Kyle Chandler’s win for Best Actor in a Drama Series at the Emmys was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night. For fans of the show like myself, it was sweet vindication that’s been a long time coming (along with showrunner Jason Katims Emmy for Best Writing). Friday Night Lights has always been a critical darling, but the ratings were never anything to write home about. And that’s a real shame because the series was one of the best things television has ever had to offer.
In honor of all the pilots that are rolling out this week, I thought I would go back and take a look at the homerun that was the Friday Night Lights pilot . I think the first thing that has to be said about this series is that it never was a show just about football. It’s at its heart for sure, but what defined Friday Night Lights was its portrayal of small town Texas. This was a realistic look at a community in Middle America that came together around one thing… football. And even though it was on a major network for its first two seasons, it never shied away from touchy subjects. It dealt with real-life issues and themes like drugs, racism, and socioeconomics; things that were and still are relevant to this day. It also featured characters that weren’t shallow caricatures of real people and relationships that were just as believable as they were dramatic. Check out this promo trailer the show put together for the Emmys:
Good pilots are something of a rarity They are extremely difficult to pull off. In fact, we never get to see most of the pilots a network orders in a given season because they end up not meeting expectations. Why is making a pilot so hard? It has a lot to do with what a pilot episode entails, mainly juggling so many things in a limited amount of time. A pilot has to quickly introduce its characters, setting, and premise. It also has to establish tone, relationships, and the direction of the show. And it does all of this while attempting to keep an audience interested enough to tune in for the next episode. If just one of these balls hits the ground you could be looking at a pretty quick cancellation. Keeping all that in mind makes you appreciate the opening of the Friday Night Lights pilot that much more.
In the span of five minutes, we meet nearly all of the major players of the series, have a pretty solid understanding of who they are as people, and are introduced to many of the key relationships that will drive the story forward from the this point on. We’re also find out that this show is a serious drama that takes place in Dillon, Texas. More importantly, all of this information isn’t jammed down our throats. The writers clearly knew they had a lot to get across in a short period of time, so they got creative. Take a look at this clip:
By bringing in a news crew the writers are able to get out key pieces of character and backstory in a more organic fashion that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the episode or make it feel like exposition. It’s also a nice little touch that we’re basically getting character bios straight from the horse's mouth. All of this ends up bringing the audience deeper into the story, because they become invested in the characters from the get-go. Think about it. The more you know about someone, the more you empathize with them. And, in a big ensemble like this, you can’t underestimate just how important that is.
Another thing this pilot does exceptionally well is set up the stakes for Coach Taylor right from the opening frame. This is a town that takes its football seriously and demands nothing less than perfection. The stakes are extremely high for Coach Taylor and he knows it. Win and he’s a hero, lose and he’ll eventually be run out of town. The season hasn’t even started yet, but the expectations are through the roof. When we see Coach Taylor standing on the football field alone as calls pour into the radio station we understand this immediately. We’re also getting some foreshadowing of things to come. Every single person in Dillon has an opinion on the Panthers. Eventually, Coach Taylor is going to feel like he’s taking on the entire world by himself. And the one place he can always retreat back to is the football field.
I said earlier that this is a show that’s about more than just football and the pilot does a really good job of communicating that early and often to viewers. Walking hand in hand with this is the vast potential for conflict and, as a result, drama the pilot creates. Let’s take a quick look at what I’m talking about. Matt Saracen is the backup quarterback that no one really cares about. He’s relegated to riding the bench and picking through the garbage for lost play sheets. His journey, however, is so much deeper than that. He’s also the man of the house and caretaker for his Grandmother. An idea that becomes more and more prominent as the season continues. We also see the early signs of domestic strain between Coach Taylor and his wife, a strong disdain between Smash and Riggins, Saracen’s crush on the coach’s daughter, and Tyra’s free spirited ways, just to name a few. These are the types of storylines that really make the show click and create the powerful drama we saw week in and week out.
But what really makes all of this work is how everything smacks of realism. When you’re in high school you tend to treat everything in absolutes (like a Sith!). Everything feels infinitely more important than it really is and when it goes wrong it's like the end of the world. Friday Night Lights does an amazing job of capturing this naivety. To these kids there is nothing else beyond what’s happening in the moment. As a result, things almost always feel like they’re life and death, even if they’re not. Again, it’s just like being back in high school. And, when the stakes feel this high, the emotional impact ratchets up a notch as well.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire pilot is when the Panthers visit the peewee team. This sequence perfectly encapsulates the Dillon community. These kids heroes aren’t some professional athletes, they’re Dillon’s own Panthers. It shows just how important this team is to this town. It's an intrinsic relationship that has a cyclical nature to it. These kids idolize their high school counterparts and dream of putting on that uniform. In a few years, they’ll get their chance and a new batch of youngsters will take their place. The other thing you have to remember here is that a bunch of high schoolers, kids no older than 18, have the hopes of an entire town resting on their shoulders. It’s a tremendous burden for anyone to bear, let alone a bunch of kids.
I haven't even gotten into the last part of the pilot that revolves around the season opener. The buildup to the game is what really sells it for me. Everything in the pilot has been leading to this moment and you understand just how much weight is being placed on this game and, consequently, the lives of our characters. The shot of Riggins shaking with intensity in the locker room captured all of that so succinctly. Instead of ruining it with my words, I'll let the powerful last couple of minutes of the pilot speak for itself:
Often times this docudrama kind of style is misused by filmmakers. It ends up seeming more like a gimmick as opposed to a powerful storytelling device. That's not the case here. Peter Berg uses this style masterfully and allows it to heighten the inherit drama and tension in the piece. He deserves a lot of credit for the success of the series. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Explosions In The Sky somewhere in here. Their music is a perfect marriage to this story and really sets the mood for the drama that follows.
This is seriously one of the most underrated shows in recent memory. To this day I'm still shocked it hasn't caught on. It literally has something for everybody. If you haven't seen it yet, you can watch the pilot and more episodes by clicking here. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's one of the greatest shows to ever hit the airwaves .