July 14, 2011

One more Friday night with Coach Taylor.

Tomorrow night, the final episode of Friday Night Lights will finally air on NBC.

It's going out with a bang. Critics are raving about the finale, and the Emmys have unexpectedly recognized Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and the show itself with a bunch of well-earned nominations. Suddenly, after years of moderate neglect, a very vocal minority finally has the chance to say, "This is a great show, and we will miss it."

My thoughts on certain aspects of FNL are well-known, but disliking one or two plot elements doesn't mean disregarding the entire show. Far from it, actually; I believe that FNL ranks up there with The Wire, The Shield, The Sopranos and Deadwood as one of the best television dramas ever.

Not only did it somehow survive for five seasons, but (almost) every episode was produced with a level of emotionally jarring quality that became the show's trademark. It turned Buddy Garrity into one of the best sidekicks in TV history. It introduced a new group of main characters in Season 4 and convinced viewers to love them as much as the originals. And it brought us Taylor Kitsch, who's about to become a superstar if any of his crappy new movies hit. God knows his first real foray into cinema didn't.

But you know who deserves all this praise the most? Coach Eric Taylor, known in real life as Kyle Chandler. An oral history of FNL that came out today recalls how executive producer Peter Berg didn't think Chandler was remotely right for the part:
Berg: I said, "Kyle Chandler?" I only knew him from [late-'90s CBS drama] Early Edition. I was not a fan of that show, and I was not a fan of Kyle Chandler.
Of course, Chandler won Berg over, just like he won every fan of the show over with his gruff-yet-loving demeanor. Chandler created a Coach Eric Taylor that believed in football, in its abilities to shape young men into fine citizens with a sense of right and wrong. Sometimes he valued the team over his own family, but his heart was always in the right place, and he was quick to recognize his failings and work to make everything right again. No matter the situation, he found a way to expertly mix football with love for his daughters and wife.

And that's the real joy of Friday Night Lights, the aspect that superstar TV critic Alan Sepinwall references over and over: the relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor. No television coupling has ever been so realistically shaped by love, even in the face of adversity. Eric and Tami fight as much as the next couple, maybe more so; they're both passionate, committed individuals. But their every interaction contains at least a hint of the adoration that the two share; a reminder that the Taylors are forever a team.

Hopefully fans of FNL take that away from this wonderful show: what a truly loving couple can be. And just like Chandler and Britton perfectly capture the mannerisms of two people in love, Friday Night Lights portrays how something as silly as high school sports can bring a community together and, if you allow it, define lives for years to come. It's a very specific, very real slice of fictionalized reality, and it brings something to the table that'll never be matched. Thank you, Peter Berg and Jason Katims, for bringing us five seasons jam-packed with emotion and entertainment.

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