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February 9, 2011 marked the final episode of NBC’s quiet but brilliant sports drama Friday Night Lights, whose legacy remains as one of the greatest series of all time. The finale “Always” was a perfect piece of television that not only provided expected closure, but also allowed us to let go of the small town of Dillon, TX that gave us so much during the show’s five-season run.
Before we walk down memory lane together, there’s something you should know about me. This show about high school football is my favorite of all time. I’m obsessed. I have magnets and T-shirts and posters, and all of the seasons on DVD. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton will forever smile down on my Twitter feed from their perch as my banner, and I even traveled to Austin in 2016 for the 5-year cast reunion at the annual ATX TV Festival. It was one of the first shows that really moved me in an inspirational way. I had Lost before it, which invited me into TV fandom with open arms, and was in awe of the ways storytelling rules could be bent. But it was Friday Night Lights that really made me a disciple of the medium; that made me fall in love with multilayered, character-driven storytelling, and inspired me to try my hand at screenwriting.
There are still new things to discover. Ten years later, there’s so much more to the show than its catchy motto “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” and the swoony men that inhabit Dillon. There’s more to it than football and winning State and a post-game celebration at the Alamo Freeze. No, a decade later, I find myself struck by the resilient women that cheered from the sidelines and threw booster fundraisers for the Dillon Panthers or the East Dillon Lions while simultaneously figuring out what they want in life. Even though it felt like their goals were on the periphery, they never lost sight of them, even when they seemed out of grasp.
The most obvious example is Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), whose Season 5 arc almost shatters the central relationship of the show, and for good reason. After years of dipping her toes into the waters of counseling and scheduling her life around the needs and desires of her husband, Tami finally realizes it’s her turn. She is offered a position as the Dean of Admissions at a college in Philadelphia, which would effectively upend Coach Taylor’s (Kyle Chandler) career down south. When she tells Coach, he’s less than enthused. His new team, the East Dillon Lions, are finally starting to gel and there’s a real chance that they could win State this year. But even beyond the prospects of the team, the fight stems from the fact that he’d never been challenged to put Tami’s dreams ahead of his own. For the first time in the entire series, I wasn’t rooting for Coach.
What I have always loved about Friday Night Lights is that the characters are forced to reckon with their actions. They confront them instead of running in the opposite direction, even if it takes time to react maturely. Coach remains high and mighty until the finale, when Tami’s unhappiness at his rigidity is palpable. After spending the episode preaching to his daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and her fiance Matt (Zach Gilford) about how marriage is about compromise, his own hypocrisy finally dawns on him. “Will you take me to Philadelphia with you please?” he asks Tami in the middle of the mall in his usual cheeky-yet-straight-to-the-point Coach Taylor way. As much as the Taylors are a football family, Tami’s life isn’t centered around the sport. And in a show about football, it’s special to see her win—to see her story on equal footing as her husband’s.
Tami’s mentee, Tyra Collette (Adrienne Palicki), is cut from the same cloth. In Season 1, Tyra is a bit of a deadbeat. She doesn’t really see a life beyond the confines of her hometown: her mom is an addict and her sister works at the local strip club, and nothing indicates that she won’t perpetuate the cycle. But with Tami’s guidance, Tyra allows herself to dream. She focuses on her education, gets into college, and escapes Dillon as soon as she can.
On the opposite end of that spectrum is a man trying to hold onto their glory days; in Tyra’s case, it’s her ex-boyfriend Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). After an unsuccessful stint at college and another one in jail, Tim is ready to accept the fate of a mediocre life. He has no aspirations beyond building a house, getting a job, and maybe getting “Texas forever” tattooed on his body. In “Always,” he tries to appeal to Tyra’s Tim-sized-soft-spot, suggesting they live happily ever after in this imaginary house. But after how hard she’s worked to get out, she can’t fathom being back, even if she can picture a future with him—even if it’s the best feeling she’s had in a long time. “I have dreams, Tim,” she says. Tyra is smart enough to put herself first, to see that the road ahead extends farther than even she can see. Friday Night Lights doesn’t force a fairy tale ending between the high school sweethearts—instead, it lets Tyra and Tim blossom in opposite directions.
Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) is the only woman on the show whose life does revolve around football, though her interest is unconventional—despite how much the sport dominates culture in Dillon, women aren’t expected on the field unless they’re in short skirts with pompoms. So when Jess wants to be the equipment manager of the football team, it’s no wonder that her star quarterback boyfriend Vince (Michael B. Jordan) isn’t exactly thrilled about her being in the locker room. But Jess doesn’t let anyone’s judgment get in her way, and soon enough she’s in Coach’s ear about shadowing him. Jess is boundary-breaking in her persistence and achievement, so when the finale flash-forward shows her in an assistant coach uniform in Dallas, it’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.
The elevator pitch for Friday Night Lights is that the show is about more than football. It’s about the small town folks that inhabit the stories, bringing humanity to our screens for 42 minutes at a time. And that adage is right. It’s as much about how football, hometowns, and big dreams shape us as it is about escaping those walls. The women of this show are never the primary characters, but in them are the reminder to take chances, to follow your heart, to embrace change.
Ten years later, I’m still learning from my favorite TV show. I’m learning from Tami’s insistence on an equal partnership, from Tyra’s self-worth even at her lowest moments, and from Jess’s perseverance to follow her heart. I’m watching Friday Night Lights with clearer eyes and I’ll cherish those lessons, always.
Watch on Peacock
Friday Night Lights is also available to stream on Hulu and Amazon with the Starz add-on.
Radhika Menon is a pop culture-obsessed writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her work has appeared in NY Post’s Decider, Teen Vogue, and will be featured in Brown Girl Magazine‘s first ever print anthology. She is a proud alumna of the University of Michigan and thinks she’s funny on Twitter.
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