Are You Ready for Some Football? ‘Friday Night Lights’ Is (Almost) as Good as the Real Thing

"Friday Night Lights." (NBC)

Friday Night Lights” almost didn’t survive its first season. After it debuted on NBC in fall 2006 on Tuesdays, then was relegated midway through to—yep, the graveyard of Friday night at 8 p.m.—the drama about a Texas high school football team was low-rated but critically beloved. That’s often a recipe for instant cancellation, the fate suffered by Aaron Sorkin’s highly touted “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which premiered that same season.

The show—based on H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s best-selling novel and the Peter Berg-directed movie starring Billy Bob Thornton—lasted five seasons, with two of the last three premiering on DirecTV before shifting over to NBC, which still didn’t affect its loyal viewership.

Now available on Streampix, Friday Night Lights is the perfect candidate for binge viewing during the football season about to kick off. Not just the greatest TV series about sports, but one of the best dramas of all time, it also spotlights a modern marriage fraught with compromise between Kyle Chandler’s principled Coach Eric Taylor and his compassionate wife Connie Britton’s Tami, raising their precocious daughter, the lovely Aimee Teegarden. Ostensibly about high school football, “FNL” tackles the areas of family, community, faith and loyalty in a small Texas town with performances so attuned, the hand-held cameras that capture them make it seem like a documentary. And its emotional moments never fail to get me to well up with knowing tears at least once every episode.

Here’s a brief viewer’s guide to the five seasons:

Season One: Dillon High star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) gets knocked out of the team’s first game with a career-ending injury, opening up the spot for perennial benchwarmer Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), leaving his girlfriend Minka Kelly’s perky cheerleader Lyla Garrity to be consoled by resident blonde bad girl Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra. The conflict between Taylor’s integrity and used car dealer Brad Leland’s garrulous, sleazy anything-goes team booster Buddy Garrity (Lyla’s dad) strikes some dramatic sparks. Taylor Kitsch’s brooding, damaged alcoholic loner Tim Riggins also proved a breakout star.

Season Two: The heroic, but exasperated Coach Taylor is now commuting from Austin, where he’s an assistant coach at big college TMU, trying to be a husband and father, while at the same time giving the necessary 120% it takes to work at a major university football program. His wife is about to give birth, while 16-year-old daughter Julie seethes with resentment for her absentee dad, at the same time experiencing the sexual pangs of womanhood, which leads her to stray from Zach Gilford’s aw-shucks, straight-shooting QB Matt Saracen, to a scruffy punk-rocker. The new Dillon High coach, a real stickler, is making life miserable for both Tim Riggins and Buddy Garrity, while his daughter is now a born-again Christian.

Click the image below to watch every episode of “Friday Night Lights:”

Season Three: Returning to Dillon High, Chandler’s stoic Coach Taylor has to deal with a quarterback controversy between Zach Gilford’s incumbent but wobbly Matt Saracen and a hot-shot newcomer being pushed heavily by his father, while his supportive wife has been kicked upstairs from guidance counselor to Dillon High principal, where she battles for much-needed funds with Buddy Garrity, intent on installing a Jumbotron scoreboard on the Dillon Panthers’ home field. Taylor Kitsch’s charismatic but troubled star Tim Riggins and Minka Kelly’s ex-cheerleader and lapsed born-again Christian Lyla Garrity are now an item, while Adrianne Palicki’s sex siren Tyra Collette is trying to improve her grades enough to get into state college. Gaius Charles’ flashy running back Smash Williams, injured last year, is now working at the local ice cream joint, as Coach Taylor tries to build back his self-confidence. Jesse Plemons, now co-starring as hapless meth cooker Todd in Breaking Bad, shines as Sancho Panza to his best buddy Gilford’s Don Quixote.

Season Four: Coach Taylor is shunted aside to the downtrodden East Dillon High team after being ousted by his star quarterback’s rich and influential, but abusive, dad, bringing his
“Clear eyes! Full hearts! Can’t lose!” pep talk with him. The country’s downscale economy is reflected in last year’s displaced QB, Gilford’s sad-eyed Matt Saracen, forced to stay home and deliver pizzas instead of attending art school in Chicago to take care of his increasingly zoned-out grandmother, while Taylor Kitsch’s former star fullback, and now college dropout, Tim Riggins, is about to get kicked out of the house his brother shares with his new pregnant wife. The first episode finds the black players walking out en masse after Coach Taylor tries to discipline them, with all the messy racial issues that entails, while the part of Smash’ preening running back is taken by Michael B. Jordan, who joins up to avoid going to juvenile hall as conflicted star QB Vince Howard, forced into crime to send his mom to rehab.

Season Five: Virtually every one of the original cast has now graduated, but we are still left with what we’ve had from the beginning, a true-to-life saga of a middle-class family in the middle of football-mad Texas, trying to balance integrity with achievement, and stumbling as human beings all too often do. Chandler’s stern, but compassionate coach has been joined at East Dillon by Britton’s Tami, now a guidance counselor at the same downtrodden school where her husband coaches football, while Aimee Teagarden’s Julie attempts to adjust to her new life at college.

While football remains the fulcrum around which everything revolves, “Friday Night Lights” is more than just a TV show about sports, delving into small-town life, the pressures of college, the crisis of public education, broken families and the choices one must make between integrity and expedience. Layer in a variety of subplots revolving around the underdog football team and several high school romances and you have a neat combination of rooting interest and three-dimensional characters.

The mature, marital relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor at its center remains an optimistic, but not naïve, portrait of a loving, middle-class working couple trying to support each other in the midst of trying circumstances, both personal and economic. The rapport is so real between the two that you swear they were actually man and wife, mirroring the realism of the expertly shot football scenes themselves. This is one show about sports that can be enjoyed equally by both sexes.

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

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