Clear Eyes, Full Hearts…

Thank you, Friday Night Lights.

The best series that no one ever saw just concluded in its fifth season, leaving me wondering just how in the hell it is that so few of my friends have ever seen an episode.  How the little-show-that-could continually fought cancellation only to be thrown a lifeline by DirecTV’s Channel 101 because NBC decided it would rather air such television classics during non-summer viewing seasons as I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! and Undercovers.

I’m admittedly a bit of a TV snob.  Yes, I judge you for watching terrible reality shows.  No, your DVR shouldn’t be overflowing with MTV programs.  And it’s true, Glee is just an Old Navy commercial with a larger budget and slightly more-intelligible script.  I’ve seen all the “great” series, all the universally-revered, best-of-the-decade programs.  But few, if any, maintained the same integrity and grace over their duration as Peter Berg’s based-on-Bissinger brainchild.

Of course, like any series, there were flaws.  The second season was largely forgettable, to the point where I told my parents to skip it entirely when they began watching the series.  Normally an entire terrible season would register as a series-killer, but as the writer’s strike completely screwed over the show and threatened future seasons, I really just write it off as an unfortunate block of dead-end stories that can be easily ignored by jumping to season three.  There were also unlikable characters at times, or at least unlikable in certain seasons.  I’m thinking of season four Becky in particular.

But it still strikes me how graceful this show was, how well it knew its characters.  So many series, even ones I like, are guilty of out-of-character moments.  Dexter is practically a 300-level course in these incidents.  But FNL was always true to its characters.  It knew them.  We knew them.  They stayed true to themselves and the series.  And there’s a certain grace in that, you know?  A certain respect for the audience and the story being told.  It was never, season two excluded, about cheap plot tricks or shortcuts in advancing the story, it was always driven by the characters through success and failure, through joy and pain, loss and gain and something else that rhymes here.

I had a rare feeling I’d only really remembered sensing previously with The Wire: wow, the writers actually respect me as a viewer and I respect their tireless dedication to their craft as a result.

FNL was never cheap and always did more with less, which might qualify as its most impressive feat.  It turned a bunch of no-name or fringe actors into rising stars.  It gave us five seasons of flawless performances from Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, both of whom should share an Emmy and/or Golden Globe on accomplishment alone, honestly (but after seeing a certain Baltimore bureaucratic system study strike out, don’t be surprised if it’s instead bested by a certain cardboard-cutout FOX musical scripted by the guy who managed to take Nip/Tuck from top 10 to butthole of television in less than two years.)

There was also always a certain dignity in FNL’s simplicity, its refusal (again, second season excluded) to stray from its picture of Dillon and bombard us with images irrelevant to the story being told.  There were no explosions and gunshots were minimal.  There were no car chases or cheap twists or throwaway kill-offs.  There was just Dillon, Texas forever.  For this reason, I would put FNL up with the previously-mentioned Wire and Deadwood as my top three favorite series of all-time (though Breaking Bad might have something to stay about that before all is said and done.)  What do all three of those shows have in common?  They’re about a wide cast of characters, all deep, all with unique personalities and struggles and goals within the context of their own world, in FNL’s case in the context of living in Dillon, and that’s it.  The story compliments the characters and the setting, it doesn’t exist for its own sake, for purposes of shocking or manipulating the audience.  The characters have depth.  The setting is tangible.  We know and love these characters and this place because, over time, we grow to appreciate those things.  We take that journey with them, and thus are introduced and invested within the story naturally, not artificially.

FNL was always an underdog.  The networks always said it couldn’t make it, that nobody would care about a high school football drama.  But as critics slowly discovered, it was so much more than that.  Football was just the catalyst, the common bond between characters that suited up and characters that could not plan their exit from Texas fast enough.  NBC always pushed it back, eventually agreeing to air it in the dreaded summer viewing season, and as a result, America largely forgot about the show after the first season.

That’s a damn shame.

What America missed, while it was so busy digesting retread reality shows and canned sitcoms, was one of the finest series in television history.  Now that it’s over, I fully appreciate just how good it was and comparably how bad most television is, which is why I mostly only watch live sports on TV…there are only a handful of truly worthwhile series on right now.  It’s too bad that America mostly missed out on one of the most quintessentially-American shows to have ever been aired, a case study of an average American town and the complications of the average people living within.

FNL’s mantra was always clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.  And now it all makes sense.  That formula birthed a series that had too much integrity and heart to ever lose, no matter what the networks said.

So thank you, FNL.  I can only hope your courage and ability to stay true to yourself inspires some other underdog out there to ignore the networks and strive for something even half as great.

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