FNL’s pilot begins with Eric Taylor about to start his first season as the head coach of the Panthers. It’s early on the Monday before that first game (Monday being, a voice-overed morning-radio DJ reminds us, “four days until Friday night”); in the background, as the show’s roving camera provides a tour of the Odessa-esque town—chain-link fences, aluminum siding, power lines, sweeping skies—the DJ takes calls from Dillon residents who are passionately predicting the performance Coach Taylor will coax from his team on Friday. Viewers see Eric walking the immense football field, alone, acutely aware of the pressure he’s under.
But then the montage shifts, abruptly, to all the other people who are feeling the same pressures: There’s Tim Riggins, the Panthers’ running back, passed out on his couch; there’s Tyra Collette, his girlfriend, next to him; there’s Matt Saracen, QB2, doing the dishes; there’s Grandma Saracen, in her living-room rocking chair, watching QVC.
Often a show’s pilot will, in retrospect, reveal its youth, differing in style and in tone from the episodes that came after it found its rhythm. Not so FNL, which from the outset seemed to know—down to its subtle soundtrack, down to its purposely shaky camera work—what it wanted to be. The pilot’s opening scene foreshadowed the kind of quiet impressionism that FNL would embrace, again and again, throughout its five excellent seasons. It also foreshadowed the approach that you might call the “friendly panopticon”: Everyone, here, is seen. And everyone, here, is capable of seeing.
Throughout the seasons, minor characters had a way of making themselves major. Joe, the stage-managing father of the phenom quarterback J.D. McCoy, began as an occasional pest when he first moved to Dillon, in season three; by season four, he’d shaken up Dillon football—and the Taylors’ (and everyone else’s) lives. Same with Vince’s dad in season five. And same with, basically, everybody else in Dillon and, later, East Dillon: Jess affects Vince affects Eric affects Tami affects Julie affects Matt affects Landry affects Tyra affects Lila affects Tim affects Jason … and on and on it goes.
It’s the ultimate cliché—connections, chain reactions, butterflies and their wings—yet in FNL’s telling, it never reads as trite. Instead, under the executive direction of Peter Berg, the characters who would seem to embody the most tired of high school stereotypes (the perky cheerleader, the swaggering jock, the nerd) reveal themselves, systematically and subtly and inevitably, to be so much more—and to find their more-ness specifically through their interactions with other characters. FNL took the physical premise of the small town, where people constantly ping against each other like pinballs, and transferred it to TV.
And then, just as importantly: It showed those people struggling and striving and doing what they had to to get by. In a television landscape that largely obscured notions of class and financial struggle, FNL grappled explicitly with money, and with the psychic strain that so often accompanies its absence. The Riggins brothers and their foraging of copper wire. Jason Street teaming up with them to flip a house in a down market. The Taylors giving up their dream home—another turn of events foreshadowed in the series’ pilot—once they realized how much stress the higher mortgage payments would add to their lives. Tyra and Julie working at Applebee’s; Matt and Smash working at the Alamo Freeze; Vince working at Ray’s BBQ. A crucial element of FNL’s expansive empathy was to recognize the ways that money can serve as its own kind of supporting character.