Friday Night Lights Democratized TV Drama

The NBC show, which premiered 10 years ago today, operated under the assumption that every person in the series had a story worth telling.

Tim, Jason, and Smash—walking the field before everything changed (NBC)

Football is a team sport in the deepest sense. The game may be most readily associated with its brutalities—hard helmet against soft flesh, foot against turf, the pounding and the scraping and the crunching—but it is also, in its way, delicate. Each play is a ballet in miniature, a work of intricate choreography that casts every player as a crucial member of the corps; the quarterback and his receivers may be the most visible to viewers, yes, but to win—to get that weird little ball over that fixed little line, as many times as it takes—everyone must run the route set out for them. In football, as in so many other things, it can be hard to tell where the “I” ends and the “we” begins.

The sales pitch for Friday Night Lights, the NBC drama that premiered 10 years ago today, is that it was about football but also totally not about football. The central sport, here, was simply a vehicle that allowed the show to explore ideas like community and competition and diversity and adversity and—if you’re laying the pitch on especially thick—the triumph of the human spirit.

The pitch was correct: Friday Night Lights is a show that is nominally about the Panthers of Dillon High School in Dillon, Texas, but that is really about all the people in the team’s orbit. It’s a serialized celebration of football’s ensemble act. Each player, here, whether central or supporting (and whether on the team, or simply around it) matters. FNL, when it premiered in 2006, rejected decades’ worth of sitcom-driven logic—the hermetic, hierarchical universe—in favor of a format that dared to suggest that every supporting character could also double as a star. The show took the everyone-has-a-story premise of the soap opera and turned it into high art.

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.

That was just one more way that FNL anticipated the current era of literary television. The narrative assumptions that made the show so exceptional—and that cemented its place in the canon—are increasingly common today, 10 years later, encoded in shows like Orange Is the New Black, and You’re the Worst, and Jane the Virgin, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. While FNL wasn’t the first series to apply the structure of the soap-opera to televised literature—it was one of a trend-setting group that included The Wire and The Sopranos and, slightly later, Breaking Bad and Mad Men—it was uniquely systematic in its insistence that each character get their due. The show would take care to give special moments to the running back Smash Williams’s mom. And to Buddy Garrity, the smarmy car dealer and football booster. It would offer long-term character arcs to the paralyzed Jason Street, and to the pheromone in bootcut jeans that is Tim Riggins, and to the husband-and-wife duo who may be the best couple ever presented on television: Tami and Eric Taylor.

There are minor characters and major ones in all this, certainly—it would be narrative anarchy without that—but FNL, much more than most shows that preceded it, took for granted the dignity of each character in its universe. It rejected sitcomic snobbery in favor of a broader embrace of its wide array of characters. It turned empathy into an aesthetic.

FNL’s October 2006 premiere date meant that it first aired half a year after Twitter launched and just a month after Facebook expanded its service beyond colleges and universities. On the surface, the show— adapted from both the 1990 Buzz Bissinger book and the 2004 film of the same name—acknowledged basically none of that cultural context: It paid extremely little attention to digital technology (save, perhaps, for several scenes in season three that find Landry sending needy text-messages to Tyra’s flip phone). In another way, though, FNL anticipated the digital age better than most other shows of its time. If there’s a prevailing ethic to the current cultural moment, it is one that comes to us by way of social media’s new affordances: We are newly recognizing—and grappling with—the power of the individual voice, and the worth of the individual experience. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone, too, deserves to tell that story.

Which brings us back to football, the sport that is also a mindset—and, extended ever so slightly, a political declaration. In one of the final scenes of Friday Night Lights’s pilot, in the first of the many dramatic games the show would portray, the Panthers are down 21 to 24. Jason Street has just been hurt; no one, at that point, knows how severe his injury is. All they know is that they want the Panthers to win, for Jason and for the whole community. The center snaps the ball; Matt Saracen, the untested quarterback, stumbles with it; he recovers; he runs. The show’s camera slows. It pans to the coaches, and the cheerleaders, and the crowd. Matt eludes a tackle. And another one. The clock runs out. He plants his feet. He throws.

And then the pilot of Friday Night Lights serves up the image the show will return to, again and again, over its five remarkable seasons: a football hurtling through the air, against a wide and darkened sky, above the crowds and over the lights, arcing and spinning and hoping—assuming—that someone will be there to catch it.