason Street

While Scott Porter’s Jason Street, the paralyzed former star of the Dillon Panthers, turned up early on in Season 5, he was absent from the finale, which meant no final scene between Jason and best friend Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).

“What we tried to do at the end of the series and what we’ve always wound up doing was let our storytelling lead us to which actors we would bring back and when and how,” said Katims. “Ultimately, it’s about Tim and Billy and the reconnection with Tyra. Not every single thing is resolved. We did bring Jason back for that episode where you saw where he was now. There were other characters that we weren’t able to work in to the very ending of the show and the last season. But we tried to service as many characters as we could without making it feel fake, without making it feel like, oh, they’re bringing everybody back.”

Still, there was an homage to Jason Street right at the end of the finale, in his signature scrawled on the wall of the Panthers’ locker room.

“Those references to him were such a beautiful thing,” Katims said. “We really wanted… to allude to the legacy of the entire series: seeing Smash on TV, Street’s name in that locker room, having that ‘Clear Eyes’ sign restored back in West Dillon. Even the interview scene in the opening of the last episode, when the team was being interviewed on the field, we really wanted it to feel like how it was in the pilot.”

 

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The Taylors

Things looked bleak for Tami and Eric (Kyle Chandler) as their relationship was pushed past the breaking point this season when Tami got a great job offer as Dean of Admissions at a prestigious college in Philadelphia and Eric did not want to leave Dillon. At one point, the possibility of a separation, so previously unthinkable, actually seemed possible.

“It was really challenging to go to those places,” said Britton. “We definitely were squabbling with each other in those last couple of episodes. Sometimes, it’s hard to separate reality from fiction. It took us both as actors to a different place in terms of our working together.”

Katims didn’t worry that the audience would feel unsympathetic towards Eric during this conflict, given that the exchanges between the two characters felt so honest.

“They’re both struggling in a very honest way to make a decision about this,” said Katims. “Ultimately, when he does come around at the end, I feel like that moment is really earned. If he were basically just to say, ‘Okay, let’s move to Philly,’ I don’t think it would honor his connection to the town and being a coach in that town.”

Britton agreed. “Kyle was really brave in the way he played it,” she said. “There were scenes I was like, ‘You are an asshole right now.’ He was having temper tantrums… because he is not used to having his foundation rocked like that, especially by Tami.”

 

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Graduation

Friday Night Lights never backed away from taking risks. After all, this is a show that saw many of its lead characters graduate high school and leave, returning in later seasons to pick up their storylines. Katims made sure to tie up storylines involving early cast members—including Taylor Kitsch’s Tim Riggins, Scott Porter’s Jason Street, Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen, Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra Collette, and countless others—by the end of the show’s run. (Even Gaius Charles’ Smash Williams gets a mention, appearing on television in one scene, though Minka Kelly’s Lyla Garrity doesn’t appear in the final season.)

“We made a decision at the beginning of the third season that these people were going to have to eventually graduate and rather than avoid that, to lean into it and say that season is about… coming of age and change,” said Katims. “It was a really, difficult decision to make because we love those actors so much.”

While many moved on, others, such as Tim Riggins, would end up staying in Dillon.

“One of the choices we made that I really love is how Tim Riggins doesn’t want to leave,” said Katims. “There’s this assumption about Dillon and small towns like that, that if you don’t leave, you’ve failed, that you have to go on to bigger and better things. I’ve always loved Tim Riggins’ love for that town. There is, in all of the characters, a push and pull there between wanting to break out of that place… and the [lure] that the town has on them.”

 

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Tami Taylor: Feminist?

While the show began with Britton’s Tami as a housewife considering returning to work, her character took on more professional responsibility as the seasons wore on. Throughout it all, she’s juggled the demands of motherhood (including an unexpected second child in Gracie), her own career (as a principal, a guidance counselor, and finally a college dean), and with being the dutiful wife.

“These are universal issues,” said Britton. “If you are in a committed marriage and you want to stay that way, in this day and age with both people working, which most people have to do nowadays with the way the world is, there can also be conflict especially if you are seeking out or trying to be satisfied with your job.”

“I think accidentally Tami becomes this sort of feminist figure,” she continued. “I love the irony of that because of course she has been a coach’s wife. She has been utterly dedicated to that. It is only a testament to both of them that she was, within the framework of that, allowed to also pursue her own career and her own passions… The idea that we see our coach have to face the question of whether he will leave… this small Texas town for his wife’s sake? There is just something very poetic about that.”

 

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Home

“We never built a set,” said Katims. “Everything was real. We shot in Texas. Those were real stores and houses and schools and fields.”

That verisimilitude shone through in every sequence, enabling the show to offer a nuanced portrait of life in small-town Dillon. Even the house that Eric and Tami lived in was an actual home, something that came across in every scene.

Given how much Friday Night Lights often focused on family matters, it’s only fitting that Britton’s fondest memories of her time on the show are some of the simplest moments on set, in the Taylors’ home. Production would film all the scenes set in the house from a specific episode over the course of one day, said Britton.

“Those were always really fun days because the whole crew and everybody just settled into that house, which came to feel like everybody’s house really,” said Britton. “Kyle would always make bacon… so the place would smell like bacon. Everybody was eating bacon sandwiches. We are all just sitting around waiting to shoot the scenes. It just felt like family.”

 

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Awards

Despite the critical acclaim the show has received over the years, Friday Night Lights has seemed awards-proof. While Britton and Chandler were nominated last year for Primetime Emmy Awards (along with Rolin Jones for writing the Matt Saracen-centric episode “The Son”) and the show has received a Peabody and a Humanitas, the Emmys have yet to smile on this remarkable show.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” said Katims. “My hope is that this show will continue to be seen and people will continue to find it. If it did get one of the big awards, that would be the silver lining for me and, oh, maybe more people would see it… While we’re not making new episodes, I think that there’s an audience out there that hasn’t found the show yet that I think will.”

 

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What’s Next for Britton?

For her part, Britton said that she’ll “infinitely” miss the partnerships she formed with Chandler and Katims over the years on Friday Night Lights, and that the collaboration she enjoyed has left her “in a tricky spot.” So how do you follow up Tami Taylor?

“You know how? You go in a very different direction,” said Britton, who is said to be developing a drama script with The Fighter director David O. Russell for FX, which she would star in, should the project move forward.

“For me, collaboration is key,” she said. “That was one thing that I learned from doing this show. Not only because I enjoy collaborating so much with my fellow actors and the writers and the producers and directors, but also because I know it will make me better… Because the experience of Tami was so complete and so rich for me, I am looking to do something that stretches different muscles. Hopefully, I will be surprised again as I was with this.”