Lights Out

On Wednesday night, Friday Night Lights aired its series finale on DirecTV, a few months before the entire season will air again 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 going to be writing more about the show this summer as it finishes its run on NBC, but for now I’ll just say this: 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.

11 responses to “Lights Out

  1. I tried to watch FNL because I respect your opinion and have a bit of a crush on Kyle Chandler – but I couldn’t get through the second season.
    I can empathize with your loss for a quality series that gets the axe though – like Arrested Development and pretty much everything Bryan Fuller creates.
    Oh well – makes me thankful for DVDs!

  2. Excited to see it on NBC in 2 months. It is definitely a show I’ll miss. Well said here, easily the most underrated tv show of the last decade.

  3. I know the series had obvious flaws and fails at being hip because its lack of grit and unabashed sentimentality, but Friday Night Lights may be the best drama series of all time.

    Rest.In.Peace. FNL

  4. Can’t wait to see the final series. Thanks for not spoiling with this post.

    On the shorter 2nd series with the silly murder plot:

    While the murder story-line is ill-advised, having lived in very small rural towns in Maine and Georgia I can confirm that crazy stuff does go on. Maybe not as obvious as FNL makes it but scary/random/bizaare stuff nonetheless. My grandmother lived for more than 30 years on her own in a little house in the backwoods of Maine to be waken one day by a SWAT team assaulting her neighbour’s house.

  5. My wife and I are watching Season 1 on DVD right now and loving it. Not looking forward to the Season 2 slump though.

  6. I do have to say though, it’s annoying how bad the actual football scenes are.

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  9. One of the most compelling TV episodes I’ve ever seen was the one that ended with Matt Saracen being thrown by Coach Taylor into a cold shower, yelling, “Everybody leaves me!” Despite the sometimes melodramatic plot lines, I was consistently impressed by the quality of the acting on FNL. I am deeply involved with these characters. Thanks for not spoiling the end. Texas (and Tim Riggins) forever.

  10. While season two often made me cringe (Santiago, the murder, etc.), if NBC ever sells Landry’s grandfather’s watch on eBay I will probably place a bid.

  11. Nice post. I have been struck as I watched the last few episodes how much this show stands out as an icon of these few years of my life. And while I love Mad Men and other shows they aren’t likely to represent this twenty-something era in my life as FNL has. And will. There is a truth to it that resonates, like recognizing something from your youth that suddenly means more now than it did when you were young. There are moments, conversations, people in our lives that will always be meaningful for how they changed us and in FNL we see moments like that. We can see ourselves. How many of us can see ourselves in Don Draper or Tony Soprano or in Deadwood? But we know what its like to live in Dillon Texas. We may never go to Texas but we live there all the same. And each week we were reminded why we cherish place and family and those moments where we can finally reflect on how far we have come.

    And, by the way, I actually think season two would have been well served by a more full slate. They could have tied some loose ends they were ultimately forced to abandon (Santiago, for one).

    Great show. I will miss that first experience with each new episode.

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