How 'Friday Night Lights' Made It to Five Seasons

The low-rated show managed to avoid the fate of "Firefly" and "My So-Called Life." Why?

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The strange and charmed saga of Friday Night Lights begins its final chapter on tonight, when the show's fifth season premieres on NBC. The 13-episode season already aired late last year on DirecTV and was released on DVD last week, raising the question of whether any die-hard fans are left to see the show ride off into its network televised sunset. But very little about this lovely and perennially low-rated portrait of small town life and high school football has followed a traditional path.

A ratings-starved show with a devoted following can hope to eke out maybe a season or two on the power of fan love, but the list of great shows that had their lives cut short runs deep. My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Firefly (to name just a few) all got just one season. What makes Friday Nights Lights so special that it was able to wrangle five seasons while other passionately loved shows died prematurely? Maybe nothing more than it had the good fortune to come along at a time when a cost-sharing scheme between NBC and DirecTV was possible. But perhaps it also survived because it embraced reinvention in a way that few other shows would dare.

The DirecTV partnership allowed Friday Night Lights to shake off a disappointing second season—despised even by ardent fans for a nonsensical murder storyline, among other questionable character choices—and return to the quiet moments and small-scale dramas that it rendered so beautifully in its first season. Still, by the time season 3 kicked off, the show was straining credulity with the amount of time its teenage characters had spent in high school. Were we really supposed to believe that beefcake fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who easily looked 25 in the pilot episode, was just a sophomore when the series started?

Transitioning teenage TV characters into their post-high school lives is challenging at best, and most teen series choose to lurch awkwardly into college. This was not an option on FNL, in which the town of Dillon, Texas and the relationship between its adult leads—Eric and Tami Taylor (consistently played to perfection by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton)—are the show's anchor and heart. Mercifully, the show's creators decided against creating a Dillon Community College so the entire cast could matriculate together and continue to spend their afternoons hanging out at the Alamo Freeze, a la the Peach Pit from Beverly Hills 90210. Instead, the FNL team made their boldest Hail Mary pass to date, stripping Eric of his job as a head coach of the Dillon Panthers and packing him off to lead the newly created East Dillon Lions.

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Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in New York. She has contributed arts and entertainment coverage to the L.A. Weekly, The Awl, and PopMatters.

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