Tonight, Friday Night Lights airs its series finale on NBC. After five years and five stellar seasons, the under-rated show ended its run, and in characteristically poetic, elegiac fashion.
I remember back in the summer of 2006 when I first saw the pilot for Friday Night Lights. I was writing a Fall TV preview for Relevant and so the networks sent me all the DVD pilots of their new shows that season (including 30 Rock, Heroes & Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip… remember that one?). I had been a fan of the Peter Berg-directed film version of Lights, but I was admittedly skeptical about NBC’s serialized version. The pilot floored me. The characters were instantly real, recognizable, sympathetic. The solemnly nostalgic tone and uplifting ethos were evident from the get go. Coach Taylor and his motivational speeches. “We all fall.”
From there I was hooked. I told everyone I could to watch the show, the first season of which was among the most perfect single seasons of TV I’ve ever seen. By the end of the season, the show had won universal critical acclaim and a Peabody award, but its future was in jeopardy because, from day one and throughout its run, the show had inexplicably low ratings.
Lights premiered on NBC on October 3, 2006 (Tuesday night at 8pm) with decidedly disappointing numbers: 7.18 million viewers, 5.3/8 share, and 2.3/8 in the 18-49 demo. It was in third place in the time slot, and its numbers would only slide further with the second episode, which dropped to 6.28 million viewers (fourth place). By episode five, NBC moved the struggling series to a new time slot: Monday at 10pm, the normal spot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (itself a major ratings disappointment). Here Lights benefited from a lead in from Heroes, but still underperformed (8.26 million viewers, 5.3/9), representing a 41 percent audience erosion out of Heroes.
Still, the critical buzz for Lights was through the roof. Tom Shales of The Washington Post labeled Lights ”great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV” while The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan repeatedly proclaimed it “the best show on network television.” Perhaps the most common sentiment of the show’s surprising critical appeal was expressed in Tim Goodman’s review of the pilot in The San Francisco Chronicle: “Friday Night Lights is not good. It’s great… If viewers get over their preconceived notions about what they think this series is about and actually give it a shot, they’ll be as stunned as everyone else.”
Buoyed by glowing critical praise and a developing core fanbase, NBC ordered a full-season pickup for the show in mid-November, even as the ratings plateaued at seemingly cancel-able levels (around 6 million average viewers, with an average 7 share). After the holiday break NBC tried the show on Wednesday nights (8pm), with little evidence of ratings change. The show chugged along for its full 22 episodes with little improvement, with cancellation looming (and expected) as the season finale approached on April 1. Miraculously the network took a risk and–banking on the critical acclaim and “prestige” of the show (Emmy bait?)–renewed it for a 2nd season.
Perhaps because the show’s creatives felt pressure from the network to make the nuanced, understated show more edgy, youthful and soap opera-esque (as a strategy for winning over new fans), the 2nd season was tonally different than the first. There was an ill-advised murder plot. Diehard fans like myself felt let down, but we didn’t give up on the show. Thankfully the season was cut short due to the writer’s strike, forcing an abrupt but satisfying end to the show’s one off season.
The 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons of Lights were as nearly flawless as the first, and the show gradually engendered itself to new fans. When people discovered it, they got hooked, pouring through the early seasons on DVD in a weekend.
For me, my life from 2006-2010 can in part be marked by the various people I shared Friday Night Lights with–watching it together on holiday weekends, having season premiere parties, loaning out the DVDs to countless friends and family. It was a special show because it was so real to so many of us. We saw ourselves in these people, or saw models of people (Coach and Mrs. Taylor) we wanted to be.
I’m so thankful for Friday Night Lights–for so many reasons. It was a rare show that took beauty, truth and goodness seriously, and which favored earnestness and simplicity in a medium that increasingly seems to prefer gimmicky, trite, cynical and overblown. I appreciated Lights because of how complicated it was, how hard it was to classify. I appreciated it because it featured the best portrait of a marriage I’ve ever seen on television.
Lights was a show that made me buy DirecTV so I could watch it a few months before it aired on NBC. It’s a show that made me laugh and cry on numerous occasions. It’s a show that I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life, and one which television history will record as one of the best, most singular achievements of the form.
For more of my thoughts on Friday Night Lights, check out this piece–“Saying Farewell to the Best Show on Television”–which I wrote for Relevant Magazine.