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.

When the fourth season launched, viewers who spent three seasons cheering for the Panthers were suddenly watching Coach Taylor humbled, forced to don a cornea-searing red polo shirt, and struggling to build a team at the hardscrabble and woefully underfunded East Dillon High. The reinvention required some creative reorganization of the show's internal reality. Dillon, which had never seemed large or economically diverse enough to support a right and a wrong side of the tracks (much less two high schools), became a town bitterly divided by class.

More problematic was the task of making viewers care about a new core cast of high school characters, even while a couple of the original Panthers were in fact still hanging around West Dillon. The season vacillated between developing the East Dillon community and awkwardly wedged-in storylines involving former QB Matt Saracen and college dropout Riggins. Although the season did produce two of the show's most poignant moments as Saracen dealt with his father's death, and Riggins decided to take the fall for his brother Billy's chop shop, the focus on these fan favorites often relegated the new characters to the backburner.

The fifth season wisely focuses on the East Dillon characters, who are now more deftly drawn and involving. Viewers who haven't yet watched this season will likely be surprised to discover how invested they are in star quarterback Vince, feisty equipment manager Jess, kindly farmer Luke, and lovelorn Becky, who finds a home with the non-incarcerated members of the Riggins family. Julie Taylor is the one original teen character who maintains a constant presence throughout the season, in a college storyline that at first feels tedious and misplaced, but ends up resolving itself nicely. Other original characters return to tie up loose ends, but the appearances feel like a natural evolution in their stories. Their reunions capture the bittersweet nostalgia of growing up and returning to a home where everything and nothing has changed. "[Dillon] is a hard place to shake," one returning character observes with a mixture of love and resignation. I can't think of another American show that has taken such risks in shaking up its core cast and in its dedication to emotional realism. When the series is at its best, there is an effortless elegance to how the characters' lives intertwine and evolve and separate again in a way that mirrors the ebb and flow of real life. The show's journey has been as improbable and hard-fought as its characters' modest dreams. Fortunately for us, it won the opportunity to unfold on its own terms: as the embodiment of Coach Taylor's earnest motto that clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.