‘Friday Night Lights’ Final Season Premiere Is Made To Win

Aimee Teegarden and Jesse Plemons on Friday Night Lights (DirecTV)

Aimee Teegarden and Jesse Plemons on Friday Night Lights (DirecTV)

Tonight, the fifth and final season of ‘Friday Night Lights‘ premieres on NBC (8/7c).  The show’s storylines have subtly mirrored the history of the critically acclaimed but low-rated show.

The drama began as 2006’s most highly touted new series, with a good time period in NBC’s fall line-up.  It chronicled a powerhouse small town Texas football team that was always a contender for the state championship.  Given that it was based on a bestselling book and a hit movie, there was every reason to believe the television adaptation would be equally popular.

Despite glowing reviews, barely anybody watched.  The show was lucky to be renewed.  Its weaker second season was hurt by both NBC’s insistence on adding a sensationalistic murder plot to the starkly realistic show and the writer’s strike.  It was on the verge of cancellation when DirecTV rescued it by agreeing to co-finance the show in exchange for airing it before NBC, in the process cutting subsequent seasons to thirteen episodes and slashing the show’s budget to about half that of the typical network series.

Preview The Final Season

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The show’s premise eventually changed, as Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) moved from coaching the top-ranked wealthy Dillon Panthers, to the impoverished underdogs, the East Dillon Lions.  It is easy to see the Lions as a stand-in for the show’s writers, directors and actors who have fought so hard to make arguably the best drama on network television only to be ignored by the audience.

The show has never won a major Emmy, despite an expensive awards campaign this past season.  FNL even recently suffered the indignity of having its reruns canceled by ABC Family due to low ratings just a couple months after the network began airing them.

The series, like its characters, refuses to give up.  The fifth season premiere is all about soldiering through tough situations without complaining.  The characters suffer but they never give up, and, as Coach Taylor assures them, they are occasionally rewarded with moments of triumph that are all the sweeter for the suffering they endured to get there.  The Lions have gained a measure of confidence from their victory over the Panthers in last season’s finale, but they still expect to get crushed in their first game of the season since they are playing the state champions.  Eric seeks to shore up his roster by stealing a talented newcomer, the excellently named Hastings Ruckle, (Grey Damon, ‘True Blood‘) from the basketball team.  The CW-gorgeous Damon brings enough charm and sex appeal to the anti-status quo Ruckle to evoke comparisons to Taylor Kitsch.

The show has always focused on the differences between the parented and the parentless.  The teens who have families thrive.  Those without — and in East Dillon that’s nearly everybody — are always on the verge of disaster.  This season, the gap between the two groups has widened.   The original cast members from the most functional families – Julie (Aimee Teagarden) and Landry (Jesse Plemons) – are off to good colleges.  Julie cannot wait to leave her parents’ house, while Eric and Tami (Connie Britton) wish they could prolong her stay at home.

Vince (Michael B. Jordan), whose Mom has apparently stayed sober since her stint in rehab, now has joined the ranks of the reasonably well parented and is able to step up and help the newly parentless Jess (Jurnee Smollett), who finds herself raising her younger siblings with her aunt’s help while her father sets up franchises of his restaurant in another city.  On any other show, Jess’s father would portrayed as a terrible parent.  In the universe of Dillon he is the rare character with the opportunity for upward mobility.  It goes without saying that he and Jess will make whatever sacrifices it takes to better themselves.

Game On! ‘Friday Night Lights’ Welcomes Back Two Favorites

Becky (Madison Burge) has also lost her family to their jobs.  Her previously supportive mother has left her with her father while she works on a casino boat.  Since he’s a truck driver, that means Becky is stuck living with a stepmother who makes it clear that she resents her presence.  Poor Becky is absolutely powerless.  This is an all too real situation, as the recession forces families to split up in order to survive.  No other television show dares to address it because, well, viewers apparently hate shows that reflect their own lives.

So it’s natural that the character with the worst life is the one with the worst parents, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).   He has had one of the most epic downward spirals in television history.  In two years he has gone from state champion with an athletic scholarship to inmate.  It’s been devastating watching him squander every opportunity that has come his way.  Worst of all, he is in prison largely because he took Coach’s lessons about manning up to help others too far and took the rap for his shiftless brother Billy’s (Derek Phillips) crime.  Now not only must he endure prison, his brother is stealing his life, getting the job as the Coach’s assistant that even Eric knows should be Tim’s.

It is the character’s hardships that make the football sequences so powerful.  These kids deserve a victory on the field since they so rarely get them in real life.  So what if the games often involve improbable plays and unlikely strokes of luck? Every now and then, the underdog wins.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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