Well, Friday Night Lights has officially ended, and for good this time. FNL has had more shots at an ending than any show not named One Tree Hill. The show’s first and third season finales were both written as potential series finales before late renewals extended its life. And for those who watched the fifth season when it initially aired on DirecTV, the series ended back in February. Even the DVDs were released in April, but the show’s final run on NBC finished up last night. So, sadly, Friday Night Lights, one of the best series of the last decade, is over.
And for all the controversial endings to classic shows over the last few years—The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, Battlestar Galactica—I’ve never been as upset watching a finale as I was watching the finale to Friday Night Lights.
The final image of the series was Eric and Tami Taylor walking off the football field. This was the perfect ending for the series… except that the football field was in Philadelphia, not Texas. The Taylors had fled Dillon, the show’s setting for all five seasons, so that Tami could accept the job of Dean of Admissions at the fictional college of Braemore.
Now, even ignoring the fact that Tami is woefully unqualified for this position,* I cannot think of any job that is more antithetical to the values FNL than the Dean of Admissions at an elite private liberal arts college in the Northeast. In terms of social utility, this job ranks somewhere between “prison librarian” and “the guy who tells you that you can’t bring that size bag on an airplane.” Tami Taylor left her job working as a dedicated but underappreciated high school guidance counselor so she could be an overpaid bureaucrat who will spend her days sifting through SAT scores and mendacious high school resumes to determine which students are most deserving of an overpriced education at an institution essentially designed to insulate itself from the realities of life that FNL has spent five years depicting.
*Here is her resume: She did not work for 15 years while raising her daughter. Then she got a job as a high school guidance counselor in a small Texas town. Two years into that, she was somehow promoted to principal—a job she held for two years before resigning in scandal after allegedly counseling a student to have an abortion. After one more year as a guidance counselor, she gets offered the position of Dean of Admissions at an elite private college. This is the most unqualified hire since Michael Brown.
Worse than that, she took her husband with her, forcing him to abandon the athletes who looked up to him. Tami guilted her husband into leaving behind his team just three episodes after his star quarterback showed up crying at his house, declaring that the coach had “saved [his] life” and begging him not to leave Dillon for a college coaching job. So just three episodes after making the point that Eric couldn’t bring himself to leave these kids even for a lucrative college job, he left those kids for his wife’s lucrative college job.
The show included the idea that Eric can “coach football anywhere” to palliate viewers, but this is what is most disconcerting about the ending: It’s technically true that Eric can be a coach in Philadelphia, but the entire conceit of the show was that FOOTBALL MATTERS MORE IN TEXAS. Yes, Taylor can coach a team in Philadelphia, and he might win a few titles, but he’ll never be the center of a community like he was in Dillon. He’ll never be the role model for his players he was in Dillon. He’ll never have a player show up on his doorstep begging him to stay. To put it in the show’s own terms: In Philadelphia, football is a sport, but in Texas it’s a way of life.
So in sending the Taylors off to Philadelphia, FNL substantially undercut its own themes. This is why finales matter so much. They serve as the closing arguments for a show’s themes. Whether or not Tony Soprano died at the end of “Made in America” is crucial because it determines, in some respects, whether the series was a narrative of karmic retribution, or one of perseverance. But the ending FNL provided was the equivalent of saying, “Coaching football is just a job, and it doesn’t make a difference where you do it,” which is a slap in the face to any longtime fan of the show.
Of course, this was not the only element of the finale, and casting aside that one crucial plot development, the series finale was a beautiful end to a fantastic series. It showcased the essence of small town life that the show had always been so good at illustrating: Matt proposing outside the Alamo Freeze, Tim building his own house, etc. It skillfully balanced the show’s large ensemble, both by reintroducing old characters and concluding the stories of the new ones. There were also great references to the pilot, both explicit (Landry remembering the first time Matt talked to Julie) and stylistic (opening with a series of TV interviews with the team).
There were probably one too many “state of our relationship” talks, but the show did a good job of treating them all as unique. Whereas Matt and Julie were pledging their undying love for each other,* Tim and Tyra were realizing how their plans for their futures diverged. Similarly, I liked that Becky was taken in by the Riggins family and that she was able to reconcile with Luke (in Luke’s typical gentlemanly fashion). Even Vince’s talk with Jess served more as an apology for his bad behavior than a declaration of love.
*While I rolled my eyes at the realization that Matt was about to propose to the only girlfriend he’d ever really had, I appreciated that the show had the good sense to treat the proposal as something of a pipe dream by showing the doubts Eric, Tami, and even Julie all had.
Season Five of FNL got off to a rocky start: Julie’s college romance with a professor was both a rehash of old stories and incredibly dull; Tami’s mission to save one forgotten student (who was puzzlingly named Epyck) was pretty generic, and the introduction Vince’s criminal dad started off as too rote.
As usual, though, FNL knew what it was doing and where each of these stories were going. Julie’s story ultimately grew into a story of someone who thought she was more mature than she turned out to be, and led to a great episode with her and Matt in Chicago. Vince’s relationship with his dad ended up being far more complex than I expected, and offered the show’s best look at the world of recruiting.* Even the Tami/Epyck story, which was never particularly good, at least helped illustrate Tami’s growing frustrations with working in a public school, which set up the (albeit atrocious) ending.
*It also eerily paralleled last season’s Cam Newton story, which probably seemed prescient while the show aired on DirecTV (since the Newton story was just playing out then), but hackneyed by the time viewers were watching on NBC (at which point the story had largely run its course).
As usual with FNL, the fifth season started to come together when it embraced the downside of life in Dillon, Texas. When Vince realized that his loyalty to his father was jeopardizing his future, or when Tim returned home from jail to see that his brother hadn’t made the changes he promised to, we got to see how certain crucial community bonds often let us down. Things like this, of course, only make the moments when someone comes through for someone else—like Coach Taylor turning down a better job—that much more meaningful.
Most fittingly, the end of the season brought the end of East Dillon, the new high school opened just a year ago. Closed due to the same budget crisis it was opened to solve (which itself is a nice commentary on public education), the closure of East Dillon meant that Coach Taylor’s final quest for a state championship took place in the face of his team’s dissolution. This was both absurd (How can you fold a team with a state championship?) and entirely appropriate (Of course the team with more history and the wealthier student body would remain.). Watching the team fight on as they faced oblivion was a great story to end the series with.
Perhaps the best aspect of the finale was its final moments. Rather than include yet another thrilling game as its climax, the finale depicted the state championship with hardly any dialogue or narration, relying primarily on music and images. This was a daring and rewarding choice, as it allowed the aesthetic of football to speak for itself. And letting the tracking show of the final Hail Mary—because of course there was a Hail Mary—lead into the final montage was another great example of the show’s visual style.
As for the final montage (excepting all the shots of the Taylor family fleeing Texas for Philadelphia), it was a great collection of images that underscored the very themes that the Taylor storyline undercut: Vince doesn’t get to play for his favorite coach, but he’s the star of the new Panther team. Tim doesn’t get Tyra or Lyla, but he finally builds his house and forgives his brother. Instead of a future as a football star, Luke joins the army, but he still has Becky. Matt and Julie are still together, but they have to say goodbye as she leaves for college.
This was what made Friday Night Lights such a good show: The acceptance that bad things happen to good people, but the honest depiction of how they tend to make the best of it.
Unless you’re Tami Taylor, in which case you get to take a glorified, overpaid job that you are hopelessly unqualified for and relocate your family from the small town they’ve known for ten years to one of the most noxious urban areas in the country…